Gilded Serpent presents...
What You Can't Get From
Instructional Videos

by Rebecca Firestone
November 24, 2005

With the convergence of the twin crazes of bellydance-as-fitness and bellydancer-as-original-priestess-of-the-goddess, it seems that everyone and their grandma has put out an instructional video or DVD on how to bellydance. Recently, a wave of instructional DVDs for percussion have also surfaced in the bellydance world for use by dancers and percussionists alike.

I, along with many other dancers, have tried (wo)manfully to learn the drums. We got ourselves tablas, tambourines, and frame drums and doggedly learned to play a few simple rhythms under the gimlet eye and ear of some instructor who could correct us when our playing was off the beat or not crisp enough.

But how much can you really learn from books or video? I asked this question of a martial-arts instructor of mine, whom I've known since 1989, and who also enjoyed a career as a stage magician. I figured you probably can't learn martial arts from books alone (although there's certainly a plethora of books and magazines on the subject). But what about stage magic? Once you know the gimmick, isn't that the important point?

The gist of what he said to me was this:

[In martial arts] You can tell who has learned from a video because their techniques are picture perfect. But they lack... life... you can also tell when their instructors have never applied their techniques.

He went on to describe his magical career by saying, "I learned at the fingers of the masters..."

The role of feedback, both explicit and implicit, and the ability to ask questions are an essential part of the learning process.

Solo practice can develop timing and motor skills, but when you are performing in the presence of other people you have to re-learn what you have learned with the addition of more stimuli. The more perfect you are by yourself, the more destabilizing a new stimulus - such as eye contact - can be.

Any movement form, whether it be music, dance, martial arts, or athletics, has a psycho-motor component, a cognitive component, and an interactive component. Psycho-motor has to do with getting your body to do what you want it to do: run, jump, somersault, or strike a series of drum beats. Cognitive means that you can name what you are doing: maqsoum rhythm, time trials, or 3-step turn. Interactive means that you must respond or react appropriately to unpredictable stimuli from your surroundings: what might happen during an improvised drum solo, or when inviting audience members to get up and dance during a party.

Many sports, such as soccer or tennis, are highly interactive. Playing with others is the proving ground for whether you know what you are doing or not, ultimately it is what validates your efforts. Other people are your mirror. Outdoor sports, such as rock climbing, also involve working with other people, for safety among other reasons, and ultimately I think most people who strive for achievement appreciate peer recognition at some point. I mean, if you can bench press 200 lbs but nobody ever hears about it, what fun is that?

In terms of learning, we need recognition in order to feel secure and confident about what we are doing.

This recognition can come from dancing for an audience who are unconsciously in synch with us, such as nodding or otherwise showing approval. An effective instructor should provide at least some approval (although a lot of them don't, focusing only on what the student is doing wrong, and their students are often neurotic wrecks).

If you don't get this recognition, you will never feel truly confident of your mastery. And this recognition is one thing you can never get from a video or DVD.

The art forms such as dance also have an "ineffable" component, the "how did she do that?" factor. Suddenly, a movement that looked simple, that any beginner can do, becomes almost supernatural. Everything happens at once: emotional expression, timing, body angle, momentum, and spontaneity unite in a single instant of genius.

How can you learn that in a studio by yourself? You can't.

You will end up a hothouse flower: picture-perfect, but unable to respond to any disruption in your perfectly memorized routines, unable to hold your own in the so-called real world.

It might be better to be less technically accomplished, but more solid in the skills that you do have.

This is achieved through regular exposure to masters and to your peers.

Another critical factor is that your teacher, and other students, must believe in your ability to succeed even when you don't. This comes back to the recognition theme. A good instructor knows when to give positive feedback, and when to suggest a correction. Instructors who only criticize tend to produce damaged students. However, if the instructor always gives positive feedback, then it becomes meaningless. A DVD that says "good job!" every 2 minutes simulates this part of the learning experience, but simulation isn't the same as the real thing.

(I'm trying to imagine a DVD that would insult me after every exercise by saying how poorly I was doing at it, which is what some instructors do when they pick on one or two people every class, and wondering if it would sell… probably not…)

Interactive learning is in our biology. The reinforcement from fellow humans is what solidifies or "fixes" the new neural pathways you are etching so painstakingly through repetition and practice. It is the crucial last step in making the skill your own. You cannot get this from a mass-produced, pre-recorded, online lesson.

Being able to withstand honest opinions is crucial. If one never communicates directly with one's peers AS PEERS, that is, not as sycophantic students, one can develop an insular and self-referential mindset without ever realizing it.

Humans are social animals, and isolation disintegrates the psyche. If an artist never shares her art with other people, then she might become very inflexible and brittle, unable to adapt to circumstance. Her art will be a museum piece, always seen under glass.

It is the same with music, another "ineffable" skill. Two learning models are the weekly lesson and growing up with it as part of your daily life.

The Western classical music model, as I experienced it growing up, was this: You went for weekly lessons, usually private. The teacher heard what you practiced, and gave you additional scales and exercises. Then you went home and practiced daily (after being badgered by your parents about how expensive lesson are, and why are you letting good money go to waste?). Eventually, you tried out for marching band or an orchestra, where you were mostly told what to do. Typically, it was grinding away at exercises and student pieces which weren't in and of themselves worth playing.

The growing-up-with-it model might be more like this: From the time you were very young, your parents took you out with them to gigs because, being musicians, they couldn't afford babysitters. As soon as you could hold a rattle in your chubby fist, you were part of the band. Pretty soon you knew what to do, and would play a simple but charming part. By the time you were old enough to think for yourself, it was too late: the music was already in your bones.

A lot of dancers say "But I can't get to class! There's no one teaching in my area, and no other dancers!" And to that I would say it may be that you would have to relocate. This is a sacrifice that not everyone can make.

My instructional tambourine DVD says (as does every other instructional video I've ever watched) that you should seek regular instruction. I would go further and say,

if you're starting a NEW art form, don't bother with the videos unless you have some real-life people to work with, even if it's only every other week. As a beginner, you may run into problems initially related to positioning or repetitive stress, and it's important to be able to ask questions and get some concrete, usable suggestions before going too far.

So... a video can be a valuable supplement if you're already taking regular instruction. It can remind you of finer details and exercises you might otherwise forget. It is also helpful supplement after taking a workshop - you can grab the DVD and work on it daily for the next week or so, while the workshop is still fresh in your mind.

Going back to class will keep you honest. I have been through some instructional DVDs where I really felt I was doing well. Then I went to class and, lo and behold, I wasn't any better than anyone else in the class. I was glad I had practiced - but also glad to be put on the spot so I'd know where I really stood.

When is a video better than class? Well, sometimes you might not have good chemistry with the teachers you have available to you. And, just as you can't get much out of a DVD without some real-life validation, you won't get as much out of teachers who don't believe in you. And you have to believe in them as well. If you don't see them dance and think, "I want to look like that when I dance," then get thee to another teacher.

(There is some division of opinion as to whether one should study at all with someone who has serious personality problems. Can you learn their skills without also picking up their neuroses or their ethical lapses? In my opinion the answer is that it's probably OK to study with someone like that for a while, IF your personality is already strong, but that eventually their problems will become your problems if you don't move on.)

There's another category of instructional video that can be very helpful, and that is performance footage, such as the annual awards series put out by the International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance (IAMED). Even here, the support of live people is important.

In my opinion, watching performance videos by yourself in your own private ivory tower, especially as a beginning dancer, isn't going to make you a great dancer.

I get a lot more out of watching such things in a group of people where at least some of the viewers are knowledgeable. I learn a lot more from good commentary than from the tape alone.

Even better is getting two knowledgeable people who have differing opinions about what they're watching. I use these videos as a reference mostly, for particular dancers or particular examples, such as a cane dance or double veil.

Since dancers are supposed to develop musical appreciation, another educational media to mention is concert footage. A lot of people think that listening to an audio CD is the same as being at a concert. It isn't. Even watching it on film, which gives you some visuals, is not the same-­not even close. Not to mention that the acoustics from real instruments in a hall are fundamentally different from what comes out of a single set of speakers or headphones.

The key is going to live performances where the audience is knowledgeable. Imagine watching a classical music performance of an unknown genre with a crowd of people who had no previous exposure, all earnestly reading their program notes, trying to appreciate something that's completely foreign to them. Or maybe bellydance wannabes are getting up and dancing in the aisles to sacred music, while the aficionados whisper among themselves... the horror! Then, imagine this same concert in a hall full of people who love and really appreciate the genre.

When a musician onstage hits a particular note or riff, there's a collective sigh... that's how you know that it was an important note.

Maybe it's a mistake to seek perfection in an instructional DVD. People think that if only they get the formula right, then everyone who goes through their DVD is guaranteed to come out playing or dancing like a master. But learning cannot be reduced to a one-size-fits-all recipe.

I think the instructional DVDs do serve an important purpose, in introducing someone's approach.

If you like their approach, you can always seek them out through workshops or events that may take advance planning and travel on your part. Then, when you go back to the DVD, it'll make a lot more sense. Plus, the instructor might be flattered that you bought their work and actually cared enough to come to their workshop and ask questions. In my experience, the instructors are really pleased to see people making an effort.

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8-17-05 Workshop with Issam Houshan March 26, 2005, San FranciscoReviewed by Rebecca Firestone
In the solo improvisational forms of Middle Eastern Dance, the chemistry between the drummer and the dancer is a vital ingredient.

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12-30-05 My Retirement by Zaharr
Thirty-six years of feeling special, of dressing up night after night and of being “The Sultan’s Favourite Kadin” ended with such a quiet whisper that even I was surprised.

12-27-05 Spokane's First Belly Dance Festival, text by Nadiyah, the sponsor, photos and captions by Lynette
Spokane’s First Annual Belly Dance Festival offered instruction for belly dancers of all levels and a variety of styles.


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