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Jennifer Czepiel

Jenn is a writer and bellydance instructor in Phoenix, Arizona. Her passion and creativity have given her the unique opportunity to help women of all ages discover how fitness can be fun and words can be powerful.

Bellydance Basics: Its All In Your Head

Head Slides and Head Circles

Bellydancing. We have all seen the movies and television representations. Some of us may have even seen real dancers and how varied the moves can be. We have seen these moves that to some degree can confuse and amazing as well as entertain those less accustomed to the style of dance. There are a few moves even that we would love to know what sort of crazy magic it takes to perform them. The truth is, there is no magic, just practice, and patience, and knowing your body. I want to share with you two of the moves that seem baffle and confound the most often. I am also here to say that I did not learn them over night either. Bellydance, much like any skill, takes time to learn and even more time and dedication to master. Never give up, if you want it, you can get it.

The Head Slide

Oh yes, it is amazingly cool, it is maybe a little bit creepy, and it is uniquely bellydance. The head slide looks the most like a human body part magic trick than any other move. To ma at least. I will say that my first few tries at a head slide probably looked more like a drunk goose. It happens. When attempting a head slide, as with any new body movement, start small. You may feel the movement more than see it at first.

You should feel the movement through the outermost muscles of the neck that run from just below the ear to the base of the neck. The chin should be kept level from left to right as well as vertically. Relax your shoulders and think about reaching out with your ear, or moving as though you are trying to listen to someone whispering. It feels strange at first, but over time it becomes easier.

The Head Circle

While moving from side to side may still be more than a little bit challenging, it gets better and can help to develop into even more complex movements. Before thinking this is just going to be impossible, the head circle can actually fairly easy once you have mastered the head slide. Speaking of looking goose like, the forward movement section of the head circle is essentially pushing the head forward and it does look very bird like. Shoulders should remain still, and again, when you first start out, take things slow and small.

Calling this a circle is a bit of a misnomer and can cause problems. The movement is more of a crescent to the front and straight line along the back. Please do not push the head back on the neck, this can cause injury and a lot of pain.

Once you have mastered the head slide and added the forward movement to create the head circle, there are all manner of unique ways to incorporate these moves into your bellydancing. They are also great moves to loosen sore neck muscles and release tension.

Happy? Birthday Edgar Allen Poe

The Gift that Horror keeps giving

Happy birthday to Edgar Allen Poe! Okay, maybe happy is not quite the emotion old Edgar Allan Poe would have expressed for his birthday, but it is still a celebration to those of us who are fans of arguably one of the greatest poets and horror writers of all time.

What made Edgar Allen Poe’s prose so frightening? To me it was the deep and personal way Edgar Allen Poe managed to worm his works and words into the deepest, and darkest parts of the human condition. We are all afraid of something, but Edgar Allen Poe stripped away the facades of what we fear to really get at the root of what we are all afraid of.

While the idea of being buried alive, as in the Cask of Amontillado, or if it is being found out for a dark crime as in the Tell-Tale Heart, we know there is a layer just a bit deeper than these shallow graves. It may be that the tale of the Fall of the House of Usher, or the poem of the Raven, were most blatant about this dark heart of Edgar Allen Poe’s words, but still there were layers to dig through.

What we all fear, as a people, as humans, to the very core of our beings is loss and abandonment, Humans are social creatures. Even when we do not necessarily want to be around other human beings, we do appreciate the knowledge that they are there. We are also fond of our thin thread of hope that there is good in all of us and that there must be something positive that will come of all of our intentions.

Edgar Allen Poe stole this away in his works. In a time when people were again made uncertain of what life was really all about, Edgar Allen poe made it abundantly clear. Life is about longing, and the thing we long for most is enduring life and connection. By taking us into the lives and stories of those who had lost that thing most precious, he did humanity a service. His stories were not about scaring people and making them shudder. He meant for us to learn, and to truly appreciate the beauty of family, love, and trust, because for his characters those things were no longer for them.

The next time you read a piece by dear Edgar Allen Poe, see that he has given you a gift. The gift of appreciation for all that you hold most dear in life.

Bellydance Basics: A Smile and a Hand Shape

The finer details of dance posture

When it comes to dancing, and taking it to the stage, or in the case of some forms of bellydance, taking it to the drum circle or the restaurant floor, the devil really is in the details. The glitz of the costume, the stage perfect makeup and hair, and the glittering and jingling jewelry mean nothing at all if the dancer cannot hold the attention of her audience. It may not seem like anyone is really looking at the dancer’s face, or hands as she shimmies and shakes, and glides across the stage. We are all looking at the hips and the moves that catch the eye right? For the most part, yes. It is true that the execution of the moves is noticed consciously by the audience, even the untrained watcher can see if a move is well performed or not, but what about the finer points. These are the things that set a good dancer apart from a great dancer.

Smile, They Will Notice

Concentration face. The “Oops, I hope no one noticed” face. And, the plastered on cheerleader like smile. We notice. The audience sees it. Whether you are a dancer, or a bodybuilder in competition, or a gymnast, there is something about the face that really sells it. In the beginning it may seem impossible to think about what your face is doing while trying to figure out if your feet and hips, and arms, and shoulders, and legs, and every other bit of your body are going the right way at the right time. That is why you should start thinking about it from the start. One of the first things I teach in my classes is to look into the mirror with confidence. A goofy smile is not required, but making eye contact is. This does not mean you should give your audience the stare of doom and never look away, but dance is a conversation, and we all know we should look at people when we are communicating.

That flawless smile can come off as soulless and false as well. Thing about what the music means to you. How do you feel as you are moving your body? Allow those emotions to flow through not only the curve of your lips, but from your eyes as well. We have all heard the expression, smile with your eyes. The audience will be drawn, naturally, to the dancer who engages them and, at least emotionally, invited them to participate in the dance with her. A stone face, no matter how perfect, is not inviting.

Give Them a Hand

In certain styles of bellydance the posture of the hand is just as important, if not more so, as the posture of the rest of the body. In the folk dances of India for example, each of the hand gestures or mudras have a meaning. This is the same for Hawaiian dancing as well. While you may not be interested in learning all of the finger language of bellydance in all its incarnations, there are some basic things to avoid.

Flat, stiff fingers can be lovely in small doses or if creating a shape with the hand, but most of the time fingers and hands can be more relaxed. Making a solid fist the entire time you are dancing is not recommended either. In some cultures a closed fist can be considered threatening or simply more masculine. So, what is a good standard hand posture. This is my favorite thing to teach, and I can promise you will laugh, but you will remember. How many reading this have gone bowling? Typically, the middle two fingers are inserted into a pair of holes placed very close together. The thumb is extended away and inserted in a hole about the hand’s length from the other two. The remaining fingers (pinky and pointer, for those who might be a bit confused) are then left to rest on the curve of the ball. The next time you step into bellydancer mode, think of going bowling. Even if your hands tense or relax, they will still look relatively nice from the perspective of the audience.

Bellydance Basics: Arms and Shoulders

Basic Positioning tricks for Arms During Bellydance

I hope everyone has been working on their posture and learning to walk again as I wrote about in the article that introduced some of you to the fun and fine art of belly dance. Posture may be one of the most important aspects of not only belly dance but all types of fitness, so it is my hope that it will not only increase your skills and interest in dance, but is all that you do. Maintaining an upright and straight posture when walking, sitting, and working out engages the core muscles and allows the body to move as it is supposed to as opposed to being all crunched up or noodle like.

This article will focus a bit more on some dance and specifically belly dance posture and information however. Today, we turn our attention to our arms and shoulders. This is one of my favorite things to teach new belly dance students because there is a built in workout that always leaves them grumbling a little about how much effort goes into just standing still.

Shoulders

We discussed the shoulders a little bit when we covered the basics of posture but there is always more room for improvement here. As you read this take some time to position yourself in front of a mirror. This does not have to be a full length mirror, and in fact, it helps if it is not. Focus on your bust, meaning in the classical sense, not just look at your chest. Straighten your back, level your chin so you are looking straight into the mirror. Good, now roll your shoulders forward. No matter how perfect your posture is, simply pushing your shoulders in and forward closes off your body. This not only looks terrible and causes others to perceive you as shy or depressed, it is also not good for your back and arms. Now, roll your shoulders back and open your body with a deep breath. Already you look more confident. I can almost guarantee you feel better as well. This is where your shoulders should be when dancing, walking, sitting, just being.

Arms and Elbows

Moving back from the mirror a bit more and looking further to the arms there are some many things to improve upon that can be the difference between looking like a novice or presenting yourself as a pro. In any style of dance having arms that hang limp at your sides is not attractive. In bellydance in particular elbows should remain slightly bent at all times no matter where the arm is positioned. This will allow for some beautiful geometric shapes to be created by the body. When bending the elbows pointing them out from the body will create a more masculine line – think bodybuilders. Directing the elbows to the back, not in towards, the body offers a more feminine look.

If you are already getting tired this is no surprise. Next time you watch a dancers take a good close look at the shape of her arms. Are they loose and wiggly, or is there and energy that holds them in place even when your attention is meant to focus on other movements.

Tolkien's Gift

Celebrating J.R.R. Tolkien’s Birthday and What he Gave the World of fantasy

Happy Birthday to J.R.R. Tolkien!

Okay, so technically his birthday was on the third of January, but it is never too late to celebrate one of the greats. For those who may not know who this classic author is, other than another of our january birthdays, Tolkien is the father of Middle Earth and all things Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves and rings that can rule them all.

The Lord of the Rings films were yes, once and still are an epic fantasy series. These stories of great triumph and heroes from small beginnings have enchanted audiences for over a generation. Those who are fans of the films would do well to look into the history of these stories and read up on the adventures of the world of Middle Earth.

The Hobbit was the first of the adventures in this world and in 1937 it took fantasy to an entirely new level. Tolkien introduced readers to elves, dwarves, wizards, hobbits, and dragons like no one before his time. His world was unique as much as it was expansive and even fantasy authors today are influenced by the qualities of the races he created.

The amazing landscapes and quaint villages that Tolkien so adeptly described were likely inspired by his childhood, as he wandered the areas around his maternal grandparents’ home in England. He was a curious child who grew into an even more curious and studious man. With a head brimming with ideas it was no wonder that he is given the moniker of father of high fantasy.

The reasons to adore Tolkien’s books are limitless when we consider the impact they have had on fantasy readers and writers through the decades, but there is something to be said too of the character of the man as well. Tolkien was a contemporary and a good friend to writer C. S. Lewis as well, both of these men lived in fantasy worlds that are not often rivaled by today’s authors. Tolkien did not grow up sequestered by books however, it was not until into young adulthood that her dedicated himself to study. It was the adventurous child though that gave this author the fertile ground and well spread seeds of worlds and characters.

I would argue that what Tolkien had that many of today’s authors lack is freedom to be a child and live in his own head for a while. He was not inundated with entertainments that distracted him from a blossoming inner world, he had to create his own worlds to play in.

Beginning Belly Dance: Posture

The Basics of Any Dance is Getting Your Feet Under You

Welcome to the second week of the new year. How are things going with your fitness routine? Are you looking for something to shake things up a bit more? The new year is a great reason to start something new, or connect with something you have been meaning to do. Here are some great first steps to take into belly dance as a fitness option and how they will help you work out some new muscle groups.

Before really breaking into the moves of belly dance it is important to understand that this is not just wiggling around and the movements can cause injury if done incorrectly. Posture will be the main focus of this introductory article, as well as something to return to as you progress in your dancing.

Feet and Legs

Belly dance is a dance form typically done without footwear, though if you need something on your feet a ballet flat, or dance barefoot covering will be best. Once you are comfortable with or without your foot wear, place feet with heels approximately fist width apart. Having your feet at this distance will allow for stability as well as looking nicer when doing hip and body movements. Weight should be balanced slightly to the front of the foot with heels gently grounded. Toes should be pointed forward, but we will go into the reasons why this rule is not hard and fast.

Legs should be considered as a good base but not necessarily the source of most movements. Unless we are traveling across the floor, legs are really along for the ride on most belly dance moves. Knees ar an important factor in dance as well as most lower body workouts. Knees should remain soft and never locked. Belly dance relies on the muscles not the joints, so when standing the weight should be balanced on the muscle surrounding the knee rather than the joint itself. Knees should move parallel to one another without bumping, or turning away from one another. As mentioned, this is where we may be breaking the foot rule. Varying the direction of the toes will allow for free movement of the knees. Find the position that works for you.

Tail and Torso

The tail bone and torso is typically where women have issues as we age, and belly dance, most specifically the proper posture associated with it, is a great way to alleviate many of this problems. This can also be confusing at first so it is recommended that you seek a professional instructor to help in the beginning. The tail bone, which is located at the base of the spine, should be tucked, or pointed down toward the feet. This is accomplished through engaging the lowest abdominal muscles just below the waistline. You will know you are doing it correctly because you will find it impossible to lock your knees.

If you have properly tucked your tail down you may find this has shortened your torso. This will not do for the core movements we will be doing. Lift the torso from the chest and elongate the spine as if you have a string drawing you up from the center of your head. Roll your shoulders down and back to fully open the upper torso and allow for not only easier breathing, but to look nicer as well.

Finishing Touches and Homework

The head should be level and relaxed with the neck elongated just like the rest of the spine. Home work for this week will be as easy as learning to walk again. Take this posture out on the town. The grocery store, work, school, and the clubs. You will feel better, and look amazing!

No Excuses First Weekend

Sticking to Fitness Goals Through the First Weekend of 2015

We are already two days into January of the new year and how many have faltered from the fitness path? Starting the year on a weekend is tougher when it comes to working out and creating a schedule. Even if you have stuck to something for the first day of the new year, it is possible that Friday and the weekend will derail any plans and cause our minds to say, we will wait until Monday. Face this challenge by giving yourself some great small steps to take that will help you feel as though you did not fail, just adjusted.

Step One:

Stick to your diet, no matter how difficult. It will be tough to stick this one out with parties that will keep rolling right through to late Sunday night, but stay focused and use the tips offered in past articles to help you along. If you are still out of town and may be doing the last leg of travel this weekend, think about hitting the salad bar instead of fast food. Do try to stick to instead eating schedule by carrying a sandwich, or well rounded snack with you when you may not be able to sit down to a real meal. Skip sodas and specialty drinks and opt for water or juices to stay hydrated. There is no sense wasting precious calories, and increasing sugars and fats through liquids that will likely not even fill you up.

Step Two:

Come up with a simple morning workout that may only take a few minutes, but will make you feel good about actually getting something done. A fifteen minute workout first thing in the morning can get your day off to a great start and it does not have to be anything complex to feel the burn. If you are staying with family or friends this holiday season and there may not be a good place to really set up a workout space, take a jump rope, milk jug, or extra towel into a spare room and do a quick and simple cardio or weight routine. All of these things can be found in most homes, and if not a jump rope is easy to pick up at most stores. The jump rope idea can be very useful when traveling too, because of its portability. Stuff it into your carry on and when you get to your layover point slip it out and do a few hops in the airport, train station, or bus station waiting area.

Step Three:

Use this time to make your plan for Monday. If you really cannot get on the fitness track until the start of the first full week of January 2015, do not consider it a failure, use your time seated on the plane, or bus, to write out your plan and research some great classes that will be starting up. Set up an appointment with a fitness coach, dance instructor, or dietitian to get the professional guidance you deserve in the new year. One of the surest ways to stick to your goals is to have someone there to hold you accountable. If coaching is not in your budget, connect with friends to workout together and cheer one another on.

Happy New Year!

Happy Birthday Isaac Asimov

Celebrating Science, Fiction and Robotics

In honor of the anniversary of Isaac Asimov’s birth, here is some information on the famous father of science fiction and some of his greater works to read up on this January. If you are not a fan of science fiction, the name Isaac Asimov may have very little meaning to you, but without this man, many of your ideas surrounding robotics, space travel and other futuristic themes.

Man of the Future

Isaac Asimov was a biochemistry professor at Boston University, but most science fiction readers know him as the man who created the three laws of robotics. While Asimov did write works in fantasy and at least a few mysteries, he is still considered one of the big three of the hard science fiction. It was not only in fictional science that Asimov wrote for, his works are listed in several non-fiction categories as well, and it is easy to see that he used all of his knowledge to add stunning elements of plausibility to his stories and novels.

Asimov began his writing career in the 1930’s and quickly found his niche in robotics and space travel. His futuristic and sometimes dystopian views of man versus machine are without doubt legendary. Many of our views in the real world use of machines have evolved from this author’s great ideas.

Man Versus Machine

How many science fiction aficionados can easily offer the three rules of robotics? Even those who may only be familiar from the films based on Isaac Asimov’s Robot Series, most notably, I,Robot, know that there are certain rules that man and machine must follow. The Robot Series premiered with I, Robot in 1950, and was followed by Caves of Steel in 1953, The Naked Sun, 1955, then much later by The Robots of Dawn in 1983 and Robots and Empire in 1985.

The Robot Series’ opening story, I, Robot has been adapted for screen as well, in the film of the same title starring Will Smith. In this film we saw some merging of the Robot Series stories, but the essence of the struggle of man versus machine and more deeply, what does it mean to be human, is well represented.

The Laws of Man and Machine

If you are not an avid science fiction reader, or have friends who are, you may not be as familiar with Asimov’s laws.

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
There are of course so many ways to manipulate this for great fiction, as well as to make a statement about our own ethics as humans.

Happy birthday, Isaac Asimov, you were a man far ahead of the curve.

A Little Different Reading Challenge for 2015

Ebooks, Print Books, Libraries, and Book Stores!

This year may not have been a big reading year for some of us. It happens. Work, life, school, family, and grand adventures do tend to get in the way. Reading challenges are floating around. Some are genre based, others vary as they try to get readers to think outside the covers. This list is a little something in between.

Starting out easy – An eBook

I have heard so many people say they have not yet been able to read a digital book from cover to cover. There is something about not having that glorious bookmark jutting from the pages that seems to deter readers who are not yet piqued by the new wave of digital media. Why should you read eBooks though? There are some great independent writers and publishers out there that are strictly digital due to the lower cost of publication. These little gems may never make it to the shelves of your local bookstore, but they are pretty amazing and worth your time.

Going Old School – Print Books

On the flip side of the digital trend, many may not ever touch the pages of a physical book in 2014. With more books published via Kindle and Smashwords, it is easy to say there is no need for print. There is a nostalgia though, and a magic as well. Curling up to read a classic, or even a modern piece and feeling the pages in our hands adds connection to the story that digital does not offer. The other benefit to a print copy is seeing the wear of a well loved copy. Sharing is much easier too. Pass your finished book on to a friend, or leave it at a coffee shop, bus stop, or airport.

Treasure Hunting – Small Book Stores

A good book can be bought in a Barnes and Noble as easily as ordering on Amazon, but there is another level here. When we walk into a big box book store, the employees may be avid readers, they may even know more than the computerized catalog system tells them, but they are not the same as a bookstore owner. Having had the blessed existence to know more than one small bookstore owner, I can say with assurance, these men and women love books. They know books and readers and in many ways they can be your perfect matchmaker when it comes to pairing you with a paperback mate.

Lending a Page – Local Libraries

When was the last time you walked into your local library? That long, eh. There is no shame in it. Why bother when we have Google to answer our every question? Or, when we can order any book we want for less than a dollar on Amazon. We just do not think about it. Much like the small bookstore owner though, library staff are book aficionados. They can steer you toward some very special reading experiences. There is one other step to this challenge though; stay there. Do not just slip in, and check out. Find a corner and spend some time surrounded by the knowledge housed within these hallowed walls.

Happy Reading in 2015

Healthy New Year’s Eve!

Guilt Free Party Snacking

Everyone’s minds are on the new year! More likely at this hour, everyone is really thinking about ringing in the new year. That typically means parties, and gathering with friends and loved ones. It can also mean having a few drinks. I am not here to tell you you should not drink, or even to preach the need to do so responsibly. I would hope that this is common sense stuff. I will repeat it only here. When deciding to imbibe this evening, please do not drive, and always be safe in large groups. You may think you are among friends, but it is no one’s wish to start the new year with regrets.

What am I here to tell you? Here are some of the caveats to snacking too much or on the wrong things. Yes, this is that one last hoorah for many who have made new years resolutions that include dieting and slimming down, but that is no reason to go completely overboard. And, the least you could do for yourself is indulge responsibly.

Steer Clear of the Cheese Platter

Most holiday parties have cheeses laid out for snacking on and stacking on the crackers. These delectable little morsels are great dipping in sauces and mustards, they satisfy our dairy cravings, and certainly count as a comfort food. They are also huge on calories and fats, and really not something you want to revisit if you have had a bit more new year’s cheer.

To Dip or Not to Dip

There is typically an abundance of chips and dips at festive gatherings. Not all of these are bad for you, and, in fact some can be the perfect treat to keep you happy all evening. Consider your options when dipping in. Vegetable based dips, things like salsas, and chutneys are a much healthier alternative to anything dairy based. Ranch and sour cream dips are much like the cheeses.

Chipping In

As far as the chips go, this is even more unstable territory. What may look like a great healthy snack could be packed with hidden diet saboteurs. Wheat crackers and veggie chips are much better choices instead of fried potato chips, corn chips, or butter crackers. If the option is there, opt for the veggie tray and be proud of yourself for making a choice that is not only healthier but will help your body cope with the holiday toasts.

In another article we mentioned that portion sizes do matter. No one is telling you to eat the entire party tray. If you have the option of grabbing a plate use that as your portion tracker. If the party food is your last meal of 2014, meter out how much would count as a decent sit down dinner. You will be surprised at how far into the evening you can snack based on this. And there is no need for guilt if you are choosing things you would typically dine on.

Have a wonderful new year! May all of your wishes come true!