All 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 adult life.


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 program.
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 20-year-old twins.


``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 feel graceful.


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 said.


``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 is better.''


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.''