Dancers are known for extreme flexibility, and students yearn to fulfill that image. But without your guidance, stiff students won't know how to stretch in productive ways—and on the other end of the spectrum, dancers blessed with natural flexibility won't know how to build up the strength needed to support themselves. DT shares ways to help your students improve and manage flexibility safely.
Before Students Begin Flexibility Exercises
Teach them about their anatomy
Describe to your students what's physically happening during stretching, so that they'll understand on an anatomical level why certain methods are effective. Deborah Vogel, neuromuscular educator and co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine in New York City, explains to her dancers that “each muscle has a certain length, and on each end it attaches to the bone with tendons and ligaments. When you're stretching, you're lengthening the distance between the two end points. But the stretch should only happen in the muscle belly. Too much force can pull on tendons and ligaments, and that's where injuries begin."
Dispel common flexibility myths
Many young dancers think that the longer they hold a stretch, the more flexible they'll become. But make sure your students know that “static stretching, where you hold a position for more than 30 seconds, actually weakens the muscle," Vogel says.
Anneliese Burns Wilson, teacher, dance medicine specialist and founder of ABC for Dance, stresses that students should also understand that if, contrary to popular belief, their muscles quiver when stretching, this is not a sign of productive work. “This is the body turning the nervous system on and off because it doesn't know if it should move or not," she says. “The muscle is actually tightening in a protective way."
Finally, some flexible students believe that strengthening exercises will rob them of their extension. But naturally bendy dancers are also prone to ligament tears. Be sure that your flexible students understand that strengthening will help their technique.
Helping Your Students Stretch and Strengthen
Advice for young, stiff dancers
“A lot of tightness in adolescents is due to growth spurts," Wilson says. “Their bones are growing quickly and muscles, tendons and ligaments have to catch up. At this point, the most important thing is to give students the freedom to find their individual range."
Start by emphasizing that while a strong pull during stretching is beneficial, pain is not. Wilson says that avoiding benchmarks like “put your hands on the ground" when bending over at the waist will help dancers feel comfortable finding their personal limits. Tactile reinforcement is also useful. For example, if an exercise calls for a student to roll down their spine while standing with straight legs, “have them do it against the wall," Wilson says. “This way they can feel each vertebrae peeling off, versus just trying to get their hands to the floor."
Vogel suggests beginning with the psoas muscle, which attaches along the lower spine, crosses the pelvis and attaches at the top/inside of the leg. “The psoas determines the relationship of the pelvis to the leg," Vogel says. “If it's tight, they'll have trouble accessing the hamstrings. This creates a pattern of stiffness." To stretch the psoas, Vogel suggests a dynamic runner's lunge, in which one leg is bent with the knee directly over the ankle and the other is stretched out behind, toes braced against the floor. The student should press back through the stretched leg, continually deepening into the position.
Advice for young, flexible dancers
It's important to help ultra-loose students balance flexibility with stability. “Young students often can't feel the difference between hyperextended and aligned," Wilson says. She suggests taking a picture of the student in an overstretched position. Then, take another picture when the student is in the correct position to show them that though they may not feel completely lengthened, they're placed properly.
Vogel adds that cross-training in a pool or on an elliptical machine for 20 or 30 minutes two to three times a week can also help bendy dancers gain strength and overall muscle tone. They should think about alignment outside of dance class, too. “The way we stand, walk and sit has much more of an influence on our muscles than the few hours a week of dance class," she says.
While flexible students are in class, Denise Wall, teacher and owner of Denise Wall's Dance Energy studio, recommends that they concentrate not only on arriving at a pose, but also on controlling their movement as they return to their starting position. “This makes them work harder and builds muscle," she says. She adds that giving class exercises in parallel as well as turned-out positions will ensure that all leg muscles are equally strengthened.
Advice for mature, stiff students
Flexibility decreases naturally with age. But all three experts agree that students over the age of 20 can still improve their range of motion.
Vogel says that hydration is key for mature dancers. The fascia—the connective tissue that surrounds muscles—dries and tightens as we age and move less, limiting stretch. But proper hydration can slow this process, lubricating the fascia and improving flexibility. Vogel also recommends teaching students a 5- to 10-minute daily stretching routine that they can complete on their own, so that they're working on flexibility even on days they're not in class. She suggests including the runner's lunge for the psoas, as well as calf and hamstring stretches.
Most importantly, dancers must stay optimistic. “If students label themselves as old and stiff, that's the message their bodies will get," she says. “Instead, have them focus on their goals."