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.”


  1. See? I TOLD YOU SO. I'm delighted you're getting so much out of the dvd, and after owning it for 10 years, happy to pass on the joy! Also, having done a few Essentrics dvds, I think you can get a lot of similar benefits from Essentrics. Woo!

  2. This "old lady work-out" sounds perfect for me. I also appreciate the picture you posted in the interest of science: that is some nice looking science.