Help adult students stretch within their physical limits.

Stretching before and after dancing is essential. But when you are teaching adults, it can be a challenge to know how much to ask of them. Is it all right to have them try the splits? Will a leg-on-the-barre exercise risk injuring older dancers?

As we grow older, we lose flexibility, so it’s important to modify exercises for adult students to keep them safe, says certified athletic trainer Lauren Kreha of PT Plus, a Manhattan physical therapy practice that works with dancers. Kathy McDonald, artistic director of the all-adult dance studio, Willow Dance Center in Poughkeepsie, New York, emphasizes that stretching needs to be done according to each student’s individual body type, ability, current injuries and “aging pains,” like arthritis. “We start with the easier stretches and I modify any stretch for any student,” she says. Her students range in age from 20 to their mid-60s. One of McDonald’s students, who’s in her late 30s, has extremely tight hamstrings. While the rest of the class does leg-on-the-barre (to the front and side only), McDonald has this student use a lower-leveled windowsill “in order for her to have correct placement and not tuck,” she says.

Movements like grand pliés can be difficult, even impossible, for adult dancers with knee issues. Instead, McDonald has these students perform slow, well-placed demi pliés. “I emphasize the importance of placement and working the plié—not just bending the knee and dropping into a position,” she says. “I encourage them to listen to their bodies: Pain means stop.” Kreha warns that if a student feels the sensation of pain during an exercise, she’s overstretching, which can leave an adult dancer susceptible to injury. Kreha advises incorporating both dynamic (done during warm-up) and static (for cool down) stretches into your classes. To get you started, here are three exercise modifications, designed with the adult dancer’s body in mind. DT

Splits Modification:

Instead of asking adult students to slide into the splits (unless they are a flexible advanced class), consider a modification that will give them the same benefits, without overdoing it. This static stretch focuses on the hip flexors, and when performed correctly, it also keeps the hip capsules safe, says Kreha.

1. Start in a “Proposal Position” near a wall, facing away from it, like a guy on bended knee proposing to his girlfriend. The leg in back is the one that is having its hip flexor stretched. If you have sensitive knees, kneel on a towel, pillow or yoga mat.

2. Make sure everything is aligned. Do not lean over the hip; keep your rear tucked under. The body should be “stacked.”

3. For an added stretch, lift the back foot a few inches off of the floor, resting it against the wall.

4. You can also stretch the obliques and the top of the iliotibial (IT) band while in this position. Take the arm that’s on the same side as the leg on the wall (or still on the floor), raise it above your head and bend gently to the opposite side.

Modified Frog Position: (pictured)

Instead of using the traditional frog position (lying on one’s stomach with knees on the floor in a diamond shape, letting gravity slowly lower the feet to the ground), which can be harsh on the knees and hips, Kreha advises the following exercise as a safer alternative for stretching the “back rotator booty muscle.”

1. Lie on your back and bring your left knee toward your chest.

2. Take your right leg and cross it over your left leg, so that it is in a turned-out position and makes a number-four shape.

3. Clasp both hands behind your left thigh, and gently pull the left leg toward the body.

4. If you need an additional stretch, gently use your right elbow to push on your right knee. Repeat several times on each side and hold for 30–45 seconds.

Hamstring Stretch Modification:

“This is one of our favorite dynamic stretches, because you’re contracting and stretching the hamstrings at the same time, so it’s a safe way to warm up before class,” says Kreha. “One full squat has you going through your entire range of motion.” This exercise doesn’t need to be quick. Take three or four counts to go down and back up. She recommends three sets of 10 before class begins.

1. Stand with the feet a shoulder-width apart and squat. Place your elbows on your knees and clasp your hands together. Your forearms and hands should be slightly tilted downward, almost as if you are ready to ski downhill. Keep your focus on the floor.

2. Slowly straighten your knees as you fold your body in half, head moving gently toward your knees. Work within your personal range of motion. Elbows stay attached to the knees. Keep your lower back arched.

3. Slowly return to your original squat position, again with elbows on your knees and focus toward the floor. 

Modified Runner’s Stretch: 

The traditional runner’s stretch—one leg bent in front, knee over the ankle, hands on the floor, trunk erect and the other leg bent but extended behind you—is great for the iliopsoas, or hip flexors. “I tend to do it in most of my classes because it’s easy and people get results,” says McDonald. However, she notes that it is difficult for dancers with knee problems, so she recommends this modified knee-protecting exercise to stretch the quadriceps and hip flexors.

1. Stand at the barre with the right leg on the barre to the side (the barre should be no higher than hip level). Slowly rotate your standing leg as if you were moving into an arabesque position, about a 25-degree angle away from the barre.

2. As the right leg begins to rotate into an arabesque, let the right knee turn completely into parallel position, pointing toward the floor. Your right hand should continue holding onto the barre for balance, and the left hand can be lose or on the hip.

3. For an additional stretch, slightly bend the standing leg. DT

Freelance writer Hannah Maria Hayes has an MA in dance education, with an emphasis in American Ballet Theatre pedagogy, from New York University.

Photo by Emily Giacalone. Modeled by Kristin Schwab.

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