Beautiful lines. Extensions for days. Jetes that seem effortless. All in favour say ‘aye!’ These all come down to one little (but very loaded) word:
Flexibility, (gulp.) One word that can imply a lot of work. Ugh, now that doesn’t sound appealing, does it? But it doesn’t have to be this way, at least not if you work it into your daily routine in a way that works for you. You see, flexibility and regularity are friends, so if you seriously want to a) become a more flexible dancer or b) maintain the flexibility you have it’s important to find a routine in keeping with what works for you.
The Roadblocks To Becoming a Flexible Dancer
In life there will be times when you’re doing class a lot and stretching is
executed without a second thought. However there will also be times, particularly if you take on a performing job that has a lot of duties and other work involved where the hours can be long and before you know it- oops- it’s been 4 days since you last stretched.
It’s also not easy when we have a goal to know what we’re doing right to get the results we crave. So consider this your stretching survival guide. Take from it what helps and don’t be afraid to experiment with what works for you.
Be Realistic- What Season Am I In?
The first thing you need to do is split your stretching into maintenance and gains. If you’re in a really busy season, then maintenance will probably be the order of the day- this is especially true as we get older and our joints can tend to not go quite as far as they once did. So it’s important that we are exercising that capacity on a daily basis. In this season, I tend to advise picking just one thing you’d like to improve (for me right now that’s my back flexibility.)
And then there will be the times when you can really focus on improvements and reaching for those milestones. You can do this by:
- Getting clear on what it is you want e.g. whether that’s box splits or being able to execute the perfect scorpion (I wish) it helps to get clear on where you’re headed.
- Double your efforts. Whereas maintenance is a case of doing the minimum, if you’re looking to improve, then ideally you want to be doing 3-6 stretches focused on that area.
- Use the right techniques. No matter how much time you employ, if you’re not stretching the right way you might be shooting yourself in the foot. In fact, with a little science, you might be surprised to find what you thought were your limits, really aren’t at all!
Acquaint Yourself With The Stretch Reflex
We all know that stretches improve flexibility, but if you can understand what this is, it will massively aid your stretching efforts in becoming a flexible dancer. The stretch reflex is essentially a protective mechanism. When you stretch, there are tiny cells called muscle spindles which measure how much of a stretch is available to you within that muscle. If they decide it is too much, they ain’t gonna be too happy and will send a message to your nervous system which causes a contraction in that muscle. A good example of this is the hamstring stretch. If we lie on our back, as we pull our leg closer, quite often we will feel it start to shake. This occurs because there is a tug of war between the flexibility we are trying to create and the stretch reflex wanting to contract the muscle. (FYI this is often why we get muscle soreness the next day.)
Sometimes we think that to become a more flexible dancer we have to be pushing our limits. However we should actually be working with our body, not against it. They key is to remember that the harder you force, push or pull, the more of a kick back you will get from the stretch reflex.
So how do we get round this?
1. Move into a stretch to the point where you first feel discomfort, or a stretching of the muscle.
2. Stay here and focus on keeping the muscle relaxed. Consciously relax the muscles if you start to feel them tense. If you can’t, then pull back a little to a point where you can.
3. When you feel it start to give a little you can either move deeper into the stretch or come out of it and then go again.
By coming out of it and creating some movement in that muscle (by bending it and stretching it for example) you will increase blood flow to said muscle. The more you practise relaxing your muscles as you stretch, the less activation you will get of these muscle spindles over time and you will be able to stretch deeper and for longer. By working with your body in this way, you can dramatically increase your flexibility.
Know Your Limitations
There is a difference between flexibility and mobility. Flexibility refers to a muscles ability to stretch and lengthen. This can be increased over time.
Mobility however refers to a joints range of motion which once we are adults is generally fixed. It is therefore important to know the difference between what is a permanent restriction due to structure of bone and joints and what can be gained with diligent practise. This is another reason it’s important as we get older, that we are exercising our joints through their full range of motion, as joints can stiffen as we age.
A good example of this for me is box splits. My legs don’t stretch quite as far as they used to in this position.
Disclaimer- I am still relatively flexible, however I no longer get to a point where I feel a stretch in this position. My flexibility is good in this area, now mostly I start to feel it in my hip joints and find my hips won’t physically open any further before I feel too much of a stretch. This is because of limitation in the joint itself. So I hit my joint limitation before much of a stretch has kicked in. And whilst it might make me feel like a bit of a granny, I accept that for me this is as far as I will be able to go, sigh.
Know your goals and embrace further passive stretching
There are two main types of stretch. To get the best out of your flexibility and achieve your goals, you need to know what they are and how one can influence the other.
1. Passive Stretching:
Also known as relaxed stretching. This is where you use external force to increase flexibility eg the splits; in this position you are using the floor to help fascilitate a greater range of movement. Stretches which employ a partner are also a good example. It is important with this to always relax and ease into a stretch; think of lengthening and allowing the muscles to increase elasticity as opposed to coming from a place of pushing which can a) cause injury and b) be ineffective.
2. Active Stretching:
Active stretching requires strength as well as flexibility to hold it in place eg as in a penche or developpe. This is done using what is known as reciprocal inhibition. Active stretches are generally harder to achieve so be aware that as a general rule the same stretch will always be less when executed actively than passively.
To combat this, increase passive flexibility further than you need for the actual stretch. It is not enough to just rely on the fact that stretches improve flexibility.
For example if you want to increase your penche or grande jete you will want to stretch past the range of motion that you need actively. So rather than just practising the splits, you might add oversplits into your regime. This will then make it easier to achieve a greater range of motion when used actively as you’ll be working with less resistance.
One Stretching Hack, aka the secret to being a flexible dancer
Now I couldn’t talk about stretching without sending this tip your way. No, it’s not magic, but it may feel like it by the time you’re done. It is by sure the fastest (safe) way I know to increase flexibility quickly and I use this on my stubborn hamstrings which take ages to budge frequently.
The wonder that I am talking about is PNF stretching (which stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation.) It’s a big long phrase y’all, and sounds super complicated but bear with, I promise it’s actually really simple! This works through a combination of tension and release. Firstly the person must assume a stretching position passively. Next some form of resistance must be applied that causes the muscle to contract (this is generally done by tensing the muscle in some way which is normally achieved by pushing against whatever is providing the resistance.) Next the muscle must completely relax, and then you relax into the stretch further. This can be repeated until you feel you can’t go any further.
I will now talk you through how to apply this to a hamstring stretch (you will need someone to help you with this exercise:)
1. Lie on your back with your knee pulled in to your chest.
2. Have the helper kneel beside you placing your leg on their shoulder.
3. Extend your leg as far as it will go and have them gently apply pressure. When you feel comfortable and feel that your body has relaxed into the stretch, ask them to push as hard as they can. At the same time, and I repeat it’s very important you do this AT THE SAME TIME, push against them. Do this for between 7-15 seconds.
4. Relax the muscle and make sure they stop pushing.
5. Ask them to push you leg a little further.
6. Repeat as needed until you feel you have reached your maximum, OR until it gets too painful.
For a video demonstration of how to do this, check out the video below:
So try these tips and see how you get on. Remember it is very important to know the difference between discomfort and pain. Ideally you should stretch to a point where you feel discomfort but it is bearable, not to the point where the pain is intense! Don’t be a warrior, If you feel like the pain is too strong, pull back. Chances are you’re doing more harm than good. It should never be really painful! And being a flexible dancer requires us being smart and in tune with our bodies too!
Just before you go…
- Always warm up before you stretch, otherwise you can get injured. Nobody wants that!
- Hold each stretch for at least 15 seconds. This is the absolute minimum for a stretch to be effective. (For gains I recommend 30 seconds.)
- Give yourself a moment to recover between stretches, particularly the bigger ones such as box splits.
- Stretches improve flexibility, but the value is in HOW you stretch. So
- Reward yourself for your efforts, chocolate biscuit anyone?