When Tracie Stanfield teaches contemporary class at Broadway Dance Center, she often includes choreographed stretch combinations. Dancers might move from a contraction into a lateral bend and then to a cambré back, before repeating it all on the other side. "I try to maximize their range of motion," says Stanfield. "It's my responsibility to get them ready to dance and not just focus on hitting a picture."
Most dancers want to improve their flexibility, especially if they have tight muscles and joints that inhibit their extension. But they might be preoccupied with the height of their legs and disregard the quality of their extension. Some might even force themselves into unsafe stretches or positions, trying to imitate what they see on social media. You can give students safe exercises and ideas—the right balance of strength and flexibility—to help increase mobility while deemphasizing the need for whacked hips and backs.
1. Identify the Issue
Some dancers don't have enough mobility to achieve high extensions, while others don't have the strength to support their range of motion. Gayanne Grossman, physical therapist and director of Muhlenberg College's Dance Wellness Center, suggests testing a dancer's range of motion and strength before giving specific stretches or exercises. "Have them lie on their back and extend a leg up with straight knees, keeping the hips in a neutral position," she says. "If the leg goes to 90 degrees, that's where the battement will be." If the dancer has adequate motion and has no problem achieving a high extension, then teachers should focus on strengthening instead. Determine why students might be struggling, and then develop a plan to maximize each person's potential.
2. Overcome Tightness
Students ages 14–16 might experience a time when their bones grow before their soft tissue, causing tightness and frustration. "They get long legs but not long muscles right away," says Grossman. "It takes a while for the muscles to catch up, and there might be a spike in injuries during that time." Stretching with rollers or balls and warming up the fascia (tissue that connects to muscle and is interwoven from muscle to skin) will increase range of motion. Alternate pointing and flexing the feet and bending and straightening the knees before stretching the hamstrings. "If a stretch hurts, people will fight back," says Grossman. "Make it feel good and they'll get more motion." Encourage active or dynamic stretching so that dancers work through a position instead of just holding it. "Dancers should breath three counts in and three counts out before moving into the next stretch," she says.
For very tight students, incorporate yoga into their routine to help them get more stretch and length in a safe way. "It's a fine line, because you want them to work on getting their legs up, but you risk hip flexor strains, especially at the 11- to 12-year-old range," says Marisa Albee, a teacher at Pacific Northwest Ballet. "Dancers should work with correct placement and understand how to hold their leg when it's low. Give enough exercises with the leg up so that they get stronger, but not so much that they get tense and tight."
3. Control Hypermobility
Dancers with very loose muscles and joints might have poor coordination and control of their movements. "Some overly mobile students keep stretching because they feel like it's their thing," says Albee. "They overdo it. It's bad for their bodies and their progress." Instead, these dancers should do a warm-up routine that incorporates sit-ups, planks and other stability exercises. Albee encourages Pilates mat classes for students ages 13 and up and will steer very flexible dancers toward a specialist for overall body conditioning.
Students with very mobile backs should strengthen their upper body to support a high arabesque. Encourage dancers to lie on their stomachs, with arms in fifth en haut, and lift the upper back and shoulders off the floor. They should think of lengthening the core instead of crunching the back. "They shouldn't exploit their flexibility," says Albee. "It won't support them when they land a jump in arabesque or do an attitude turn."
4. Find the Shape
Dancers can also change their mental approach to improve extension. "Dancers shouldn't force themselves into a cookie-cutter version of what they think it should be," says Stanfield, "but amplify what they have." For example, when working for a higher leg in arabesque or a deeper cambré, dancers can think of expanding through their ribs from side to side and pressing the chest forward, creating more room for the back to bend. "Find the length in the arch, instead of trying to get the head to touch the tailbone," she says.
Stanfield also recommends standing in first position, about two feet from the wall, facing away, with the arms in high fifth. Dancers can reach back and try to touch the wall instead of the floor. "Keep the hips straight and come back up by using the abdominals while pushing down into the floor," she says. "You can develop strength at the same time."