the right moves: Classical-Stretch class builds flexibility and self-confidence
BY: Susan Schwartz
The Gazette (Montreal) April 10 2000, Final Edition P.E1
She is the host of a television program that airs across North America,
she gets fan mail from places ranging from California to Vermont, and
yet Miranda Esmonde-White lives and teaches stretch classes in relative
obscurity in Saint-Bruno, the town she has called home for much of her
Her students sing her praises and the praises of her ``classical stretch''
workout, which combines tai chi, ballet, fitness, physiotherapy stretches
and her own moves to light classical and other beautiful music. The goal
is to improve muscle tone, blood flow, flexibility, strength, balance
and co-ordination - and to reduce unwanted inches and weight.
Students say her routines have helped them do everything from reduce their
osteoporosis and minimize their chin wattles to improve their self-esteem
and perception of the person looking back at them in the mirror.
The emphasis, as the name suggests, is on long, slow stretching techniques,
observed longtime physiotherapist Sheena Gilmore, a participant in the
Since last fall, Esmonde-White has had her own television program, Classical
Stretch, on the Public Broadcasting System, produced by WPBS in Watertown,
N.Y., and distributed to PBS stations across the U.S.
Montrealers with access to PBS stations in New York or Vermont can catch
her early on Wednesday or Thursday mornings. The settings for the program
are stunning - gardens and museums across North America, with plans to
tape future shows in Europe.
``I developed the program for women about six years ago,'' said Esmonde-White,
50, who trained with the National Ballet School of Canada and danced professionally
with the National Ballet Company of Canada from 1967 to 1971.
``I was looking for an alternative to hard-core, high-intensity aerobics,
but I also had terrible back pain.'' Her chronic back problem was so severe
that she could barely stand, so disabling she was at the chiropractor's
four days a week. Now her back pain is minimal and only occasional.
Ditto for some of her students. ``After having gone through months, of
physical therapy for back problems, knee and hamstring injuries, I have
finally found a routine that works,'' viewer Marguerite Moriarty wrote.
``I'm finally feeling like a new woman.'' ``I used to have low-back pain,''
said Suzanne McPherson, who joined Esmonde-White's program two years ago,
when she retired from teaching. ``Now it's gone. My back has firmed up,
and my posture has improved. Now I am aware of posture when I walk, of
how I have to hold my head up. It's Miranda who taught us that.'' McPherson,
who is 57, says she has lost the saddlebags on her thighs. And there's
more. ``I used to have no stomach muscles. And now my arms are quite wonderful.''
Paulette Dussault, who is 68, turned to Esmonde-White's program at the
suggestion of her doctor after a bone-density test two years ago revealed
some osteoporosis, bone loss that is generally age-related.
``Miranda is a dynamic teacher, and the way she follows what you are doing
and corrects you is invaluable,'' she said.
A second bone-density test this past February, combined with a program
of hormone-replacement therapy and calcium, showed not only that Dussault's
bone loss had been arrested, but that there was, in fact, an improvement.
Diane Mathurin, 43, is expecting her third child in June and she feels
better and less tired than she did before she started classes with Esmonde-White
last fall. ``With a lot of the exercises you become tighter,'' she said.
``And the program helps with back pain.
I feel very good about giving birth at my age. There are people of all
ages in the classes and all the movements are smooth; it seems you're
not working, but you are.'' Francine Paquette has three children, including
``I started with Miranda three years ago and I was ugly when I came here.
I could hardly move,'' said Paquette, who has since lost 35 pounds. ``I
have back problems; I saw a chiropractor for seven years. Now I have improved
my posture and have much less backache.
``But what I love most about the class is that it taught me to become
beautiful. I never believed I could feel like this, like a ballerina.
Miranda is beautiful inside and out and she makes you feel beautiful,''
said Paquette, who is 45.
On a certain level, this sounds hokey. But it's true. You can't help but
smile in this program. I joined a recent Wednesday-morning class in the
unimposing little mirrored studio Esmonde-White rents in Saint-Bruno and
there's something about the program that makes even an ungainly person
The music included everything from classical to Leonard Cohen, you could
follow her instructions without needing an advanced course in kinesiology,
her manner was incredibly gentle and pleasant and there were constant
explanations of why you were doing what you were that actually made sense.
Esmonde-White, a longtime teacher who founded a fitness and dance centre
in Saint-Bruno 20 years ago, is so bilingual that she moves from elbows
to coudes and back again without effort.
Of one exercise, done to Leonard Cohen's I'm Your Man, she said: ``This
gets rid of the Jell-O inside the thigh.'' Of another: ``Push against
the hip joint. This is to get rid of saddlebags. It doesn't feel good,
but we do it anyway.'' You can tell that the students, mainly women, many
of them regulars and longtime followers of Esmonde-White's classes, feel
good about what they're doing, about themselves. The hour-long class goes
quickly. ``You have to concentrate,'' she said. ``It pushes out the grocery
list and the fight you had with your neighbour, and you get into feeling
of your body,'' she said.
At 54, Francoise Laborie, has been doing aerobics and other cardiovascular
exercises for a long time. What she likes about classical stretch is ``that
you work your muscles in length, it keeps your flexibility and, as you
get older, flexibility is so important. It builds your strength and helps
you with other physical activities. It gives your body exercise and it
relaxes you.'' Retired schoolteacher Pearl Randall: ``It's keeping supple
that's important. This kind of program keeps you so supple that if you
do physical activity you haven't done in a while, you won't hurt.'' Since
Lise Gaulin, 55, started the classical stretch classes last September,
her balance has improved noticeably. ``When I do housework, I feel more
confidence,'' she said. ``And the class is nice. The music is nice. People
leave in a good mood.'' Charlotte Courchesne, 53, observed: ``It's good
for the body but as you feel good in your body, you feel better in your
mind.'' Since the husband of one of her students invited her to do a seminar
on stretching for a national swimming federation, she has been presenting
these seminars regularly to sports coaches and to teams: today she is
the full-time stretching coach for the Canadian Olympic Level Diving team,
for instance, and the Canadian Olympic Level Synchronized Swimming team.
For elite athletes, classical stretch is a way to improve their posture,
balance and muscle strength to make them better divers, swimmers or fencers,
she explained. ``One major problem with athletes is that they focus on
their sport. They do a lot of strength training but don't balance it with
stretching. The divers, for instance, have such powerful arms, she said:
they also have a lot of arm and upper-back injuries. A stretching program
helps to prevent injuries and helps injuries to heal more quickly, she
``My back hurt so much that I couldn't stretch and had difficulty diving,''
said 14-year-old Catherine Brunet, who is on the junior national diving
team. ``Now I can reach positions in the air more easily.''
``We need a lot of exercise in diving and the leg exercises are very oriented
to jumping, which is good for us,'' she said. ``Good posture makes my
dives more consistent and stretching and flexibility and exercise all
help to prevent injury,'' shes aid.
``When you are stronger, everything holds up in place more, so that when
you train you are in the right position.'' Fellow team member Julio Abate,
also 14, said: ``I like the exercise mostly for my back, and like how
it improved my posture.
Now I stand taller.'' Sixteen-year-old Nicolas Leblanc observed: ``It
helps my flexibility, helps me to achieve better positions and my posture
Esmonde-White is gratified. ``When I hear what people tell about how the
program helps their body, how it helps with their aches and pains, it's
a real thrill for me to know I am helping. I want people to feel good
- and feel good about themselves.''
As a viewer from West Lebanon, N.H., wrote: ``Miranda does such a terrific
teaching session with her explanations about the muscles, the reasons
for stretches and the correct way to do the stretches. I have watched
other `stretch' programs, but they are fast and furious with no good teaching
or instruction about the `whys' and correct ways of stretching ... the
time spent with classical stretch therefore is, indeed a treasure.''