Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Calorie is a Calorie?

The other day I heard an interesting interview with Dr Lee Goldman on the radio. In it, he discussed how evolution has done the dirty on us. For thousands of years those who ate all they could and stored the excess as fat were more likely to survive, breed, and have living children. As a result, humans have a tendency to eat more than they need and store fat. Now, with abundant food for many, we are suffering the effects of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks etc. And because the effects occur after most people have already had children, there is no evolutionary pressure to reverse the trend.
Then when asked why some people can eat as much as they like and not put on weight, he said something foolish:
"Calories in and Calories out. Number of Calories you eat, if that exceeds the number of Calories you burn, in terms of your exercise, you'll gain weight."
There are a number of problems with this statement which made me wonder whether his main hypothesis was flawed (must follow up sources at some stage).
What is a "Calorie"?
A "Calorie" (big C) is actually a kilocalorie, that is, 1000 calories (small c). That is, roughly, the amount of energy needed to raise 1 litre of water 1°C. (I still remember measuring this for sugar in 5th form chemistry and being rapt that my result was within experimental error of the official value.)
It comes from the Age of Steam when the calorific value of various fuels was important to know. But biology is more complicated than chemistry. The first hurdle is, not everything in food with calories is digestible by humans. So about 1990, for food labelling, the simple bomb calorimeter method was replaced by the Atwater system which sums the energy of the nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, fats etc.
Calories In
Okay, but a person is not a steam engine. It is not the case that you put 500g of potential fuel into a body and get x Calories of energy available.
The Atwater system is an approximation. It does not take into account the interaction between nutrients that will affect the energy available and is out for some diets – such as a low-fat high-fibre one.
Then let's look at "indigestible fibre". Some people have the gut microbes that allow them to digest it to some degree - not as much as a cow but maybe as much as 1.5 calories per gram of fibre. But it varies. People's gut flora are as individual as a fingerprint.
In fact, some people's microbiomes are more efficient all round. For a given amount of food some people get more out of it. If one person with the better harvesting microbiota and another with the inefficient type eat the same amount of food – and they are alike in every other way – then the person with the better microbiota is going to put on more weight.
Which bring me to the next point. People are not made the same. One obvious difference is their sex. Another is their soma type which is a reflection of their genetics. For instance, in theory the best body type for a dancer is an endomorph as they have flexibility and strength – however they also have extremely efficient digestive systems which means they tend to put on more weight than is commercially acceptable in an entertainer.
And added to this are a range of diseases that affect how well food is metabolized – diabetes, Crohn's disease, food poisoning for example. And other factors such as a lack of a gallbladder, hormone levels, and various medications.
Finally, people's ability to absorb food changes with time, environment, stress, age, etc.
So, the Calorie information on the packet may be wrong in terms of how it is metabolized by the human body. It may be wrong because of the type of gut microbes you have, genetic inheritance, epigenetics, your sex, disease, medication, stress – to mention a few factors.
Calories Out
Again people use energy at different rates – even when doing exactly the same thing in the same environment.
Calories are used just to stay alive. They are burnt in sleep as well as work, sitting, lying, or running. Each person has their own mix of activities – and their own efficiency in doing them ("more efficient" means you use less energy so are more likely to put on weight).
And obviously more energy is expended when the body is cold to maintain core temperature. What might surprise you is that in extreme cold this can be 180%. So you can eat almost twice as much as in a normal temperature environment.
Exercise has some effect on the calories burnt but not as much as you might think. Doing nothing the brain uses 20% of the body's energy.
And although cardiovascular exercise uses calories, dance involves "exercising smarter". What is seen as "grace" is the result of training your body to generate movement with the least amount of muscle. If you do the same number of hours practice, as you improve you will "exercise" less. Which is a good reason to up your practice hours, add some folk, or cross train with something more cardio vascular.
Unfortunately it isn't as simple as "calories in, calories out". How the in‑calories are digested is individual to each person and their current environment and health. And although exercise will have an effect on how many calories you use – it may not be as many as you might think.

But the last word from Dr Goldman was no matter how hard it is to not put on weight, taking it off is much harder as you struggle against millennia of evolution.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Stretching Revisited

The New Zealand Middle Eastern Dance Forum asked me to write some notes on various Safe Dance topics. I thought I wouldn't waste the effort and also put it up here!

Whole books are written in stretching – I have several on my bookshelf. Here are just a few ideas to consider.

Most dancers think they should stretch – yet, in my experience, few know why, what a stretch actually is, or how to do it effectively.

There are good reasons to stretch – to reduce muscle soreness after a concentrated session or to increase (or maintain) flexibility. It has now been shown that stretching before dancing does not reduce injury (and stretching on a cold body increases injury). Some extreme forms of dance may benefit from stretching before dancing (on a warm body) – but belly dance does not fall into that category.

However, too much flexibility is more likely to cause injury that too little. If you are a naturally flexible, possibly you would be better to spend your time on strength and control.

What is a stretch?

Your muscles are made up of fibres that slide in and out. Think of a pack of cards; split it in half and ruffle the two halves. Push them all the way in – that’s a fully contracted muscle. Pull them out that is a stretched muscle. (Pull too far and that’s a torn muscle) Now, your muscle has a preferred position – not all the way out, not all the way in – its “resting length”. This position depends on genetics, past injuries, and training.

“Stretching” is trying to reset this resting position. (Note not all flexibility issues can be solved by stretching – many are due to other factors that cannot be changed. And many so-called flexibility issues in students are actually issues of control – ie the body is capable of reaching the position but the brain is incapable of working out how).

So “stretching” is not joint mobilization – the sort of wiggling about many people do (which has its place but won’t improve flexibility). Nor, in most cases, can you stretch a tendon without tearing it – so, no, you can’t “stretch” your Achilles tendon. There are some advanced techniques that will give a little extension but don’t try it at home.

How to Stretch

Always stretch on a warm body ie one that has been doing at least 10-15 minutes of cardio.

Target your stretches. Find out what your body needs. Every body is different. Doing group stretches in a class might build comradery but is unlikely to be as effective as each person dong their own program.

Isolate single muscle groups where possible. If your “stretch” uses two (or more) muscles then the ones with the flexibility will move more and the inflexible bits will stay contracted.

Do the stretch correctly. For instance, watch alignment. If your feet are meant to be in parallel and you have one turned out then you will be using slightly different muscles.

Muscles can only stretch if they are not working (actually there is an exception to this – but again it’s an advanced technique). So you cannot stretch any leg muscle if that leg is weight bearing. So standing hamstring stretches only work if you place the leg on a chair, barre etc – you cannot stretch your hamstring by touching your toes (but you can damage your lower back).

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Going Digital

Heard it on the radio again this morning – the need for people to be educated for the “Digital Economy”. Schools have had “computer science” since the 1970s. Many schools now require students to have their own laptops or tablets. But how much better (digitally) educated are people? Recent interactions with people in the workforce make me wonder if any progress is being made.
Part of the problem is what is being taught. Way back when the computer classes were part of the maths syllabus. They taught how to analyse problems and solve them with computer code. It is this type of teaching that will lead to the high tech people some of the software development companies want. But it isn’t for everyone. True, good teaching can improve how well people can do this – and teach common solutions so people don’t have to reinvent the wheel or make avoidable mistakes. But it also takes specific types of intelligence and good memory to do well. You simply cannot retrain every unemployed youth to slot into the IT industry.

So, the syllabus changed and became more about using what is there. This won’t turn out computer scientists or software engineers but it should produce people who are able to function at a good level in an economy that uses a range of software every day. I’m out of touch these days so I’m unsure what is being taught, but I have my own little list – and I suspect it isn’t being taught – or at least not taught well. As a minimum I’d expect anyone under 35 to be able to handle all of the tasks below without thinking:
  • Look after their own computing housekeeping  – backups, virus protection, updates, organization of files (whether for desktop, tablet or smart phone)
  • Be able to search (efficiently) for information on the internet and be able to judge the reliability of the information found (Also understand concepts such as “intellectual property” and “copyright” and the need for acknowledging sources)
  • Be able to avoid common scams and malware attacks
  • Know how to use email effectively, know basic email etiquette and be able to find an important message quickly
  • Know how to use the basics of a word processor – ie know something about formatting, layout and templates
  • Know how to setup a simple spreadsheet with common formula

I certainly hope no school time is spent on gaming – because the first list doesn’t seem to be well addressed yet. So, I’m creating another Blog with some basic tips for people who may not have had the chance to pick some of the basics up. My first entry is on adding lines to a page. (There may be more involved than you think)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Oriental or Orientale Dance?

Lale Sayoko
 - a real Oriental Dancer
The term “oriental” comes from the French – Danse Orientale – which means the same as raqs sharqi in Arabic – “dance of the east”. I’m not sure which term came first (by 1926 raqs sharqi was being used in Egypt) but either way it is east of Paris – not Cairo.
So, here’s the first difficulty. If you say “oriental dance” to the General Public (especially in New Zealand) most will think that it is something from the far east – China or Japan. By using a word they are familiar with in a different context you are confusing not enlightening them. Those with a little more knowledge use it as evidence that “belly dancing” came from India – after all is called “oriental dance”!
The problem is it isn’t a straight translation. It has technical context - like plié or jeté. Not good examples as they have simple translations. More like pas de boureé - it does not just mean step of a traditional French dance - it means a specific way of moving the feet.
This is once reason I prefer the French spelling and (an attempt at) French pronunciation – “Orientale”. This clearly signals I am not talking about “oriental” in the normal English sense. I am using a technical term to describe a type of dance. The other reason is I have been told, by a number of Egyptian dancers, is that this is the term they use – rather than raqs sharqi or belly dance.
When used in this context, Orientale is a specific style of dance (from professional entertainers in Egypt/Lebanon etc). It does not include social dance - unless they are trying to dance like professionals. It does not include beledi. It does not include shaabi - or in most cases dancing to pop music. It does not include any folkloric dance. All of these are part of most belly dancer's repertoire and are not Orientale.
There is also a tighter meaning , which refers specifically to dancing to the complex, layered, orchestrated music such as was popular in films and shows in Egypt’s Golden Age and Classical Age.
However, it is not a synonym for the American Seven (or Five) Part Routine. Although many people would call this “Orientale” under the looser definition. An Egyptian Orientale for instance is not put together as one song after the other moving from veil to a drum solo. Some may include many styles – but the “parts” may vary from a few bars to full songs – and there will be repeats and changes. However, some may be one long piece all in a similar style.
But what it certainly does not mean is anything that is not Tribal! There are many other styles of belly dance that are valid – but not Orientale. For stage presentation (Urban) Beledi is the most obvious. None of the folkloric styles are Orientale – just the opposite.
I think part of the problem is people want an umbrella term – that isn’t “belly dance”. Maybe we just have to live without – or adopt something completely different such as the Hungarians did when they finally adopted tanc as a noun that would cover a range of different dance styles.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Giving a Soloist Her Due

Recently someone asked me whether a dancer may have been insulted or upset when her group started doing a tribal improvisation behind her performance at a hafla. Not being there, I couldn’t really say whether she left because of them or whether she had an urgent phone call to make. However, in her place I think I would have been at best annoyed. Here are some of the reasons that I can think of:  
  • If you are going to do this, first ask the dancer if she is okay that you do this.
  • A soloist is performing to an audience – asking her to share its attention with a group moving behind her is at best rude.
  • Worse, this dancer was doing an orientale piece with a lot of emotional connection and display of technique which deserved the audience’s full attention.
  • The (beginner) students had lots of friends and family in the audience which made it all the worse as they cheered on their mates.
  • At the best of times Orientale and Tribal don’t really mix.
  • Similarly, it is tricky to mix professional dancers and students. It can work with a teacher and her students if she adjusts her technique to fit with them – some times.
So, no, I have no idea if the dancer was upset – or if she was, if any of my reasons overlapped with hers. But I would strongly suggest, even in an informal hafla situation, you don’t show your joy of the dance by getting up uninvited and boogieing along behind a performer.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Becoming Fifi

Me as Fifi
It’s not often you get a chance to become Fifi Abdou – but that was what was handed to me by the organizer of a local hafla when Zumarrad suggested performers take the challenge of dancing in the style of a well known dancer.

Foolishly I thought it would be easy. Fifi has been one of my dance role models for many years due to her relaxed beledi styling and her attitude. I can do beledi and I have lots of attitude!

I started by gathering several hours of video I have of her performing. Then I watched them – and rewatched them. I danced along with them - mirroring her posture and moves. I sat and analysed – taking notes about characteristic moves and transitions.

After a month or so, I had found one part of her style that I thought I could do justice to – late career beledi. Now to select music and costume. I selected music that I could (in theory) maintain the loose beledi shimmy throughout that is one of her trademarks. I had already had a white, silk gallebaya from Aida Nour and a trip to a costume jewellery shop got me chunky, shiny anklets and bracelets. Red nail polish – of course!

Next I made a short list of characteristic moves that I would include. I had already noticed that Fifi was able to play with a single move for minutes at a time. The question was – could I? Did I have that much confidence? I was willing to try – I intended to improvise in her style hitting the three or four moves I had noted (loose, continuous shimmy, flat footed hip drop-swivel, bust shimmy and chest heave) – with typical manipulations.

The hardest aspect, though, seemed to be her arms and hands. Sorry, but they really are not attractive. The often static beledi second with splayed hands (palms forward) is a look I’m forever trying to train out of my students. My own dance also tends to use a lot of soft shoulder rolls, arm undulations and weight shifts with ribs. All scratched.

Time to go solo – and I froze. Instead of dancing I was thinking – “is this typical?”, “where can I fit that in?”, “mustn’t do that!”. The flow had gone. The connection with the music became mechanical. It was almost like learning to dance all over again. I briefly toyed with the idea of creating a choreography to smooth out the rough edges but in the end hung in there. Practice. That’s what it takes.

When I night finally arrived, I was glad I’d stuck with improvisation. That gave me the chance to interact with the audience in a way no choreography would have allowed. I mean, I’m sure if there had been cell phones in Fifi’s day she would have stopped and checked members of the audience’s text messages just like I did. Oh, and yes I did dance too. I suspect a little more busily that Fifi herself would have but not at all like how I would have performed as myself.

The whole experience was very challenging – but very valuable

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The New Normal and Dance Classes

A recent offer from an overseas teacher to take workshops in Christchurch brought the reality of the new normal to my consciousness. Apart from the difficulties of arranging a workshop for someone unknown in the community at short notice, I realized I wouldn’t be able to do it even if Fifi gave me two weeks notice.

Over two years (and 13 218 earthquakes) on, here’s the reality of living in Christchurch if you are interested in dance.


Many venues are damaged. Many fell down or have been demolished. Many others are unable to be legally used (Red or Yellow Stickered). Space that is left is at a premium (any space – forget having a dance studio with mirrors). With enough warning you might be able to get a class to move so you could use the space for an extended time for a workshop. But not every one is willing to give up their own class – or multiple hourly hires. So if you can find something it won’t be cheap.

Something you organized last week (let alone last month) may no longer be available. When they decide to repair you get very short notice. I have heard with private homes of only 24 hours notice being given - although a few days is more common. Buildings are also being closed at very short notice. A few weeks after the February earthquake, I was in the middle of teaching a class when the hall we were in was deemed unsafe and we had to leave. But even within the last month or so, our local shops were closed and the shopkeepers given less than 8 hours to vacate.


The roading infrastructure is being repaired. That’s great – and when it’s finished we’ll be able to get around like we used to but in the meantime …

Our local bridge has been closed one way for about five months – and it’ll be closed for at least another seven. The way out is at best rutted gravel. On some days you get to drive on the side that is just half a metre of semi compacted gravel with wheel eating potholes. The way in is an extra 3km and until last week was also rutted gravel – with the additional fun of threading through a road narrowed by cones as they try and fix something; from there a choice of a maze through a shifting set of streets – or chance the river road isn’t under water or closed for repairs.

Then you hit Estuary Road where the underground services are in the process of being repaired – ongoing for the last two years. Sometimes one direction or the other will be closed. There is a sink hole that keeps appearing that is about as long as my car and about half a metre deep.

When they finish our bridge they will start on the next one over. So then our bridge will be able to carry both 10,000 cars a day from South Brighton and will be joined by as imilar number from New Brighton. Yes, in theory the New Brighton people could go upstream (assuming they aren’t repairing that bridge). But the road around the river which is now below high tide level and sandbagged, still floods. This does not just mean getting brackish water sprayed under your car but also the regular flooding has destroyed the road service and it is heavily pot holed. Cover the potholes (some quite deep) with water and it really starts to get exciting.

But all of that is known. I can plan an extra few minutes as I know I will have to detour to get home. What you cannot plan for is every other road. You never know when you set out somewhere whether or not the roads will be open. On two occasions I have been sent in circles in areas I was unfamiliar with trying to get back to where I wanted to go. Oh, and many landmarks – buildings and shopping centres have gone and are replaced by sections of rubble so often you have no idea where you are. (And no, GPS systems don’t help – they can actually make things worse trying to push you back into closed streets)

My students are reporting over 15 minute delays due to detours. Add congestion due to vehicles threading through fewer and narrower roads and you can add at least an additional 30 minutes to cross town.

The upshot is many people don’t take non-essential trips – such as going to dance classes, or won’t travel at night (easier to get lost in detours or hit unexpected potholes or flooding), or arrive with nerves shot and totally stressed.


Many of us are stressed. Still. Yes, I know – boring. Apart from the roads, there is the effect of continual aftershocks which some people cannot handle as well as others – adrenaline surge followed by crash over and over does nasty things to your body. Yes, the aftershocks are now infrequent and mostly light but for many the damage is done. (In the past week there were only 14 aftershocks – all small.)

A very small number of people are still living without services such as sewage. Many are over-crowded. (A two bedroom flat next to my parents’ was home to three families with children. Some were sleeping in the garage and some in an old horse float!)

Then there are a list of losses, including for some the death or serious injury of a close friend or relative; thousands have lost their homes; some have lost their whole neighbourhood; many have lost their jobs (and income); many are losing their schools, some are upset about the loss of the architectural heritage which defined the Christchurchness of home.. Add to that a swag of “things” smashed, damaged or irretrievable – sure some things can be replaced. But some have emotional significance and are mourned.

Adding insult to the loss of income or equity there are increased costs as insurance premiums skyrocket and vehicle repairs increase with the crappy roads.

Then there are a range of physiological effects. Not only feels of loss, but unease, lack of trust, uncertainty, fear, anxiety. All made worse as people struggle to sort out insurance and get repairs done (if they still have a house) and live day to day.

No wonder then numbers are right down. By offering extra classes outside my own studio (being in the Eastern suburbs is a distinct disadvantage with most of the written off houses and the worst roads), and being willing to hold classes even when only one person can make it, I’ve held my losses to only half my pre-earthquake income. But I don’t have extra energy to organize workshops that won’t be filled in venues that I cannot get hold of.