Teaching Tips

How to Stabilize, Strengthen and Manage Hypermobility

Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of PNB School

Naomi Glass, teacher at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, knows firsthand the advantages and challenges of hypermobility. As a young dancer, she was told to keep her hyperextended knees in a straight position far from her full range of motion. "It felt too bent to me," she says. "But once I was able to access my inner thighs and rotators, I found strength and stability and could still use the line that I wanted."

Hypermobility occurs when joints exceed the normal range of motion. Dancers can have hypermobility in specific joints, like their knees, or they can have generalized laxity throughout their bodies (which is often measured using the Beighton system—see below). While this condition may enable students to create beautiful aesthetic lines, it can also increase risk for injury. Help dancers gain the strength they need to stay healthy while making the most of their hypermobility.


Stand Strong

Students need correct body alignment to stand and move properly. "The pelvis should be neutral, so the dancer can engage the tops of the backs of the legs, access the inner thighs and externally rotate the femurs," says Glass. "That allows them to find a solid position while still achieving a gorgeous leg line." A strong core will create a trickle-down effect through the legs, so students are less likely to lock back in their knee joints. Keeping weight over the balls of their feet, rather than the heels, will also enable more stability and less gripping in the front of the thighs.

Don't Overstretch

Dancers should avoid stretching to their end ranges: This practice will create even more hypermobility. Students should never feel so comfortable that they just sit in overextended positions. Active stretching with engaged muscles and resistance components will elongate muscles while developing strength at the same time.

"If dancers keep going to their end range, the ligaments get more and more stretched out," says Julie Green of Performance Ready Physical Therapy, and physical therapist for Pennsylvania Ballet. "It's hard for dancers to find a place that's strong and stable, but not in their end range." For hyperextended knees, students can sit with their legs stretched to the front and pull their patella up without letting their heels come off the floor. This exercise builds quad strength and muscle memory for when the dancer is weight-bearing.

Green also suggests that dancers roll out their muscles on a foam roller. "They feel like their muscles are tight and they want to stretch, but a lot of times it's not the length of the tissue but the tight fascia that is giving them that sensation."

Work the Feet

Beautifully arched feet tend to require extra support, since hypermobility in the ankles can cause instability and weakness. "Encourage dancers to stretch in their mid-ranges without their knees locked or pushing over their arches into their shoes," says Green. "They have to pull up and out of their joints."

Dancers can strengthen their ankles and the intrinsic muscles in their feet by doing TheraBand exercises, doming and doing a consistent series of gentle rises. "They should feel the weight evenly distributed through the metatarsals, so they develop the right alignment," says Glass. "Hypermobility needs to be supported, and the strength needs to be there, especially before they start dancing on pointe."

Build Upper-Body Strength

Don't neglect the upper body when it comes to addressing hypermobility. Green recommends strengthening the scapula and rotator-cuff muscles by holding a TheraBand with the elbows at 90 degrees and opening the hands away from each other. Dancers can also lie on their stomachs or on a ball, and move their arms into a Y shape, T shape and I shape (down by their sides). "Exercises don't make the hypermobility go away," she says. "It's maintenance and will be part of their life. Dancers blessed with this beautiful anatomy have to constantly concentrate on strengthening around their joints."

How do I know if my students are hypermobile? Try using the Nine-Point Beighton System:

The nine-point Beighton system is commonly used as an indicator of generalized hypermobility. The higher the score, the higher the laxity (looseness). Julie Green, physical therapist for Pennsylvania Ballet, administers this test as part of each dancer's screening. She uses it to gather information and help shape the dancer's wellness plan.

  • One point, if while standing forward bending, you can place palms on the ground with legs straight.
  • One point for each elbow that bends backward.
  • One point for each knee that bends backward.
  • One point for each thumb that touches the forearm when bent backward.
  • One point for each little finger that bends backward beyond 90 degrees.
Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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