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."

The Conversation
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When it comes to running a thriving dance studio, Cindy Clough knows what she's talking about. As executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner for more than four decades, she's all too aware of the unique challenges the job presents, from teaching to scheduling to managing employees and clients.

Here, Clough shares her best advice for new studio owners, and the answers to some common questions that come up when you're getting started.

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Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. The list goes on—and you have to decide not only what type of presence you'll have on each platform, but also whether you and your faculty will network with students and family members. How can you set boundaries for yourself and your faculty on social media?

The easiest option may be to prohibit these interactions entirely. At the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, staff and faculty may not "friend" or otherwise connect with current students or those under the age of 18 on social media, explains Gordon Wright, Harid's executive vice president and director.

At the Dance Zone in Henderson, Nevada, the handbook states that social media should be handled "in a professional manner." Owner Jami Artiga encourages students and faculty to share photos and tag the studio, but prefers not to "friend" kids from her personal account. "Of course, my son dances at the studio, and we have teachers with kids who go here, so sometimes the line gets blurry," she says.

Robin Dawn Ryan of the Robin Dawn Academy in Cape Coral, FL, also has a few students on her Facebook friend list, "but I don't put a lot about my personal life on the site," she says. She uses the platform more to keep track of what dancers and their parents are posting about the studio. "If they put up something they shouldn't," she says, whether that's a bullying post or an unflattering image, "I'll ask them to take it down."

Ryan tends to keep her social-media shout-outs generic: "So proud of this year's graduates!" and "Our dancers looked beautiful at prom!" That way, she can show support without spending hours online or worrying about missing any one student's achievement.

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When ballet star David Hallberg sought out the medical team at The Australian Ballet to help him recover from his ankle surgeries, one of the things rehabilitation specialist Megan Connelly had him learn was to jump from his hips. By doing so, he learned to put less stress on his lower legs and feet and access the powerhouse group of muscles surrounding the hips, most commonly referred to as the glutes. While many parts of his rehab were particular to him, understanding how to properly engage the glutes is something many professional and pre-professional dancers can stand to gain from.

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Many a studio owner might agree that the idea of maternity leave is laughable. "So many people say, 'I was back after two weeks—we had a competition,'" says Meagan Ziebarth, a former owner who sold her studio two years ago. "If that works for you, and you feel great, wonderful. But I feel passionately that having a baby is one of the most transformational life events, and you don't need to put that kind of pressure on yourself and accept that that's the norm."

So how can you take the maternity leave you want and make sure your studio doesn't run itself into the ground? We asked three who did it for their best advice—including what they wish they'd done differently.

Be OK With Crazy

Suzana Stankovic and Natalia.

Suzana Stankovic
Wild Heart Performing Arts Studio
Astoria, New York
Enrollment: 500 (drop-in)
2 years in business

Suzana Stankovic signed the lease on her New York studio a mere 10 days before she gave birth to her first child. The space she'd been renting hourly for private and group lessons unexpectedly became available for a lease takeover, and, despite the timing, it felt like the right decision. "I said, 'This is happening for a reason,'" she says.

For the first two months after her baby was born, Stankovic recovered (she'd had a C-section). She held a soft opening in mid-November (2 1/2 months postdelivery) for existing students and officially opened her studio—with a drop-in class format—to the public the following January (4 months postdelivery).

  • Figure out your childcare. "It's the most important thing. You've got to figure that out, whether that means visiting daycare centers and finding one you're comfortable with or involving your entire family," she says. Stankovic's parents are retired and live near her, luckily, so they became her nannies. "That's the major reason I was able to do this," she says.
  • Expect to feel different after giving birth. "When I had my baby, and it came time to leave her and go to work, it was very, very difficult," says Stankovic. "I wasn't prepared for that. I was texting my mother constantly: 'Is she OK? Did she have her milk? Is she colicky?' It was hard to be fully present, initially. Be prepared for the effects of sleep deprivation and not eating well and the postpartum blues."
  • Have a support system in place. That's how Stankovic got through the roughest times, postbirth. "Have a friend or your husband or partner," she says. "And know that the very difficult times are temporary. They do abate. And if they don't, there are resources. There's help out there."
  • Be OK with crazy. "I would plan my lesson and do my combos in the shower," she says. "On my way to the studio, I'd finish up my grand allégro in my head. I'd send e-mails in the middle of changing her diaper—I'd write two sentences, change the diaper, write two more, then hit send." The result of so much multitasking? "I realized, 'Wow, I can do so much more than I thought I could,'" says Stankovic. "I'm ready for anything."
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