Dancers understand the importance of flexibility and alignment. Most have established practices for limbering up and spend each class carefully correcting their body positioning, working toward that magical day when muscle memory takes over and they achieve ideal posture. But many students—and their teachers—fail to consider an important anatomical player beyond muscle and bone: fascia. Learning to manipulate fascia, in addition to regular class work and stretching practices, can help dancers correct persistent alignment issues and reach unexplored levels of flexibility.
Fascia is a system of soft tissue that encases muscles, organs, nerves and more. It connects seemingly unrelated body parts along extensive, web-like lines, many of which run from the tips of the toes to the top of the head (see below for a complete list).
Like muscles, fascia can be tight. To test this on your own body, try touching your toes before and after rolling out your feet on a tennis ball. Because the plantar fascia at the bottom of the foot is connected to fascia that runs up the backs of the legs (and up the spine and over the skull), releasing fascia in the feet can increase flexibility in the hamstrings.
Deborah Vogel, an Oberlin College faculty member, neuromuscular educator and co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine in NYC, found that teaching students to stretch their fascia in addition to their muscles helped them progress more efficiently. If fascia is chronically tight, she says, dancers may stretch all they want without results. “It’s not that their efforts are incorrect, but there could be something else holding them back.” Similarly, the same alignment correction applied over and over again in class has limited long-term effect if a student’s fascia is restricting her body position.
Here, Vogel shares a few of her favorite dynamic exercises for stretching fascia. You’ll know you’ve achieved a fascial—and not just muscular—stretch, she says, when you feel a long line of sensation instead of a targeted point. You also may feel the stretch somewhere unexpected. A fascial stretch targeting tightness in the hamstring, for example, might be felt more along the calf, depending on the dancer’s body.
Stretches should be held for 30–40 seconds in a steady, strong pull. Vogel also warns that you should extend to just 70–80 percent of your flexibility to avoid overstretching or tearing the muscle. DT
Releasing fascia in this area can soothe tightness in the hips and improve turnout.
1. Sitting in a chair, cross one leg over the other so the ankle crosses at the thigh.
2. Clasp hands together and wrap them around the top knee. Press the knee down into the hands, while sitting up as straight as possible.
3. Slowly lean forward over the leg, bending at the hip joint and keeping the back flat. Keep pressing the knee into the hands to keep the working leg’s muscles activated.
• Depending on where you are tight, you may feel this stretch in the hamstring or deep in the hip’s piriformis area. Try rotating the spine to face toward and then away from the knee to change the stretch.
This is an exercise for dancers with tight shoulders who get the correction, “Keep your ribs down,” when raising arms to fifth position.
1. Standing in a comfortable parallel position, bring the hands above the head and grasp the left wrist with the right hand.
3. Gently pull the elbows away from each other, activating the muscles in your shoulders and arms.
4. Bend the torso to the right, so you feel a stretch along the left side of the body.
5. Rotate the elbows so you’re looking at the floor. The stretch will shift to include the lower back.
• Try bumping the weight into the left hip and rounding your lower back for a different feeling. Vogel suggests gently playing around with positioning to find the tightest areas.
This stretches fascia surrounding the lateral hamstring, frequently tight in dancers.
1. Place the heel on a chair or low barre, with square hips and the knee pointing toward the ceiling.
2. Keeping the foot flexed, sickle it slightly, turning the bottom of the foot inward.
3. Rotate the entire leg inward, turning in from the hip.
4. Send the sitz bone of the working side back so it almost feels like you’re sticking your butt out.
5. Strongly contract the front quad muscle.
• If your flexibility allows, lean forward to increase the stretch.
Superficial back line
Anatomy expert Thomas Myers, creator of the bodywork system Anatomy Trains, has mapped out the body’s full system of fascial linkages. His work shows how our body parts are connected, quite literally, from head to toe, in 12 distinct lines.
Superficial Front Line: runs from tops of the toes up the front of the legs and torso to sides of the skull.
Superficial Back Line: runs from undersides of the toes up back of the legs and spine and over the skull to the eyebrow ridge (includes the oft-troublesome plantar fascia).
Lateral Lines: two symmetrical lines that run from outsides of the ankles up sides of the legs and torso to the ears.
Spiral Line: anchored at the back of the skull, it weaves a helix around the torso and runs down lateral sides of the legs to loop under the foot arches like stirrups.
Arm Lines: four complex lines that end at different points on the hands and have anchors at the back, ribs, sacrum and more.
Functional Lines: two lines running in X shapes from shoulders to knees on the back and front of the torso.
Deep Front Line: the core line, running beneath other lines from the heels to the jaw, along inseams of legs, psoas muscles, pelvic floor and transverse abs.
Tip: Hydrate for Happy Fascia
If you aren’t properly hydrated, Vogel says, fascia can dry out and become prone to microtears, which increase inflammation and don’t allow muscles to stretch as well. This can make you feel creaky and stiff. Drink plenty of water to keep you and your fascia in top working order!
Anatomy Trains, Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists, by Thomas Myers; anatomytrains.com
The Permanent Pain Cure, by Ming Chew, with Stephanie Golden, PT; mingmethod.net
Images from top: by Emily Giacolone; courtesy of Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals; ©istockphoto.com