Sunday, 20 October 2013

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

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

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

For Vol 1 in this review series, click here.

Element Ballet Conditioning with Elise Gulan


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try before you buy: 


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

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

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

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

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

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, 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: