Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Occidental Dancer 14 DVDs in 30 Days Review System Vol. 3

For Vols 1 and 2 in this review series, click here and here. Thank you to all those who have left such encouraging feedback so far! Lord knows, the longer this series goes on, the more spurring on I need.

Full Body Workout vol 1

and Athletes Intense Stretch

Classical Stretch: The Esmonde Technique

 with Miranda Esmonde-White 


Why do I own this DVD? 

One of my dance teachers was having a clear-out and gave it to me because she knows I struggle with agonisingly tight hips and shoulders. If I recall rightly, it was thrust into my hands with the instruction to “let this crazy French Canadian lady change your life!”

Who the hell is Miranda Esmonde White? 

Like Elise Gulan, she’s a former ballet dancer. So, yes, this DVD will have a lot of cross-training benefits if you’re using it to benefit your own dancing. Here’s an abridged version of her bio:
“Miranda debuted her career dancing at the famous National Ballet School of Canada under the instruction Betty Oliphant and Celia Franca...Miranda had the opportunity to dance with [dancers such as] Margot Fonteyn, Karen Kain, Rudolf Nureyev and [also] worked with top choreographers and teachers including Roland Petit, Jose Greco, and Robert Joffrey.  A ballet accident forced her to retire at a young age.”
Now, as we all know, dancer bios can often be exaggerated to the point of fiction, but I do accept that if you have breathed the same air as Petit, Joffrey, Fonteyn and Nureyev that you will want to drop names the way Dre drops beats.
However. Perhaps it’s just my inability to switch off my day job, but I cannot help noticing that this seems carefully worded. “Had the opportunity to dance with...”. Well, did she take that opportunity or not? The bio is on more solid ground when it gets to more recent events:
“...Miranda has used her understanding of movement to create a stretch and strengthening fitness program, which targets the needs of everyone from women and men of all ages to elite athletes. Today, she is well known for her work with Olympic Medallist Diver Alexandre Despatie, World Squash Champion Jonathon Power, Canadian Skating Champion Joannie Rochette and students from the notorious[!] Cirque du Soleil School, École National de Cirque.”
In the interests of science, here is a picture of Olympic diver Alexandre Despatie:


French Canadian diving Olympic champion Alexandre Despatie



Oh, excuse me. You’re still here. Shall we go on?

What it promises on the box  


General observations 

(A) This particular DVD is now ten years old and was originally released as a video. This is obvious because Miranda keeps talking about how you’ll “do this video” over and over. BUT. Esmonde-White’s daughter Sahra, who studied her mother's exercises as part of her Masters degree, has dragged the Esmonde Technique into the 21st century. There’s now a shiny new range of these DVDs. They’re called...wait for it... Essentrics. Honestly. But more about that later.

(B) Esmonde-White is a big fan of PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching, which I remember from my JWAAD training. PNF involves contracting and relaxing your muscles to get to your full range of flexibility quicker. It’s often used to rehabilitate stroke patients and can be quite hard core, but Esmonde-White advocates “never going into an ouch.”

That’s actually what she says: “You don’t ever want to go into an ouch.” She is utterly adorable, though some users have found her overly chatty.

(C) Her accent is the bomb. To listen to Esmonde-White tell you in her French-Canadian susurration that a particular move should really get you “in your bhumm” (in your bum) is to know what happiness means.

(D) Esmonde-White reminds me a lot of my mother. They’re not particularly alike, but then I read that her daughter is almost exactly my age and it suddenly made a lot of sense. Perhaps it’s a generational thing.

She only mentions Sahra twice, but a vivid picture is painted. First, “My daughter whined at me about not doing enough work on my arms, so I developed these exercises...that’s why kids are great, they nag at you because they love you”, and later “Ever since I started using [the sponsor’s] cosmetics, my daughter can’t stop looking at me. Which is kinda fun, because she’s always nagging me to look better, and finally I’m looking better!”*

It therefore comes as no surprise to find that Sahra is credited as the driving force behind turning Mom’s public access TV fitness show of limited appeal into a global empire populated by the likes of Lily Cole.

Also, the Whites are very conscious. One of the sponsors of this DVD is a maker of women's contraceptives, and their website is filled with yummy looking vegan recipes. I dig it.

*Yeah, there are some awkward references to the sponsor’s cosmetics range. But it’s OK ‘cause it’s so obvious and clunky that there’s no way you’ll be subliminally influenced.

(E) Both workouts are shot outdoors in Jamaica. The Full Body workout is filmed on a private beach that looks like it might be closed due to a cryptosporidium scare, and at one point Esmonde-White stumbles in the sand. It may or may not be significant that this wasn’t edited out, because during the Athletes Intense (filmed poolside), a cat wanders into shot at about the 21-minute mark and starts vigorously washing itself.

Esmonde-White coos, “Ooh, look at the puddy tat! Isn’t that cute?” in the high pitch that all of us who love cats instinctively adopt in their presence. The cat ignores her and stays in shot for about five minutes as Esmonde-White uses a bannister as a makeshift barre. Eventually it mooches off behind a pot plant. It is the best thing that happens in any of the workout DVDs I have reviewed so far.

Silver Sands, the resort where this was filmed, doesn’t actually look that appealing. In fairness, this may be because it’s obviously not the height of summer (at points it looks like it might rain), but I am not sure that plonking Esmonde-White in front of an air conditioning unit – as she is for the barre section in the Athletes Intense workout – helped. During the extra 15 minutes for hips and hamstrings, Esmonde-White is in a garden when a crow caws ominously in the near-distance. She seems delighted.

In many ways I found this “Let’s just turn the camera on and see how it goes!” approach added to the overall down-home charm of the workouts, and the sense that even Esmonde-White didn’t know what was going to happen next really did make it feel like I was in a live class. I guess this is what her TV show was like, too.

(F) The music is certainly eclectic, to the point of head-scratchingly bizarre. The Man refers to this DVD as “The Beachy Musical One” (as in, “Which DVD are you doing this morning? Is it the beachy musical one?”), and with good reason. I clocked Liszt, Rodgers and Hammerstein (I could be wrong about that one), and what sounds like early Transglobal Underground. Whatever, I am pretty sure that if you had to do a road trip with Miranda Esmonde-White, she would have something on her iPod that you both could enjoy. I guess that’s what “middle of the road” means.

(G) There are a few reviews online that dismiss this as an, and I quote, “old lady workout”, presumably because (1) the 25-minutes of stretching and toning exercises Miranda became famous for on her PBS TV slot don’t look anything like a FitBox session and (2) Miranda was already in her 50s when this was filmed.

To which I say unto you: Feel free to go ahead and ignore those ageist, sexist lunkheads, honey. If this stuff is good enough for Olympians and professional dancers then it's good enough for you. And when Miranda emphatically sighs, “Thank God that’s over” at the end of the leg extension section, you will be unable to do more than groan in agreement.


Miranda talks for about five minutes about the principles at work and the results you can expect. This is all very interesting, but you have to fast forward through it every time you do the Full Body workout. See below.

Main menu

Gobsmackingly useless. The conversion from VHS to DVD format has been done with the least amount of effort possible. Nor are the sections of the workouts chaptered, so although each is neatly broken down into a cardio warm-up, barre work, and floor work section you don’t actually have the ability to select them individually. POOR.

£/$ -- Hidden costs 

None, unless you don't already own a chair, or are incredibly susceptible to blatant product placement presented with a faint air of embarrassment and apology.

Dance cross-training cheats

Not required. Esmonde White goes barefoot, and if you’re like me you’ll find yourself subconsciously trying to mimic her very graceful hands. You'll also find some of her arm exercises similar to Rachel Brice's...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Any moves that were impossible?

You’ll be fine, unless you’re overly ambitious and literally set your barre too high or ignore Esmonde-White’s warnings about The Ouch. Otherwise I think you’d be very unlucky to injure yourself doing this. (See (G) above.)

Try before you buy:

Good luck finding a clip from this particular DVD online. It would be like finding verifiable footage of the Sasquatch. You will have to make do with selecting a clip from one of the more recent Essentrics releases:



I feel really good after doing these workouts, and have even managed to do them back-to-back. It's true -- I do feel more flexible after a couple of months of doing them regularly (two-three times a week). This is probably because the Athletes Intense assumes that you have really tight, bulky muscles rather than 'normal' ones. Highly recommended, to the point where even in spite of my frustrations with the menu formatting I would still be sure to save this if my home caught fire.


Nil. Seriously. You are never required to jump, leap, bounce, stamp or run on the spot. It’s so joint-friendly it’s ridiculous. My cat did seem a bit mesmerised by the ocean waves, however. Maybe he’s never been to the beach before, which seems likely.

You’ll feel like a ninja, I tells ya. Silent and graceful.

You should be OK for space – these workouts don’t even require you to straddle-sit.

This is where the good news ends, I’m afraid. It’s now rare and eye-wateringly expensive. Even the used copies on Amazon international start at US$60, and I found one solitary copy going on ebay for a jaw-dropping $125.60.

But don't despair: Essentrics is currently having a 25% sale, so although this particular volume isn't, for all intents and purposes, around anymore there's now a motherlode of similar options.


EDIT: Since posting this last night, I have realised that I might have skimped a little on the actual description of the workouts. I’m going to go ahead and assume that you, dear reader, are also a dancer and so won’t be relying soley on this DVD for all your physical fitness needs.

Firstly, the Full Body Conditioning is designed to do quite different things from the Athletes Intense Stretch. 

If you are new to exercise  or are recovering from an injury then I would recommend focusing on the Full Body Conditioning (about 50 minutes all up). (If you are suffering from the early warning signs of occupational overuse syndrome, this workout includes specific stretches  for the hands and forearms.) It is about the same level of intensity as an improver/ intermediate level Pilates class i.e. no intense cardio and no weight lifting. So, no, you won’t work up a sweat or get out of breath (cf the ‘old lady workout’ jibes), but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective.

As Esmonde-White says in her introduction, this workout is not designed with the end goal of getting everyone who does it into the splits. It is designed to help individuals find their own full range of motion and improve posture. Esmonde-White is very clear about stressing the importance of balancing your muscles in order to avoid injury and reduce/prevent back problems. She’s not interested in creating human pretzels.

Secondly, the Athletes Intense Stretch is not really a workout at all. This section (about 30 minutes with an extra 15 minutes at the end focused solely on hips and hamstrings, with a few minutes devoted to stretching the feet and toes) is designed for sportspeople who have done a lot to condition themselves for a particular sport without ever working on their flexibility. For that reason, there are some genuinely ugly, uncomfortable stretches that are meant to undo a lifetime of knotting and bulking as quickly as possible. 

As Esmonde-White stresses, these exercises are designed to improve speed/performance and reduce the risk of injury. “As a professional athlete, you need body awareness. And flexibility equals speed. You should be able to access all of your muscles, not just the ones you use regularly. You shouldn’t be like a tight little ball.” Amen.

The Athletes Intense does share a number of moves in common with the Full Body workout, but the overall effect leaves me feeling more like I’ve had a trip to the chiropractor than a workout.

Finally, Salimpour format devotees will be gratified by Esmonde-White’s words during the cool down of the Full Body workout. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially she says, “We’ve tended to ignore the glutes, and they’re such an important group of muscles. They’re the hinge of your whole body, so we really do need to pay more attention to the buhm.”

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 also...it 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.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Occidental Dancer 14 DVDs in 30 Days Review System Vol. 1

Before I get stuck into the reviews promised in my last post, I would like to make it clear that I'm not looking at these DVDs with the aim of either toning up or losing weight. I am, however, trying to be a better dancer so that's what I'm primarily interested in: flexibility, strength, stamina, and balance. OK?

Exercise is the best thing you can do for yourself, but the only way you can lose weight is through restricting your intake of calories. I did not restrict my intake of calories. In fact, on Thursday I had a whole pizza and a sugar doughnut slathered in Nutella for dinner. Therefore the first person who says in the comments, "Yeah, but how much weight did you lose?" (as one of my co-workers did) will be cursed with a toilet that never unblocks. Ever. (As my co-worker will be. Hopefully.)

Please also note that I already own the DVDs under review, so I didn't get any freebies. I'm going to be as objective as possible.

At the end of each write-up, I'll give an overview as to how practical the DVD under review is if you have near neighbours (i.e in the same building), pets, children, and/or limited space.

A lot of dancers I know absolutely swear by US fitness and lifestyle guru Jillian Michaels. The level of fandom is scary (there's even a fuckyeahjillianmichaels tumblr. On which note, Jillian makes me swear a lot, so this post will be more profanity-laden than most on this blog. But sometimes a good hearty 'bout of cussin' is the only way of making a point.). The first of the reviews in this series are therefore:

Jillian Michaels: 30 Day Shred  


Jillian Michaels: Ripped in 30


Hello and welcome to the Occidental Dancer 14 DVDs in 30 Days Review System. ARE YOU READY TO READ REVIEWS? You better be. Or else you can, y'know, do something else.

The previous post promised some DVD reviews. Well, today, my friends, I am finally going to post one. And not just one! Oh no. Today I am going to be crazy, batshit, stupid-amazing and post TWO!

And if you guessed from the tone of that introduction that I will be reviewing Jillian Michaels' 30 Day Shred and Ripped in 30, then well done on reading the subheading.



Don't ask why it's so cheap
What it promises on the box: LOSE UP TO 20 POUNDS IN 30 DAYS! (Presumably this is the 'fatty weight' kind of pounds, and not the 'British currency' kind of pounds. Otherwise this would be too easy.) The picture shows Jillian Mona Lisa-ing at you  from what looks  like the bowels of Hell.

Just "20 minutes a day", the back cover murmurs, and "in no time" -- wait, isn't it 20 minutes a day over 30 days? -- you too will have "a lean, shredded body". Like a lettuce in a salad.

There are three workouts that build in difficulty and intensity. The idea is you progress through the levels week by week, until you look like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. That didn't happen for me, but even though I wasn't dieting (spoiler ahead!) I did lose two inches off my hips and I felt noticeably stronger by the end of the month. So does this work? Yeah, it does.

General observations:
(A) None of the workouts are actually 20 minutes long. They're more like half an hour by the time you've done the warm down, and in my case I need an extra five minutes to rearrange my tiny living room before I get started so I have space (and then I need to reassemble it). You'll need to think about whether that's convenient for you if you're doing this before work/getting the kids up/whatever.

(B) Jillian is joined by Natalie and Anita, fitness models who silently yet smilingly demonstrate the 'advanced' moves and the 'modified' moves respectively. Even if you never do the advanced moves, you'll still get plenty fit enough. It goes without saying that both have abs you could grate cheese on. I found them kinda hard to relate to.

(C) The studio is light and airy with a big skylight, the camera work is good and all three women are obviously wearing their own clothes. Jillian's menu photo is a fierce, unglamorous shot of her in minimal makeup and a ponytail, and throwing the kind of punch you'd be glad to duck. In other words, it's all very much from the early days of the evolution of Brand Jillian.

(D) The 'Mountain Climbers' (getting down into plank position and running on the spot) completely destroyed my yoga mat by the end of the 30 days. There were bits of grey rubber everywhere after every workout and I had to buy a new one.

(E) Although I stared and squinted until I nearly went blind, I can't tell what Jillian's ankle tattoo is supposed to be. Also, the lack of a hyphen a possessive apostrophe kind of bothers me. I would've called it "Jillian Michaels' 30-Day Shred".

Intro: The intro is 1.25 minutes. That doesn't sound very long, but you can't skip it. You have to fast-forward through it. If you're doing this every morning before work, as I was, that quickly becomes the most irritating few seconds of the day. HOWEVER, I did discover that if you're really good and do your daily workouts, after a while you are not offered the intro and go straight to the workout. I don't know how this happens, but it does. Fucking magnets, how do they work? etc.

Jillian promises to help people "just like you" tone up and lose weight. She seems nice.

Then there's a montage before the main menu, because even Rocky had a montage. It's a montage of what's ahead in the three workouts. You can't skip this either: it takes another 20 seconds out of your precious shredding time. Also, it looks fucking terrifying.

Main menu: There is an audio option, so you can work without Jillian's commentary if you've memorised it by the end of the week. Unfortunately, there's no option for turning off the heinous, plinky muzak, which sounds like it was designed for use by the US Army at Guantanamo. The "recommendations" heading just tells you to do the damn workouts, download Jillian's meal plans and buy Jillian's books. Weirdly, after listening to the muzak for 20 minutes a day, I wanted to buy everything in Jillian's online shop. Go figure.

£/$ -- Hidden costs: Clearly, new workout clothes are unnecessary when you're in the privacy of your own home. I don't even bother with trainers and do all my workouts barefoot. At the risk of scaring you, I also normally roll out of bed, throw on a sports bra and workout in my PJs. It saves on laundry.

But I did need the aforementioned new yoga mat, and two handweights. At some point soon, I'll need to invest in heavier ones than the 2.5kg set I have now. Yay?

Dance cross-training cheats: I focused on keeping my hands strong and my shoulders back and down during jumping jacks i.e tried to dance them, and to try and improve my lines I kept my legs as straight as possible when I had to lie on my back and have them in the air. Sometimes I'd sub-out Jillian's ab moves for similar ones from the Suhaila Salimpour format.

Because there are so many chances to work on 'shoulders back and down', I think overall my posture improved a bit. Certainly, I got a bit more muscle in between my shoulder blades. Bonus.

Any good for flexibility in the hips, hamstrings and groin? No, not really.

Any moves that were impossible? Surprisingly, no. Difficult to the point of "DAMN YOU, JILLIAN MICHAELS!"? Yes. But I had the benefit of starting after a not-too-long a break from regular gym sessions and Pilates classes. This is really not for you if you're starting from scratch, and I think it's assumed you're not. During the Level Three workout, Jillian confidently asserts that you "should be seeing that six-pack coming in right about now", so presumably she envisages her target audience as needing to shift a couple of Christmas dinners, not a lifetime of Roman orgies.

Some taller people have trouble with plank position, and Jillian's a big fan of it. At 5'10 I'm relatively tall, and I'm OK with plank -- my bête noire is any move that requires me to lie on my back and move my legs through an arc, because my legs are so long and heavy that it really affects my lower back. I know ... whining is not the Jillian way.

Try before you buy: Here's the whole Level One workout:



Congratulations! You're shredded like last year's annual report at the bottom of the hamster's cage. How ... sexy. Now it's time to get ripped, yo.


Sick, crazy, suspiciously cheap
The lack of sanity continues on the back. Ripped in 30 is apparently a "comprehensive 30-day diet* and exercise plan designed to get you in the best shape of your life!"..."All you have to do to get in sick, insane, crazy, amazing results fast is stick with the Ripped in 30 diet and exercise program for 30 days. GET READY TO GET RIPPED."

I want my mummy!

General observations:
(A) The workouts this time are ostensibly 24 minutes long each, but I clocked Week One at more like 35 minutes; Week Two at 32:15; Week Three at 30 minutes; and Week 4** at 33 minutes. Not exactly long enough slots of time in which to read War and Peace or find a cure for cancer, I grant you, but still.

(B) The Ripettes are Basheera and Shelly, though confusingly Basheera disappears briefly in Week Two to be replaced by a Natalie, who is not the Natalie from Shred. Everyone's in matching outfits this time. If you like them, on the main menu there's information on how to buy them through Jillian's website. It's 2011 and Brand Jillian has totally arrived!

(C) The studio is now a dark basement with exposed brick, in stark contrast to the more Yogic environment of Shred. You half expect some girl who went missing in the '90s to wander into shot.

(D) The music is a lot more 'professional wrestling intro music' than the 'health club hold muzak' of Shred, but it's still fist-gnawingly annoying.

Intro: The intro is 2:15 minutes long. Jillian, who otherwise seems very right-on (she recently launched a Twitter campaign to save honeybees) seems to be playing into some pretty gross assumptions about why you'd want to be strong and fit. She says something about "looking amazing in your skinny jeans" and "making every ex you've ever had jealous". Huh. Luckily, unlike Shred, you can skip the intro completely so you will never have to listen to her say that EVER.

Main menu: A lot more advertising on offer now, including for Jillian's new book**. There's a subtitles option, so you could switch it to mute and put on your own music if you want to. Like the skippable intro, this is a major improvement on Shred.

£/$ -- Hidden costs: Like Shred, you'll need handweights and a mat. Jillian recommends getting a heavy handweight, but I found that the exercise requiring that could be done by holding two light ones, so don't rush out and buy one unless you really want to.

Dance cross-training cheats: None required. In fact, Week Four is a great dance conditioning workout all by itself. There's a lot more emphasis on flexibility and balance. While I can't do the splits (yet), I can windmill my arms in both directions like a bastard now, even though that has proved in no way useful to my day-to-day life.

Any moves that were impossible? Let's break this down. Week One, aka "grey, blue and white week" in honour of the matchy-matchy outfits, was tough, but doable after going through the Shred. After that things got a bit "ARGH!"

Week Two: aka "lime and charcoal week", introduced me to the Crow Pushup. It sucks ass, as you can see:


The smiling woman on the right of this pic is the Natalie-who-is-not-the-Natalie-of-Shred Natalie. You'll notice she has her left knee on the ground, because she's doing the modified i.e 'easier' version. Let me tell you, the modified version is still as impossible as a fucking magnet -- but then, I'm not a Shredhead yet.

I would do one rep of these pushups and consider myself a darned hero. Burpees were also a challenge for the first few days, and then they were achievable. Wicked.

Week Three: It's "pink week", and time for the Duck Walk aka the Ripper of Knees. The word I shouted during the duck walk sounded very much like 'duck', but wasn't. Totally a modifier. I also have jotted in my notes "straight-leg squat thrusters" -- not because I'm incapable of doing them, but because they require more room than I have -- and "rock n' rolls", because they're scary as hell. You roll onto your back from a standing position with your legs straight up in the air, and then immediately roll back up to your feet, jump, and repeat. I kept thinking I was going to go through the French doors mere centimetres in front of me.

Week Four: At least twice Jillian mentions that you may find yourself "gargling your heart" with exertion. Which is colourful, but horrifying. The language is generally quite violent this week, with talk of 'dying', 'killing' and 'burning'. No wonder it's "black week", and the week of both the Renegade Row Pushup with Weights and the Plank Mogul. I can't talk about those right now, it's all still too raw.

Nota bene: *I did download the diet plan, but it looked really depressing and recommended some rather pricey foodstuffs you probably can't get at Morrison's. (Bagel with cream cheese and lox, anyone?) Honestly, life's too short. But don't let my love of peanut butter on toast put you off if you think the meal plan is something you want to commit to.

**Jillian's new book is all about being empowered and stuff. Before the warm down of the Week Four workout, she spends a good long while going on about how awesome you are for doing the program, and how this means that you are capable of bringing your A-game all the time and need to focus on yourself  more than anyone else and so on forever. Just fast-forward through this bit if it makes you giggle the way Basheera does.

Try before you buy: Here's the whole Week One workout:


It's kinda interesting that it's so obviously aimed at women. A lot of men find this DVD challenging and beneficial, and it's not like the exercises are gender-specific.

These DVDs have been around a while now and many people will testify to how well these programmes work. They are cheaply and readily available, you don't require a lot of space or fancy equipment and Michaels herself is not particularly annoying, which is a major plus if you're going to be hanging out with her for half  an hour every day while she says the same things over and over.

Some of the exercises -- like jumping lunges -- I wouldn't try at the 'advanced' level even though I know I can do them, because in my humble opinion they're an excellent way to up your risk of injury. On the other hand, these DVDs are not for absolute beginners anyway. You takes your chances, right?

For both DVDs, the results are:


Low-to-none. In fact, my cat sleeps in the same room while I exercise and often sits on me while I do the ab work. Jillian even suggests having your toddler sit on your back while you do push-ups. Sadly, I don't have a toddler...



Moderate. You can turn the volume down on your TV all you like, but through the walls or the floor they'll hear the tell-tale thump of your feet during the cardio sections and your near-continuous howls of unimaginable pain.


Moderate. It's generally small-space friendly, but there are some moves that in order to execute properly you'll need more space than I have in my 1.5-by-3 metre living room.


As common as herpes and almost as cheap. You can get both Shred and Ripped from most tax-dodging online retailers, ebay and www.jillianmichaels.com, so it pays to shop around.

Finally, because this is just too odd not to share, here's a picture that's apparently of Jillian sitting on a gurney in a morgue:

Friday, 13 September 2013

The shape of things to come

I know things have been quiet here lately, but let's face it: we're all busy.

For example, for the last couple of months I have (among other things) been focusing on improving my strength and flexibility. For years I have been very dubious about what -- if anything -- can be achieved by using DVDs in the privacy of your own home. How can you know if you're doing it right without being able to check your form in a floor-length mirror? Or without someone to tell you you're doing it wrong? Without (and let's admit to the monster within here) someone else to compare yourself to or compete with? For many years I was a slave to the gym, and couldn't imagine ever being motivated enough to give up timetabled classes, weights machines and cross-trainers in favour of jogging on pavements or doing push ups without being spurred on by the knowledge that each set of ten justified the monthly direct debit to We Own Your Fat Ass Gym Inc. Or Trish, my beloved trainer, coaxing me into standing on a Swiss ball while I complained that I felt like a trained seal. "Oh, no. A seal would have much better balance and muscle control than you do," cooed Trish encouragingly.


Perhaps I am a product of my times. I came of age as the gentle, 1970s-style Tai Chi session viewers of the TVNZ breakfast show were invited to join in on at the end of the morning news was axed as more and more people preferred to get fit where other people could see them pay to do it in the "Let's Get Physical" 1980s.

I am old enough to remember Richard Simmons' TV shows, and his exhortations to "Maryanne in Connecticut -- I can see you Maryanne! Don't give up and stop making me giggle!" Richard Simmons is da man and I will not hear a word against him. But it was years before I realised* that there was no Maryanne in Connecticut, and Richard couldn't see any of us. While Richard was telling his audience how wonderfully well they were doing, for all he knew they were all either weeping and eating ice cream or writhing on the floor in agony.

In spite of my generational mindset and cynicism about my own levels of self-motivation, I have managed to acquire a small library of DVDs, most of which were collected out of desperation when I emigrated five years ago and I had no idea when I'd next get to a dance class. Until quite recently most have just been dust collectors, but I am about to embark on an ambitious project called....[drum roll]:


This is Jilly's idea, really. Either I'll be reviewing DVDs you've never tried yourself or I will be -- in any event, I hope you'll be able to give me tips as I go along or get something out of it. As you eagerly await the first installment, a friend of mine posted this link on Facebook and it's compulsory reading: 

*I was about five when his show was at its peak of popularity.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Go through the motions!

Reblogged from thenearsightedmonkey via mudwerks

From Science Daily

Going Through the Motions Improves Dance Performance

July 23, 2013 — Expert ballet dancers seem to glide effortlessly across the stage, but learning the steps is both physically and mentally demanding. New research suggests that dance marking — loosely practicing a routine by “going through the motions” — may improve the quality of dance performance by reducing the mental strain needed to perfect the movements.
The new findings, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggest that marking may alleviate the conflict between the cognitive and physical aspects of dance practice, allowing dancers to memorize and repeat steps more fluidly.
Researcher Edward Warburton, a former professional ballet dancer, and colleagues were interested in exploring the “thinking behind the doing of dance.”
"It is widely assumed that the purpose of marking is to conserve energy," explains Warburton, professor of dance at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "But elite-level dance is not only physically demanding, it’s cognitively demanding as well:
Learning and rehearsing a dance piece requires concentration on many aspects of the desired performance.”
Marking essentially involves a run-through of the dance routine, but with a focus on the routine itself, rather than making the perfect movements.
"When marking, the dancer often does not leave the floor, and may even substitute hand gestures for movements," Warburton explains. "One common example is using a finger rotation to represent a turn while not actually turning the whole body."
To investigate how marking influences performance, the researchers asked a group of talented dance students to learn two routines: they were asked to practice one routine at performance speed and to practice the other one by marking.
The routines were relatively simple, designed to be learned quickly and to minimize mistakes. Yet differences emerged when the judges looked for quality of performance.
Across many of the different techniques and steps, the dancers were judged more highly on the routine that they had practiced with marking — their movements on the marked routine appeared to be more seamless, their sequences more fluid.
The researchers surmise that practicing at performance speed didn’t allow the dancers to memorize and consolidate the steps as a sequence, thus encumbering their performance.
"By reducing the demands on complex control of the body, marking may reduce the multi-layered cognitive load used when learning choreography," Warburton explains.
While marking is often thought of as a necessary evil — allowing dancers a “break” from dancing full out — the large effect sizes observed in the study suggest that it could make a noticeable difference in a dancer’s performance:
"Marking could be strategically used by teachers and choreographers to enhance memory and integration of multiple aspects of a piece precisely at those times when dancers are working to master the most demanding material," says Warburton.
It’s unclear whether these performance improvements would be seen for other types of dance, Warburton cautions, but it is possible that this area of research could extend to other kinds of activities, perhaps even language acquisition.
"Smaller scale movement systems with low energetic costs such as speech, sign language, and gestures may likewise accrue cognitive benefits, as might be the case in learning new multisyllabic vocabulary or working on one’s accent in a foreign language."

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Just Like I Thought

Out of a misplaced sense of social nicety, most people feel obliged to pretend that they hate saying "I told you so". As for me, I am always delighted to rub various noses in the foul stench of my prescience whenever possible.

Way back in April 2011 I reported on the in-production Just Like A Woman, a Sienna Miller vehicle for which Miller had not read the script before signing on, which was about a woman who runs away from her Sad ExistenceTM to become a belly dancer. 

Plainly in the grip of a caffeine headache, I thumped out the following considered opinion:
"I'll bet my hip scarves that belly dance will not be afforded the same modicum of respect as ballet, in as much as no 'body double' who actually knows how to do the dance justice will be employed to make Miller look good."
Well, the film is now actually A Thing That Exists. Respect -- seriously. I'm reading Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures and it is kind of amazing that any movie ever gets made, let alone released. I guess it helps that Rachid Bouchareb has an Oscar nomination to swing around.

Back to the movie in hand. There are at least two trailers for it. Let's compare and contrast, shall we? Here's the 4-minute plus version for the European market. (Yes, it's waa-aay too long):

And here's the sub-minute version for the US market, sans subtitles:

Interesting, innit? These look like trailers for two totally different movies!

I marvel that for some inexplicable reason Sienna is THE ONLY ONE her teacher could POSSIBLY put forward for that OBVIOUSLY ELITE dance troupe in Santa Fe. (Thank you, expository dialogue!)

FOR THE LOVE OF KANYE, people. He has a room full of students and presumably didn't start teaching the day Sienna walked into his studio, but even so she is his star pupil. (If he ever stumbles across a malfunctioning Henry vacuum cleaner spinning in circles he's going to think he's discovered the next Bozenka.)

I mean, I could sit here and rage some more about the poor dancing on display in these clips. Or the racist assumption that "all Arab women", like "all black people", are inherently good dancers. But I don't need to, because poor Yuska over at the Pink Coinbelt Chronicles has already seen this film and writes a very good, even-handed review of it that I highly recommend.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Straight from the camel's mouth...

Overheard in dance class

For some time now, I have half-heartedly kept a record of some of the more amusing/bizarre/unintentionally filthy/offensive/inspiring/useful things said in the course of belly dance classes and workshops I've attended. Since I attended my first class around the same time Elton John had his first hair transplant, I've got a veritable treasure trove going now. Although I know who said what, at some points I have redacted the name of the teacher to protect the guilty...
"You sound like a wobbly pig!" -- Isa, context forgotten.

"Girls, girls, girls, please! It is not like 'zoo animal'!" -- An exasperated Huda Sabour tries to get a room to zar with grace...and fails.

"That was like an Egyptian wedding and no one had an invitation." -- Shafeek Ibrahim gives up on arabesques en masse.

"OK, that won't achieve anything. It's a buttock contraction, not a butthole contraction." -- Traysi explains basic anatomy.

"Relax. It's only belly dancing." -- Razia Star keeps it in perspective.

"Your applause is my food! So satisfy me!" -- Fifi Abdou really means it.

"Girls, I know how it is. In life, we all have our problems and our sadnesses and sometimes we have to dance even though we want to cry. But no one cares. So please smile. Or I will kill you."

"Shoulders back and down." -- every teacher I have ever had, ever.

"Move it like, 'My pelvis is excited!'" -- Anna Kemper.

"I cannot dance when I am unhappy, and I see you all are the same. Excuse me." -- Randa Kamel buys herself a sneaky cigarette break with a veiled insult.

"Pretend you've got a man under each hand and you're pushing them down...yeeessss." -- Jo Wise tries some creative visualisation.

"If you are bendy, you will be able to do more as a dancer. And probably do more in bed, so there's that." -- Layla advocates cross-training.

"You really don't have to work this hard. You don't. You can just get some Isis wings instead." -- Suhaila Salimpour has no love for pleated lame.

"Don't forget to breathe, because you don't pay me enough for CPR." -- Traysi sets her boundaries.

"I always perform solo. I have far too much ego to share a stage!" -- Galit Mersand laughingly explains why her students always have to take the floor without her.

"My god, child, I've seen a bendy bus turn with more grace than that." -- Sara breaks it to me gently.

"You should always bring something of yourself to your performances, unless you're an unlovable bitch -- in which case, take acting classes." -- Christine believes in 'being yourself', but only to a point.

"If you're young and gorgeous, you can't do this move. It's for the mature woman only." -- Jo Wise demonstrates the R45 hip circle.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Photo du jour: Sherihan as a child

Sherihan: hand-tinted photo by Van Leo and found at No You Shut Up

One of my most popular posts ever* was on Egyptian star Sherihan (you can read it here) -- so naturally I just had to share this gorgeous image of her as a child.

*I know that's not saying much, but it's still true.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Stars of the 1990s: Amani of Lebanon

Happy birthday to Amani (Angel Nabil Ayoub), born this day in 1970. (It's kismet, Henry: only last night one of my teachers told me I should definitely check her out and lo and behold, it turns out today's her birthday. A post was definitely in the stars.)

I apologise for the video ticker all over this one, but I don't think I've ever posted a riq dance before. Apparently this is Andalusian-style:

Here's another tambourine dance, just to prove she has worn costumes in shades other than red. This costume gives me the wants:

Amani now runs her own Oriental Festival, and the YouTube channel (featuring her and performers from the festival) is pretty good.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

DVD for sale

My apologies for interrupting our regular service with this message -- but I figure if anyone I know would be interested in scoring a very cheap copy of Princess Farhana's amazing Bellydance & Balance: The Art of Sword and Shamadan it would be you (link is to the ebay auction).

Wonderful friends of mine gave me a copy without knowing I already had one, and the confines of my tiny home dictate that one copy must be returned to the wild.

By way of mitigating my embarrassment over briefly turning this blog into a tawdry billboard, if you're the winning bidder and send me a message via ebay with 'Occidental' in the subject line, I'll also send you a free copy of Suhaila Salimpour's Fitness Fusion Yoga DVD. How's that? The auction ends at 11:58:41 BST on Sunday, 9 June.

*Transmission ends*

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

That look U get...

...when U stumble across a selfie of a girl wearing two coin scarves (and nothing else!), and even worse than that it's captioned "I have the body to be a belly dancer", and even worse than that it's tagged 'skinnymini' and 'skinny':

(I've not linked directly to the offender's blog because...well. There's enough sadness in the world already. Found via A Little Song & Dance and This is Not Bellydance, and with love and apologies to Glitter Hips.)

Friday, 24 May 2013

The Uru Tribe at Tribal Fest 2013

This piece of history is the first-ever all-male performance at Tribal Fest.

Quoth an understandably breathless Steven Eggers, the Most Beautiful Boy in BellydanceTM:

...most of us met for the first time that week and many learned the choreography that week and we only actually ran it through with ALL the guys the day before. Considering all that I think it went well :)

:) indeed!

The Uru Tribe is: Paige Lawrence, Adrian Junez, Sasha Khetarpal-Vasser, Brian Pacheco, Eric Salazar, Leon Mancilla, Mark Bissell, Lorenso Silva, Frank Farinaro and Steven Eggers.

Choreography by Steven Eggers and Frank Farinaro.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013


Just to prove to all of y'all that I actually am a real person AND actually a woman AND actually a dancer -- and not some weirdy little dude called Dale who has limited contact with the outside world and a strange, some might say unnatural, relationship with his mother -- here is a photo of me 'dancing' at Hafla on the Hill in Camden last Thursday.

The best thing about the whole performance was my nail varnish, which isn't done justice in this pic. I was very proud of it: layered black and gold glitter over lizard green, so as to match my bedlah and skirt. The worst thing was the woman in the front row who yawned conspicuously when I started and didn't cover her mouth. Rude.

Who knows what's happening with my hands here? Not me. On the plus side, at least they're not flopping around like landed fish.

[Pic by Yara Photography and uploaded without permission (but then, no one asked me if I wanted it slapped all over Facebook and tagged with my real name either. Fair's fair!).]

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Photo du jour: Star of Pinterest

With 43 repins and 13 likes, this publicity still of Dolores del Rio in the 1928 film Revenge is by far the most popular image Jilly has ever tacked on Pinterest.

Hint, hint people!

Friday, 10 May 2013

I am dancing at Hafla on the Hill this coming Thursday

and I am worried that my act is gonna go down all like:

So if you can come I would appreciate it. This month's charity is UN Women and there are actual 'proper' dancers on the bill too, I promise.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Ann Friedman's Disapproval Matrix

Hey! I'm still here. Recently I enrolled in Anna Kemper's Improver-level class (sure, I heard that, but sometimes you have to accept that no matter how long you've been doing something you'll always be improver level!), so that coupled with Shafeek's classes, preparing my alter ego Ramona for the next Hafla on the Hill -- which is no longer on a hill, natch -- the full-time job and sustaining a happy marriage* = not much time for blogging.

Until I have time to write stuff up properly, I thought I would share this gem from Ann Friedman. It is so apt to what is happening in my head in relation to my dancing that it scares me real bad. FWIW, I am both my own most ardent lover and most fervent hater (especially the bit about being a 'lesser rapper'). Yeah, it gets confusing.
Ann explains her diagram, in part, thus:

The general rule of thumb? When you receive negative feedback that falls into one of the top two quadrants—from experts or people who care about you who are engaging with and rationally critiquing your work—you should probably take their comments to heart. When you receive negative feedback that falls into the bottom two quadrants, you should just let it roll off your back and just keep doin’ you. If you need to amp yourself up about it, may I suggest this #BYEHATER playlist on Spotify? You’re welcome.

*Get your mind out of the gutter, you filthmeister.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Welcome back Saroyan Cymbals! Even though you never went away!

Back on 26 January I posted a rather preemptive lament for the closure of the Saroyan Cymbal company in the wake of Harry Saroyan's retirement.

Foodycat was first with the news that I'd jumped the gun a bit, but now I can officially confirm she's right. This comment was left on the post this morning:
Officially on behalf of Mr. Harry Saroyan and Saroyan Cymbals I would like to address the doubts and fears being expressed online regarding the future of Saroyan Zills and their availability for professionals and enthusiast in the music and dance industries. After 45 years as the leader in production, Harry has decided to turn over the reins of Saroyan Mastercrafts, and is currently securing new ownership for Saroyan Cymbals ... In the mean time have no fear, Harry's zills will again be available for purchase online (www.saroyanzils.com) on June 15, 2013 and will continue to be produced to meet the high demand for quality zills for many, many years to come. It is very important to Harry that his strict guidelines for superiority and craftsmanship are maintained, and he gives his personal promise that his fans will be very pleased with his successor. In the intervening time please feel free to contact me at heather@netreva.com with any questions or concerns...Sincerely, Heather Lint, Netreva Inc. c/o Saroyan Mastercrafts.
Netreva Inc appears to be a marketing firm based in California, so this looks legit to me: it would make sense that when the webiverse is writing your company off as dead and gone that you would hire someone to go around it laboriously copying and pasting news of its survival on every blog you can find.