Health & Body

Increase Your Students' Flexibility With These Effective Alternatives to Dangerous Stretching Practices

It takes strength and suppleness to reach new heights of flexibility. (Photo by Emily Giacalone; dancer: Dorothy Nunez)

There is a flexibility freak show going on in the dance world. Between out-of-this-world extensions on “So You Think You Can Dance" and a boundaries-pushing contemporary scene, it seems the bar for bendiness gets higher every year.


Have the standards gotten out of control? The truth is it depends on the body. “Some people are genetically predisposed to that kind of flexibility," says Leigh Heflin of Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Medical Center.

There are genetic factors that limit how flexible any dancer can become, no matter how much she stretches. But many dancers will do anything to increase their flexibility, sometimes turning to extreme stretching practices that risk injury and even their careers. Fortunately, there are safe ways for students to reach their potential and get the dazzling elastic moves they're striving for.

There are a few classic ways dancers are inclined to stretch incorrectly. First, they may try to progress too quickly, which can strain or sprain ligaments, tendons or muscles. Dancers need to gradually increase stress on muscles so they have time to adapt, says Heflin. “You have to progressively overload that capacity on your muscle," she says. “Increase tension and stretch every week. You can't expect to be there right away."

And warming up before stretching is essential. Heflin says if you're stretching a cold muscle, or stretching for so long that muscles get cold, you actually end up stretching the joint instead. This can cause instability that will affect your strength and ability to execute quick movements and jumps.

Perhaps most importantly, strength building should go hand in hand with stretching. Few dancers are strong enough to achieve their maximum flexibility without a big battement to kick the leg up. Heflin says focusing on strength can benefit your functional flexibility more than anything else. “Flexibility is that length in the muscle that we all want to achieve," she says, “but functional flexibility is having the muscular support and the joint stability to hold that position."

Tips for proper stretching

from the Harkness Center's Leigh Heflin

Warm up for 5 to 10 minutes before stretching for class. Try jogging in place or doing jumping jacks.

Before class, do not hold a stretch longer than 15 seconds.

After class is when you will gain the most flexibility. You can safely hold stretches then for 30–60 seconds.

Never hold stretches for more than 60 seconds, because the muscles will cool down too much.

Feet

DON'T cram your toes under the upright piano (or door or couch) to improve your arch. "Loading the bones with force from an external object is going to do damage to your body," says Heflin.DO try doming the feet. Arches are genetically predetermined, so you're not going to change the shape of your foot, but this exercise will strengthen the muscles to push them as far as they'll go.

1. Place your foot flat on the floor with a towel, T-shirt or Thera-Band under it.2. Lift the knuckles of your toes without scrunching them and pull the towel toward you. You should be using only your arch to move it. Do not allow the toes to curl.

Dorothy Nunez (photo by Emily Giacalone)


Dorothy Nunez (photo by Emily Giacalone)

You can do this exercise without anything under your foot, but it helps to feel the fabric moving until you are used to doing it correctly. Heflin advises keeping a ball handy to roll out your arches after you've done a few of these.

Turnout

DON'T stretch your turnout in the frog position. Especially dangerous is having someone push on your hips (when you're on your stomach) or knees (when you're on your back). This can cause sacroiliac joint dysfunction, which affects the joint where the hips meet the spine. Again, genetics determine the range of motion and the depth of the hip socket—the two elements of natural turnout. Frogs and straddle splits mostly stretch the inner thigh muscles, which have little to do with turnout.

DO try the crab walk. Surprisingly, the safest, most effective way to improve turnout is to exercise in parallel, where you can strengthen external hip rotator muscles for turnout without repetitive stress on the muscle. This exercise will work the gluteus medius muscle, which does a lot of the work when you turn out.

Dorothy Nunez (photo by Emily Giacalone)

1. Tie a Thera-Band around your mid-calves (start with a low-resistance band like red or green and increase over time as it gets easier).

2. Keep your feet in parallel with your knees slightly bent.

3. Walk sideways (step, together, step, together) across the length of the studio. Repeat in the opposite direction.

Splits

DON'T push too far in the splits. Take your split only as far as you can while maintaining strength in your core and keeping your body upright. That means if you can't get the front leg up on a ledge without lying down over it, you shouldn't be doing it.

DO stretch your quadriceps and psoas muscles in a low lunge before doing the splits. You'll be able to take them farther, safely.

Dorothy Nunez (photo by Emily Giacalone)

1. Get into a lunge position with your back knee on the floor and your back shin lying on the floor. Put a towel under your knee for padding if needed.

2. Keep your front knee directly over the ankle in the lunge, never going beyond.

3. Keep your body upright and engage your core. You can use a barre or a wall for balance.

4. Tuck your pelvis under and push forward into your lunge slightly.

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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