Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Occidental Dancer 14 DVDs in 30 Days Review System Vol. 2

There is an ongoing debate in the community about whether or not ballet is a desirable cross-training exercise for belly dance, and whether or not introducing elements of ballet to your practice/performance actually dilutes raqs itself. There are also those dancers who took up raqs specifically because they don't like, or want to do, ballet. (This is not a new argument. Eight years ago, during a workshop in Cairo with Aida Nour, one of my classmates ungraciously grumbled at being taught a simple arabesque because, "I don't want to be a ballerina.")

If you think I am about to get involved in that debate, then you have another think coming. All I will say is that any kind of dancing is good for you.

For Vol 1 in this review series, click here.

Element Ballet Conditioning with Elise Gulan


So cheap it really is criminal
Why do I own this DVD?  One of my belly dance teachers told me I needed to do ballet classes. That's right - "needed". That sounded serious, imperative, time-consuming and expensive. So when I saw this in the bargain bin at HMV for £5, I thought, "Eh, why not?"

Who the hell is Elise Gulan? She's a former ballet dancer and since this was filmed in 2007 she's now better known as yoga instructor Elise Joan. No? Then let me Google her for you.

Unfortunately, all of my criticisms of this DVD are to do with Elise's presentation style. I'm not criticising her personally, you understand, but 90% of whether or not I'll ever use a DVD more than once is to do with how I respond to the instructor. Besides, I'm not the only one who has found her a bit...quirky.

What it promises on the box "Use fluid movement to stretch and strengthen your way to a graceful, sculpted dancer's body."

General observations
(A) Apart from "a breathtaking location overlooking the Pacific Ocean", where exactly was this filmed? Because if a boat didn't go past in the background at one point, I'd swear it was Wonder Woman's mythical homeland of Themyscira.

(B) Elise doesn't talk during the workouts -- all her instructions are given in voice over (VO). This leaves her free to work on the rictus smile she perfected during her time in musical theatre. That smile of hers never touches her eyes and she comes across a bit 'Stepford Wife-y' as a result. It haunts my dreams.

(C) The VO pulls off the seemingly impossible by being simultaneously irritating and hilarious. She randomly stresses and drawls various words with a knowing, Eartha Kitt-esque purr that is wholly inappropriate. I can't understand why she chose to do this, because apparently she's a trained actor. The Man commented that the VO sounded like a robot trying to read an exercise manual in a sexy way. He's right, but on reviewing this DVD and paying close attention, it hit me that what she really, really sounds like is a female robot doing an impersonation of William Shatner reading an exercise manual in a sexy way.

Worse, from my point of view, is that because this is aimed at beginners she'll throw in a patronising comment from time to time. During the straddle sit with forward fold near the very end, for example, she says, "Your legs may be very wide. Or only slightly apart according to your personal flexibility...You may only fold forward. A few inches. That is beautiful, because it is. An honest expression of where you are in your pratice today."* As someone who dreams of folding forward a few inches while in straddle, but can only manage a few barely-perceptible millimetres, I found this a bit on the nose. And makes no sense. How would I be able to dishonestly express where I'm able to reach while in straddle? By using prosthetic arm extenders? By wearing some sort of fake torso-and-legs-arrangement? I think I should be told.

*Punctuated to try and replicate the experience of hearing it said aloud.

(D) On the plus side, Elise encourages you to think about your hands and even advises you to smile occasionally so that you feel more like you're dancing than working out. Also, girlfriend makes you work. Her ab routine is not for sissies. So there's that.

(E) Having never done any ballet before ever, I do appreciate the amount of time she spends on leg extension work and opening the hips.

No doubt, if I could bear to subject myself to the daytime soap opera background music and Elise's VO more often than once every few months, I would be as enthusiastic about it as all those who've left suspiciously uniform gushing reviews of it on Amazon.

Intro The intro is only 1.20. Elise tells you a bit about herself and tells you to have a chair handy. The intro is a chapter on the main menu, so you only have to view it once (if at all).

Main menu A basic but very useful list of chapters: Play all option, Intro, Stretches and thigh work, Streamlining extension and gluteal work, Cardio boost kicks and jumps, Core work and final stretches. The bonus of this set up is that if you're short of time or injured you can pick and choose which bits to do.

£/$ -- Hidden costs None, unless you don't already own a chair.

Dance cross-training cheats No cheating required. Duh. Elise even recommends going barefoot.

Any moves that were impossible? Oooh, I know I've mentioned it already, but that ab workout requires muscles like steel cables if you're going to do the advanced version.

I found the leg extensions fairly difficult because I'm about as flexible as a lamp post, but as Elise helpfully points out it's not the height of the lift that matters so much as the technique. The height develops over time. Apparently. Alas, by the life expectancy standards of medieval Europe I am already a crone, so time is hardly on my side.

Try before you buy: 


If you're already a seasoned bun head or attending yoga/pilates on a regular basis, you might find this a bit easy. If you're working on your flexibility and core strength this is a bit of a winner, and maybe -- unlike me -- you'll find the odd diction and bizarre phrasings bearable, if not charming.

Moderate to high. There were moments where the cat was in peril during tendu, and the "cardio boost kicks and jumps" is exactly what it sounds like. Plus, at 52 minutes you might not be able to safely fit this in while your baby is asleep in the afternoon -- but the nap times of individual babies do vary, and I often skip the cardio chapter (a) to save time and (b) because I don't have room to do it.

Low to moderate. If you skip the cardio section they won't even know you're home, unless you accidentally kick over the TV or do something equally graceless that proves how desperately you need this DVD.

Low. As you can see from the clip, Elise works on a small platform and a lot of the moves are performed on the spot or lying down. However, it's still bigger than the space I have available to me so I'm afraid the dynamic kicks and jumps were out.

All the usual suspects (ebay, Amazon etc) but be aware that ebay currently has copies going for near £10 and elsewhere you can get it for more like £4.


  1. I actually love this video, alas, it's in storage back home so I won't get to see it for years. (I liked it enough that I'd buy a second copy if I could find one here in Germany, at that 4 pound rate...) But I've read some strong criticisms of her from the ballet crowd, or rather, of her technique.

  2. Hi "i"

    That is an interesting point about her ballet technique, because as I say I have nothing to compare it to from personal experience. I did read a rather sniffy review of this that slammed her simply for being an American ballet dancer -- and therefore "obviously" not having technique as good as a Russian dancer (now, doesn't that sound familiar?!) -- so I have deliberately steered clear of making any call on that front.

    If I made it through without being injured, it was OK by me!

    Also, if you PM me @ theraqasa (@) hotmail dot co dot uk I might be able to help you get a copy through the UK.

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  6. I absolutely love this CD. As an older adult, this video helps me stay in shape. I really love her encouragement and quirkiness! I would love it if she would produce a few more!