Safe Stretching

Five ways to help students properly increase their flexibility

Stretching is an essential part of any dance class, but how do you know if your instruction is correct? “I absolutely recommend that my students stretch both before and after the barre, as well as after class,” says Jessie Sierra-Roman, a dancer, teacher and choreographer for the Boston Dance Company and the Boston-based dance school, The Ballet Space. “Stretching is necessary for dancers to maintain and increase flexibility, muscle balance and technique throughout their career. It helps loosen joints, wakes up muscles and gets the blood flowing through the body.”

But believe it or not, stretching can actually hurt dancers in some cases—especially if it’s done too often or pushed too far. It’s best to teach students the importance of safe stretching practices at an early age, so it will remain a constant in their life. DT experts offer five strategies to help your students establish safe stretching habits—and reach their peak performance quality.

1. Never work cold muscles.

Stretching muscles that haven’t been correctly warmed up beforehand can cause injuries and strains. “Being completely warm is crucial for healthy stretching,” says Sierra-Roman. A simple warm-up elevates the body’s temperature, causing muscles to become more flexible. In turn, the easier it is for the tissue to stretch, the less likely it will tear.

Teach students a basic warm-up to get their hearts pumping. Light prances or exaggerated marching steps are good examples. Have students slowly and gently alternate raising and lowering each knee and leg, keeping the knees soft and rolling through the feet, toe to ball to heel. Add in soft-swinging arms to increase movement, and consistently remind students that the goal is to lift the legs to a level where they begin to feel their body temperature increase—not too high or low.

2. Start with active stretches.

Jennifer Green, PT, MS, CMFT, a physical therapist and the founder of PhysioArts physical therapy in New York City, says she prefers to begin a dance class with active stretches. “Active stretches are long moving stretches; when you move in and out of a range instead of settling into one passive stretch,” says Green, who has served as the company physical therapist to multiple professional dance troupes and Broadway productions. “This is a lot safer than settling into a stretch, overstretching the body, then dancing or performing, where the body is doing short bursts of activity. That’s what leads to common injuries.” Green recommends that students isolate one single muscle or group, stretching it in and out of their flexibility range, before furthering class work.

Incorporating balanced stretches into your routine is a must, says Green: “One of the biggest mistakes I see is dancers stretching muscles that are already flexible.” For instance, dancers who want to kick higher tend to focus on stretching their hamstrings, but they should also stretch muscles like the hip flexor and quads, she advises.

3. End with holding stretches.

Dancers should focus on increasing flexibility toward the end of class. “Students should never rush through these stretches,” says Sierra-Roman. “I remind my dancers that they have to hold a stretch for at least 30 seconds to gain any benefit, so bouncing [in these positions] won’t do them any good.” Green cautions that the body should be very warm by this point of the session, so it’s best to save static stretching exercises, like splits, for the last few minutes of class.

There is a tendency for more advanced dancers to push to their maximum stretching range immediately, but this is wrong, says Green. “You don’t want to go right to your highest range of motion; you want to hold the stretch at mid range—the place where you first start to feel resistance,” she adds. “That’s how you build flexibility and strength.”

4. Avoid overstretching.

“A dancer can become overstretched, especially if their body type is very loose to start with,” Sierra-Roman says. She suggests that teachers help their students seek a balance between strength, stability and flexibility. “If I notice that a dancer is extremely flexible by nature, I’ll still have them stretch, but I’ll also add in strengthening exercises to help maintain their muscle stability,” says Sierra-Roman. “When young dancers become overstretched, they tend to lose their ability to jump and, ironically, to maintain their extensions.”

5. Stress “pure” technique.

Green has also noticed a good deal of injuries caused by dancers who are not “pure” in their stretching methods, meaning they cross different joints or use the wrong muscles. For example, “say the student is doing a hamstring stretch at the barre, but her hips aren’t square and she is rounding her back over to reach her arm farther, essentially cheating at the stretch,” Green says. The dancer isn’t using her hamstrings, but rather those tissues around them. A good way to emphasize this for students, advises Green, is to remind them to tuck the pelvis under when stretching the front of the legs, and to gently arch the back when stretching the back of the legs.

Debbie Strong is a freelance writer in New York City.

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