Flexibility and the Dancer
So, it’s the start of a brand-new year and there are lots of good intentions and new year resolutions flying around. One we hear a lot of in the studio from dancers is ‘This year I am going to work on my flexibility and stretch all the time’.
Dancers as a population generally have a love of stretching but before you embark on a full-blown splits contest there are few things you need to consider about flexibility and safely achieving your goals….so let’s incorporate a little science …
Firstly, it is important to address the issue that all dancers are different and have different body types and they are not always the best at seeing their reflections in a true light. It can be easy when in front of mirrors, to compare yourself to the dancer beside you or focus on aspects of yourself you feel are a negative. Dealing with ideals of body image is but one of the many challenges dancers face. However, that must be saved for another blog post!
One comment I hear time and time again is that dancers don’t want to do strength training as they think they will end up with huge ‘hulk’ muscles. It is very unlikely for a dancer to ever increase their muscles bulk to a detrimental degree through regular dance training but using muscles in-correctly can lead to problems. If you feel your muscular build really is inhibiting your flexibility, which it can do per Gummerson (Mobility Training for the Martial Arts, Tony Gummerson (1990) A&C Black: London) then there are a few things you can address.
Importantly, you need to look at your technique. Muscular imbalances can lead to you over working certain muscles and improper technique can give the appearance of muscle bulk for example, engaging the Gluteus Maximus to develop a la seconde, will make the muscle look larger and ultimately increase its bulk as it is working when it does not need to but also adversely affects the height of your develop by counter acting your turn out which will help get your leg up. Also, think about how you interpret cues from the teachers. It is often said in grand battement to ‘lift from under the leg’ This is not physically possible, you must engage the quadriceps to lift your leg en avant however, the teacher is trying to get the dancer to have a quality and feel for lengthening the leg and not using the hip the ‘hike’ the leg into the air. The use of imagery can have positive results on your conditioning programme, Eric Franklin’s ‘Conditioning for Dance’ provides full body conditioning programme based on the latest research in this area, you might find it a useful resource.
There are lots of flexibility programmes you can follow as part of your supplementary training. A basic flexibility programme can be found in ‘The Healthy Dancer -Dance Medicine for Dancers’ (1987) A.J Ryan & R.E Stephans. Horizons books: Princeton, NJ. Be aware that there are always fads in the exercise world that will promise quick results but the truth is any adaptations will take time and effort. You must take responsibility for your own body and make sure you do not succumb to any fads which could cause injury. I am sure you know many of the stretches you need to be incorporating into your daily routine already but there are always considerations to think of and remember it will take time before your notice positive adaptations within your body.
According to Gummerson, flexibility (he uses the term mobility) is affected by the following factors:
the type of joint (some joints simply aren't meant to be flexible)
the internal resistance within a joint
bony structures which limit movement
the elasticity of muscle tissue (muscle tissue that is scarred due to a previous injury is not very elastic)
the elasticity of tendons and ligaments (ligaments do not stretch much and tendons should not stretch at all)
the elasticity of skin (skin actually has some degree of elasticity, but not much)
the ability of a muscle to relax and contract to achieve the greatest range of movement
the temperature of the joint and associated tissues (joints and muscles offer better flexibility at body temperatures that are 1 to 2 degrees higher than normal)
the temperature of the place where one is training (a warmer temperature is more conducive to increased flexibility)
the time of day (most people are more flexible in the afternoon than in the morning, peaking from about 2:30pm-4pm)
the stage in the recovery process of a joint (or muscle) after injury (injured joints and muscles will usually offer a lesser degree of flexibility than healthy ones)
age (pre-adolescents are generally more flexible than adults)
gender (females are generally more flexible than males)
one's ability to perform a particular exercise
one's commitment to achieving flexibility
the restrictions of any clothing or equipment
Think about the factors that are within your control. You should always attempt to execute a correct stretch of all major muscle groups and plan your day to include these. Remember, to start with static stretches of less than 15 seconds each muscle group incorporated in your morning warm up and always cool down properly where you can increase the length of time you hold a stretch, never more than a minute.
It is a common misconception that there must always be a trade-off between flexibility and strength. Obviously, if you neglect flexibility training altogether in order to train for strength then you are certainly sacrificing flexibility (and vice versa). However, performing exercises for both strength and flexibility need not sacrifice either one. It would be pointless for a dancer to have huge amounts of flexibility if they did not have the muscular strength to execute the steps correctly.
As you grow as a dancer you will also come to understand that every dancer has limitations. However, dance is more than just technique; the most turns, the highest jump, the greatest grand jete. A dancer should be more concerned with their artistry and what the step they are executing should be communicating.
Good luck with applying a flexibility programme, perseverance and dedication can get the dancer a long way.