Kristen Rizzuto, Photo by Kyle Froman

If you had to limit your advice to one idea that could have a profound impact on the training of young dancers, what would it be?" Physical therapist Rocky Bornstein offers these simple balance exercises to offer your students.

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Back in the day, dancers often studied a single technique and swore allegiance to one choreographer. Now, dancers typically must handle a much wider range of physical and creative demands. One way to gain the mental and physical resilience their careers require is through the practice of yoga.

Yoga classes that incorporate all aspects of the practice, from philosophy and breath work to poses and meditation, have the most to offer. A good class will balance internal and external rotation in the hips and shoulders, stability with mobility in the torso and even the exhale of breath with the inhale. Perhaps most helpful of all, yoga draws us into the present moment, settling our attention so that the mind can begin to quiet. Students are encouraged to work from the inside out; to let go of attachment to specific shapes and tune in to the felt experience of each pose. By freeing dancers from fixating on the mirror, yoga can deepen a dancer's kinesthetic intelligence and depth as a performer.

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Ice or heat? If your muscle pain is accompanied by reduced strength, put away the heating pad. Richardson says to ice within 24 to 48 hours of an injury as a rule of thumb. “If it’s a strain, there will be bleeding inside the muscle,” she says. “Heat will increase that bleeding.”

“I think I pulled a muscle.” We’ve all said it, but what does it mean? There are many aches and pains that accompany a dancer’s daily practice, but there are important differences between muscle soreness and a strained or “pulled” muscle. While both require a balance of rest and carefully planned exertion, a strained muscle has distinct symptoms that will tell you quickly that it is more than just back-from-vacation soreness.

“Muscles like to be warm,” says Megan Richardson, a certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at the NYU Langone Medical Center. “They don’t like to stretch and do explosive movements while cold.” When you saunter into the studio before class and flop down into the splits, or practice your variation on cold muscles, you’re setting yourself up for a strain.

Think of your muscle as hair pulled back into a ponytail. Just as your ponytail is made up of many hairs, your muscle is composed of many fibers. Strained muscles are referred to as “pulled” because that’s what’s happening. The muscle fibers get stretched to their maximum capacity, which can lead to tearing. According to Richardson, strained muscles fall into three categories. “A level-one strain would have a few fibers that have been torn or overstretched out of their normal resting spot,” says Richardson. A level-three strain means all or the majority of the fibers have been severed and level two is somewhere in the middle. A medical professional will determine the level of the strain depending on the severity of the symptoms. 

Symptoms

Pain when stretching “If stretching is painful, you need to minimize the range of motion,” says Richardson. “If it’s still painful, you might have a muscle strain.”

Lack of strength What distinguishes a muscle strain from regular soreness is that a strain will always be accompanied by a lack of strength in the affected muscle.

Redness, swelling and bruising Any combination of these symptoms can indicate a strained muscle, but Richardson warns that not having these symptoms does not mean that all is well. The onset of symptoms may be delayed depending on how deep the muscle is. Every muscle strain will present itself differently.

Treatment

It is important to see a medical professional to have a muscle strain diagnosed and create a treatment plan, but the good news is that unlike ligaments and joint capsules, muscles can repair themselves. However, without the proper guidance, it’s easy to push the muscle too much or too little.

For the muscle tissue to repair itself properly, it must be used (think walking, not petit allégro). If not, the body will create scar tissue instead of rebuilding the fibers. “Scar tissue is weaker and less pliable than regular muscle tissue,” says Richardson, “so we become weaker and less flexible.” However, if you push too hard, you can end up with a much more debilitating injury. Working closely with a doctor, physical therapist or athletic trainer is the only way to determine the best course for your unique injury.

Prevention

The best way to prevent a muscle strain is to warm up before dancing and avoid static stretches when your muscles are cold. A static stretch is any stretch that pushes your body to its flexibility limit and holds it there. Richardson says that dancers’ propensity to do static stretching before class is a big reason for so many muscle strains in the hamstrings and hip flexors. Lying down in the splits or frog position before your first plié are classic culprits. “Research has shown that static stretches decrease the muscle’s ability to contract and produce force,” says Richardson. All static stretching should be saved for the end of class, after the muscles are already warm.

Richardson recommends dancers do dynamic stretching “where the muscle is moving through its range of motion, but not stopping at its end point for too long,” to warm up before class. “So we’re moving the muscle back and forth like an accordion,” she says. DT

 

 

Two Dynamic Stretches for Warming Up

Hamstring “Bottoms Up”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Start in parallel position with your feet a little wider than hips-width apart.

2. Bend your knees and put your forearms on your thighs in a flat back position with pelvis in neutral or tilted slightly back.

3. With your back flat from hip bones to head, lean forward pressing your weight into your thighs with your forearms.

4. Keeping the back long, straighten your knees and let your head dive down toward the floor, pushing your weight into your thighs and reaching your sitz bones up to the ceiling.

5. Only straighten your knees to the point that you can keep your back flat.

6. Squat down as deeply as you can, keeping your weight on your thighs.

7. Go back and forth 10 times slowly.

 

 

 

Hip Flexor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Stand with your left leg front and right leg back in a wide lunge with the back heel lifted. Make your stance as wide as possible while keeping your hips square.

2. Keeping your back upright and your body centered between your legs, slowly lower your body as you bend both knees. As you lower, raise your right arm up over your head. Think of tucking your pelvis under and keeping your left knee over your left ankle. You should feel a lengthening up the back thigh and the hips into the belly.

3. Bring your arm back down to your side as you slowly straighten your knees to return to your starting position.

4. Repeat 5 to 10 times before switching to the other side.

 

 

For an extra challenge: Lean slightly toward the front leg side while scooping and hollowing out the belly like a Martha Graham contraction. Rest your hand on a barre or chair for extra support.

Tip: Don’t hold any position. You should move slowly to the end of your range of motion and then right back out of it. No bouncing.

Photos by Emily Giacalone; modeled by Morgana Phlaum

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In the Magazine

Build strength, prevent injuries and maximize turnout.

Few athletes use their hips the way dancers do. Learn to care for those joints accordingly.

Our hips are overachievers. They are the main source of turnout and the axis of all leg movement. Dancers work them hard. No one knows this better than Heather Heineman, physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Medical Center. She treats all kinds of hip injuries in dancers, frequently from overuse. That’s due, in part, to dancers’ nonstop schedules. “In most sports, you have spring warm-up season, then you compete, then you cool down, then you take a break,” she says. “You’re still exercising, but you’re doing different movements.” But for dancers, it’s repeat, repeat, repeat, all year round.

Dancers need to know how to properly care for and strengthen their hips—not just for career longevity, but to achieve maximum performing capability. There are several ways hips can suffer, but building the right muscles can help achieve proper technique and avoid injury.

Few athletes use the full range of their hip motion as much as dancers. All that rotation of the femur head in its socket can certainly take its toll. But Heineman adds that common wear-and-tear hip ailments—like snapping hip syndrome, bursitis or a labral tear—often go hand-in-hand with misuse or improper technique. Even in well-trained dancers, weakness or imbalances in the muscles surrounding the pelvis and core can cause a dancer to overwork certain muscles, leading to chronic irritation or worse.

And let’s not forget the constant quest for perfect turnout. We’ve all seen dancers try to force 180 degrees of rotation. They crank from the ankles and knees or tilt the pelvis and stick out the buttocks to find a little more space in the hip sockets. But in turnout, Heineman stresses cheaters never win. In addition to making themselves vulnerable to injury, dancers who try to force extra turnout never actually achieve their fullest rotation. “There’s often more turnout available than what those dancers are achieving the wrong way,” she says.

There’s no shortcut to maximum turnout or to strong, healthy hips. But by incorporating hip- and core-strengtheners into a cross-training routine, dancers will notice a difference over time. Heineman suggests these three exercises, specifically, because they strengthen the muscles needed for leg movement and turnout while stabilizing the core.

Clamshell

Do this for strong external rotators, the group of six small muscles at the back of your hip that run from the hip bone to the femur.

1. Lying on your side, bend your knees so your shoulders, hips and heels are in one line. The pelvis should be neutral, hips stacked one on top of the other.

 

 

You should feel this classic exercise in your buttocks. If you feel it in the iliopsoas or the front of the hip, readjust to find a neutral pelvis. Or, change your position so your feet are back behind you and your shoulders, pelvis and knees are in a line.

2. Lift your top knee toward the ceiling, without shifting your hips or pelvis. Think of drawing your top hip toward the heels to keep from hiking or tucking the hip. Lower the knee. Repeat for 2 sets of 10.

 

 

 

 

Side-Lying Leg Lift

Strengthening your gluteus medius, a smaller muscle behind your hip and under your gluteus maximus, will keep you from overusing the psoas and prevent an anterior pelvic tilt (sticking the backside out).

1. Start lying on your side in a straight line, head to toe, with your buttocks about a fist’s distance from the wall. You can support your head with one hand and place the other on the floor in front of you.

 

 

2. Extend the top leg in a mini arabesque so the heel touches the wall behind you.

3. Lift and lower the leg slowly, going as high as you can without hiking the hip. (It won’t be very high.) Keep both legs parallel. In fact, it may help to think of turning in the working leg slightly. Do 2 sets of 10.

 

Marching

This engages low and deep abdominals to help you separate the movement of the legs from your pelvis—so you can really keep your hips still when you move to passé.

1. Begin lying on your back with a neutral pelvis, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Exhale slowly, through pursed lips, like you’re blowing air out through a straw. You should feel your lower abs engage.

 

 

Rest your hands on the insides of your hips to make sure your psoas muscles aren’t engaging, or popping out against your fingers, too much. You don’t want the hip flexors to do all the work.

2. Using the abdominals and relaxing the psoas, lift one leg up so the shin is parallel to the floor and the knee is at a 90-degree angle. Keep the pelvis steady. Lower slowly. Switch legs. Repeat for 2 sets of 10.

 

 

 

 

What Is a Neutral Pelvis?

Finding that sweet spot that’s neither tucked nor arched can be tricky, even for teachers. For instance, you can never tell if a dancer is in alignment by looking at her backside, Heineman says. Everyone’s derrière is a different size, and you don’t want to encourage a curvier dancer to tuck her pelvis. Instead, look at her front. The pelvis is in a neutral position when hip points and pubic bone are on a level plane.

 

 

Feel-Good Flexors

Some dancers could lean into a lunge position all day and not feel a stretch in their hip flexors. Heineman has the solution: Lie on your back, feet flat on the floor. Lift your pelvis up into a bridge and slide a foam roller under your sacrum. Pull both knees toward your chest. Hold onto one while you lengthen the other and lower it toward the floor. Keep one hand on your knee and the other on the foam roller to hold it in place. Keep lengthening the leg as long as possible; then allow the knee to bend and lower the heel to the floor. The foam roller tucks your pelvis under for an exquisite stretch across the top of the hip.

All photos by Emily Giacalone, modeled by Lizzie Villareal

Why sleep matters

From repairing muscles to memorizing movement, sleep is essential for dancers’ bodies and brains.

If you’ve led morning classes or rehearsals, you may be familiar with those dancers who enter the studio carrying a coffee from the closest café, or whose floor stretches look, in part, like an excuse to stay horizontal—and perhaps you feel their pain. Denise Warner Limoli is familiar with this scene; she teaches 9 am ballet classes at Skidmore College. Sleepy dancers, she notices, tend to be slow on the pickup. “A dancer usually has very fast responses, and sleep-deprived dancers are a little slow to react,” she says. “They don’t learn assigned combinations quickly, or they make mistakes that they should not be making at their level of accomplishment.”

It’s easy, and sometimes inevitable, to skimp on shut-eye when classes and rehearsals require major time commitments. But sleep, or lack of it, can seriously affect your performance both physically and mentally. But don’t take our word for it. Check out the science behind why your dancing body and brain need sleep as part of a healthy training regimen.

Stay sharp to avoid injuries

A major benefit of sleep is that it reduces athletes’ risk of injuries, says Lyle Micheli, attending physician for the Boston Ballet. He points to a study in young athletes that found those who slept fewer than eight hours per night were 1.7 times more likely to have an injury than those who slept eight hours or more.

“Lack of sleep decreases a person’s mental vigilance, as well as reaction time,” explains study author David Skaggs, of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. So it’s no illusion—you really can be clumsier when you’ve underslept. And when dancers stumble over their own feet, it can have serious consequences or even leave them sidelined for the season.

On the plus side, another study found that extending sleep time improved basketball players’ reaction time, shooting accuracy and sprint speed. Just think how snappy your brisés could be if you start getting a few extra Zs.

Once more from the top…

A good night’s sleep may seem like a waste of valuable rehearsal hours,

especially during pre-performance crunch time, but sleep is important for memory consolidation, the process by which new memories are packed away more permanently in the brain.

Studies have found that if people practice a movement task, sleep on it and try again, performance improves, even without additional practice. “It’s Practice, with Sleep, that Makes Perfect,” as one review article about sleep and memory consolidation is aptly titled. In one study, researchers had a group of participants learn a dance with an interactive dance video game, sleep on it and try the dance again in the morning. A second group learned the dance in the morning and was retested that evening with no sleep in between. Those who slept between tests performed markedly better when retested, suggesting that sleep had helped participants retain the movements.

Restore, repair and rejuvenate

“Sleep allows the body to restore the structure, if you will, of the muscles, fibers and ligaments,” Micheli says. It’s during the later stages of sleep, or deep sleep, when most muscle repair occurs and also when the body releases growth hormones that probably promote this repair, Micheli says, noting that more research is needed to fully understand how all this works. Some repair may also occur during daytime rest periods, Micheli says, but researchers think more happens during sleep. So if you’re losing sleep, your muscles will probably not recover as well from the stress of your daily workouts and could be more vulnerable to injury.

Put it on automatic

On the plus side, Warner Limoli says that in her experience, a little sleep debt is unlikely to affect a dancer’s final performance onstage, simply because the movements become so ingrained in the body. “I realized as a professional ballerina that there were times when I had to really rely on muscle memory,” she says. “Just shift into automatic and do what your body has been trained to do.” But you can only rely on your body if you’ve laid the groundwork for healthy dance training—and that means making time to get the sleep you need to learn and perform your best. DT

Ashley P. Taylor writes about science and the arts.

Photo ©Thinkstock

How two fad diets affect your dancing body

The paleo diet is high in protein and produce, but dancers also need carbs from grains and legumes for energy.

Fueling your body for dance is essential, but deciding what to eat isn’t always easy. And with new diets surfacing every month, it can be hard to know what to believe: low-carb, low-fat, no gluten, no dairy? What’s the best approach?

We delved into two hot diet trends—paleolithic and gluten-free—and consulted experts to find out how they really stack up for dancers. There’s something to take away from both of these diets. Learn the facts to create a meal plan of whole, nutrient-rich foods that will never go out of style.

The Paleo Diet

What it is: The paleolithic diet is the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet du jour. It aims to mimic the nutritional habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived before the advent of agriculture. Advocates for paleo point to data indicating hunter-gatherers were larger and more physically fit than their farming descendants. The diet eliminates processed foods as well as grains (the diet is largely gluten-free), legumes, dairy, refined sugar, potatoes, salt and refined vegetable oils. Instead, practitioners eat grass-fed meats, fish and seafood, fruits, vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds and oils.

The good stuff: The paleo diet promotes eating whole, unprocessed foods. This cuts out snacks like cookies, cereal, chips and granola bars, which contain added sugars, salts and often chemical flavoring and colors. Because paleo eating is so restrictive, most unhealthy temptations are eliminated. “The junk is gone,” says Roberta Anding, a sports nutritionist who has worked with Houston Ballet. Paleo replaces many of our quick snacks and indulgences with fresh fruits and vegetables.

The problems: For dancers, the dramatic reduction in carbohydrates is a concern. “Carbohydrate is the fuel of exercising muscle,” says Anding. Without grains, legumes or potatoes, the paleo diet relies on fruits and vegetables to fill the carbohydrate gap—a difficult task.

And don’t think a protein-heavy plate can make up for the carb deficit. The body metabolizes and uses protein to build new muscle and produce hormones and enzymes, whereas carbohydrates are metabolized into energy much more readily, says Emily Harrison, a registered dietitian with Atlanta Ballet. “The body considers amino acids from protein to be special things,” she says. “Especially when you are young and growing, your body doesn’t want to burn protein.” If dancers don’t get enough carbohydrates, they can feel fatigued during class.

Harrison also explains that many people on the paleo diet consume more protein than they need: as many as 100 to 200 grams daily, when the requirement is far less (though it varies per person). High-protein diets can also increase risk of dehydration.

The takeaway: Cut out empty calories and processed foods for a more wholesome menu, but don’t let your protein-to-carbohydrate ratio swing too much in the protein direction. You need those nutrients for fuel.

Gluten-Free

What it is: It has its own menus at restaurants and a separate aisle in the grocery store. Going gluten-free has never been more popular. Gluten is the name for the proteins found in wheat and other grains like barley and rye. It is what gives bread its doughy texture. Eliminating gluten seems straightforward at first: no bread, pasta, cereal, etc. But gluten is used as a binding agent in lots of foods and may be found in unexpected places like your salad dressing or veggie burger.

The good stuff: For people with the autoimmune disorder celiac disease, going gluten-free can be lifesaving. Harrison says that 1 to 2 percent of the population is affected by celiac disease, which causes intestinal damage and can lead to nutrient deficiencies. Other people experience slightly less serious non-celiac gluten intolerance. They don’t suffer intestinal damage, but they may have foggy thinking, fatigue, joint pain or dermatitis when they consume gluten. Finally, Harrison says there is also wheat intolerance, whose sufferers are still able to eat barley and rye.

If you often feel sick after meals and suspect you fit into one of these categories, Anding suggests eliminating gluten for a week or two and seeing how you feel. If you don’t feel rapid improvement, it’s likely something else is causing your symptoms. In either case, you should make an appointment with a doctor to investigate the cause.

As for the rest of the population, varying your carbohydrates is more important than eliminating anything. “We do live in a wheat-heavy society,” says Heidi Skolnik, a certified dietitian who consults with the School of American Ballet. “It’s great to diversify where we get our carbohydrates.” There’s nothing wrong with eating whole grains, but it’s great to add sweet potatoes and quinoa, too, because each food offers different nutrients.

The problems: “It’s not a healthier way of eating unless you have gluten intolerance or celiac disease,” says Anding. Yes, restricting gluten may lead to weight loss if, for example, you’ve been eating a muffin every morning. But that’s because you’ve cut back your 500-calorie breakfast, not because you’ve eliminated gluten. Furthermore, Anding says eating gluten-free can risk introducing processed food back into your diet. “Everything you buy that’s gluten-free—tortillas, cookies, cereal, doughnuts—is all highly processed to get the gluten out,” she says. Eating naturally gluten-free whole grains like brown rice and corn is a better approach, but those options are not inherently healthier than gluten-based grains like wheat and barley.

Perhaps the greatest consequence of the gluten-free fad is the repercussions it can have for people who have a medical need to eliminate it. “It makes it harder for people with celiac to be taken seriously,” says Harrison. “When you ask the waiter at a restaurant if something has gluten, you know he’s thinking you’re one of those crazy people who is just on a diet.”

The takeaway: If you have celiac disease, gluten-free eating is a must. If you don’t, eat a diverse diet of whole, natural, unprocessed food, and don’t bother buying packaged gluten-free products. There is nothing inherently healthy about them, and most are highly

processed. DT

Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer and writes frequently for Dance Magazine and Dance Teacher.

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In the Magazine

Exercises for alignment, for all types of legs

In a relaxed moment, this dancer shows the full range of her hyperextension. While dancing, she gently engages her quads and keeps a little softness at the backs of her knees for a truly straight (and solid) standing leg.

It was August in New York City, and Paula Morgan was leading a body placement seminar at the 2014 Dance Teacher Summit. When someone asked for advice on addressing bowleggedness in students, the already energetic Morgan switched into high gear. She demanded an example body from the group of attendees; a bowlegged dancer volunteered and stood on the low stage.

With feet touching in parallel, her legs curved outward before joining the hips, leaving a long, almond-shaped gap from crotch to heels. Morgan coached her to imagine wrapping her muscles around her legs, engaging subtle outward rotation without moving the feet. She put a hand between the dancer’s calves. “Squeeze my hand,” she said. “Keep wrapping.” She swiped her free hand along the demonstrator’s tights to help her feel the direction of the rotation. Her calves closed on Morgan’s fingers. The room erupted in applause. “What about knock knees?” someone asked, and the process began all over again.

Having legs that don’t look ideal for classical styles doesn’t mean the end of enjoying class safely or successfully. Even dancers with hyperextended knees, which do create gorgeous ballet lines, need to build strength and control, or they risk serious injuries. While you can’t change dancers’ skeletal structures, you can help them understand their bodies and train the correct muscles for their strongest and most beautiful legs.

Morgan works intensively with dancers in the classroom to help them engage the correct muscles to achieve the alignment they’re striving for, but she warns against using a standardized approach. “Just because it has a title and is a common problem doesn’t mean it is always fixed the same way,” she says. Furthermore, if a dancer is extremely misaligned, you should have them consult a doctor to ensure dance won’t endanger the student.

For all varieties of legs, even those that are perfectly straight (meaning they can look slightly bent in extended positions like arabesque), Miami City Ballet physical therapist and director of dance medicine Kathleen Bower recommends strengthening core and rotator muscles. Here, she shares exercises that can help all dancers stabilize their hip and knee joints, while working toward correct leg alignment. DT

Side Leg Lift

Activates hip abductors—specifically the gluteus medius—on the side of the hips. Bower says you want these muscles, as well as abdominals, to provide stability in the pelvic area, instead of just squeezing through the glutes.

Lie on your side with hips stacked one on top of the other and pelvis in a neutral position. Gently draw the lower abs toward the spine, and bring the top leg back into a very small extension, like a mini arabesque in parallel—the top knee should be lined up with the bottom heel. Flex the foot, keeping toes pointing forward. Resist the urge to turn out as you raise and lower the leg slowly. Keep both sides of the torso long; think of drawing the top hip slightly toward the foot. Start with 10 reps.

To find a neutral pelvis…

Low back flat on the floor, tucked pelvis

Arched back, tilted pelvis

Natural lumbar curve, neutral pelvis

Lying on your back, bring shins up to a tabletop position. To test both extremes, first press your back flat into the floor, then arch it forward. Find the place in the middle where pubic bone and hip bones are on the same plane. Pay attention to which muscles are active here, then work on engaging the same muscles when standing.

Tip: Never tell a dancer to tuck her butt under while standing. Encourage her to find length in the spine while maintaining a bit of her natural lumbar curve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seated External Rotation Exercise

Activates abductors and deep rotators.

Turn out from here, using deep external rotators.

Sitting on the ground with legs stretched out in front of you, tie a resistance band snugly around your legs, just above the knees. Feet should be flexed, toes up; feel the sitz bones pointing down. Slide the legs open to second position parallel. Spiral the legs outward into a turned-out position. Think of a barbershop pole spiraling. If a dancer’s using her deep external rotators to turn the legs out, her body will stay the same height. If she uses her glutes to turn out, her head will pop up toward the ceiling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you envy hyperextended lines…

Try this exercise for longer, straighter legs

The band engages legs to find a tiny bit of rotation in parallel.

Sitting on the ground with legs stretched out in front of you, tie a resistance band snugly around your knees. With flexed feet, think about lengthening through backs of knees and reaching heels across the room. Heels should lift a little and kneecaps should be lifting up toward the pelvis. Stay in that position as you point and flex the feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the same dancer from the top of this page, engaging her straight standing leg at the barre.

Looking at Legs

A breakdown of common types of legs

Hyperextended Knees

What it looks like:

In turned-out first, with legs locked, the knees come back and together, but there will be a space between the heels. These dancers tend to put weight in their heels, and their pelvis may tilt, giving them a swayed lower back.

The risks:

When knees are jammed back this way, the muscles don’t engage and the knee hangs on its ligaments for support. Once ligaments are overstretched, they cannot be retightened. Additionally, when the standing knee is hyperextended, it’s difficult to stack the body’s weight over it to balance or perform multiple turns.

What to do about it:

Dancers should think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knees. Tell students to keep quad muscles gently engaged, and suggest they “feel the breath at the back of the knees.” They can also practice sitting on the floor with legs out in front, straightening the knees without allowing heels to come up off the floor. This fires the quads and emulates what dancers should feel in a strong standing leg. Once they find a straight standing leg, the working leg can hyperextend for a beautiful line.

Bowlegged

What it looks like:

In parallel first position with feet together and knees straight, there will be a gap between the knees.

The risks:

Because of the skewed position of knees over feet, extreme bowleggedness can cause alignment issues in the feet. The main risk, however, is that students will try to force positions that don’t come naturally to them, in an attempt to meet ballet’s aesthetic demands.

What to do about it:

Have dancers face the mirror and think about lifting through their abdominals to bring the pelvis to neutral. Then ask them to engage their external rotators, spiraling the legs outward so calves move inward to touch each other. Morgan has dancers think of knees facing straight forward, like headlights on a car.

Knock Knees

What it looks like:

If a dancer is structurally knock-kneed, that means the heads of the femurs in the hip sockets are internally rotated, forcing the knees together and feet apart in a parallel first position. But if an otherwise normally aligned dancer is landing jumps in a knock-kneed position, it could be due to weak external rotators.

The risks:

If a student—especially a young dancer—who is structurally knock-kneed constantly stresses her external rotation in an attempt to compensate for the condition, she could develop hip injuries or wear down the heads of the femurs.

What to do about it:

Similar to dealing with bowleggedness, have dancers watch themselves in the mirror as they think about lifting through their abdominals to find a neutral pelvis. Then have them engage their external rotators, spiraling the legs outward from the hips down.

Straight Legs

What it looks like:

When standing in parallel, there will be minimal to no space between the knees, and the kneecaps face straight forward.

The risks:

These dancers often feel their legs aren’t fully straight, because developed calf and quad muscles create an S-curve from hip to heel. These dancers tend to have better longevity and more power as jumpers, and they should never try anything that forces knees backward while

striving for a more extended line.

What to do about it:

For maximum straightness, stretch

hamstrings while engaging the quads to release extra tightness behind the knee. If dancers are stretching on their backs, they should lift a straight leg, moving slowly through their full range of motion, instead of développé-ing the leg up and then stretching. They should engage the quads consistently while working at the barre as well, pulling up on the kneecaps, never locking the legs.

Photos from top: by Quinn B. Wharton for Pointe; by Emily Giacalone; band by Nathan Sayers; by Quinn B. Wharton for Pointe

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