Get Your Best Legs

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.


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. Photo by Quinn B. Wharton for Pointe Magazine

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.

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.

Photo by Emily Giacalone

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. Photo by Emily Giacalone

Arched back, tilted pelvis. Photo by Emily Giacalone

Natural lumbar curve, neutral pelvis. Photo by Emily Giacalone

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. Photo by Emily Giacalone

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. Photo by Nathan Sayers

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 the page, engaging her straight standing leg at the barre. Photo by Quinn B. Wharton for Pointe Magazine

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.

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