How to stretch safely
Everybody wants to be super flexi, but don't rush into it, especially in the colder months. Belle Beasley provides some timely advice.
Knowing how best to restore, maintain, improve the elite levels of flexibility needed for dance can be tricky, especially as the demands placed upon the body by differing repertoire and physical conditions can be in a state of constant flux. Whether you’re an aspiring professional dancer or a seasoned performer, keeping abreast of the latest in training and conditioning techniques can help you develop a safe stretching routine that works well for your individual body.
When approaching flexibility maintenance and improvement in a harm-free way, there are a few factors to consider. While it can be difficult to resist the temptation to engage in unsafe stretching practices that promise a "quick fix", the reality is that there is no "one size fits all" approach to increasing flexibility. Furthermore, flexibility is an important aspect of developing your dance practice and artistry that should be taken seriously and engaged with carefully. In general, aiming to improve your flexibility requires a careful and holistic combination of strengthening, stretching and massage, complemented by a relaxed state of mind. Experienced dancers know that finding a blend of tools and techniques that work best for you takes time – your journey with flexibility will be filled with trial and error.But with body-awareness, advice from respected professionals and an open-mind to differing self-care techniques, your joints will thank you in the long run.
So, what actually is flexibility, and how do you improve it safely? The International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) defines it as “the range of motion at a joint in association with the pliability of a muscle", in their public resources for dance fitness, noting the importance of flexibility in “complimenting muscular strength, building efficiency in movement, coordination, and preventing injuries". The resource also highlights the significance of the way you stretch, not just the type of stretch you do, emphasising a relaxed and gentle approach, rather than an aggressive or ballistic technique. This mindset may be at odds with some teaching practices – but an important part of being a dancer is that you respect your bodily limitations to ensure the well-being and longevity of your most vital tool.
Interestingly, the IADMS also notes the relationship of flexibility to neuromuscular coordination, the nexus of “balance, agility, coordination, and skill” which supports dancers to move efficiently and activate only the most necessary muscles. Imagery and visualisation are vital techniques for improving neuromuscular coordination, and these techniques can similarly be applied to increasing flexibility and range of motion. Visualisation techniques help the body understand which muscles it can and can’t relax while moving, enhancing your ability to reach full extensions.
One of the most important aspects of developing your physical range of motion is through fostering your intuitive body awareness and knowledge. The University of Melbourne Bachelor of Dance program dedicates a whole course to the development of body knowledge, emphasising movement techniques stemming from scientific and somatic practices in both Eastern and Western cultures such as Feldenkrais, Ideokinesis, Alexander Technique, Pilates, Tai Qi and Body Mind Centering. Such a diversity of movement approaches demonstrates the plethora of methods available to dancers looking to develop their flexibility.
Sydney-based ballet and Pilates teacher Darren Spowart, who has worked with the likes of Sylvie Guillem, Rafael Bonachela and Cathy Goss, says that dancers should be considerate of existing tightness in the body when they go to stretch.
“When you have an excessively tight muscle, or if something is spasming, take this as a cue to reduce the intensity of your stretches,” he says. “Intensive stretching into a spasming muscle can increase risk and your chances of injury. Instead, look to the use of varied size exercise balls to help massage out and gently relieve tension. In combination with some gentle mobilising movement, the use of balls to stretch and massage into tight muscles can be safer and more effective.”
It can be hard to resist comparing your flexibility with others in the hyper-saturated digital world, particularly when there is so much conflicting information about stretching shared on-line. When you Instagram search for “flexibility”, the tag comes up with over 10 million relevant posts! On YouTube, videos promising quick and easy fixes for improving flexibility accumulate millions of views. It’s clear that the pursuit of a more limber physicality is desirable for all, not just dancers, and it can be hard to not carried away with the profusion of overstretching and hypermobility content across different social media channels.
Amsterdam-based Pilates teacher Leila Kester, the pilates-guru for the stars of the Dutch National Ballet and Netherlands Dans Theater, encourages an anti-stress approach to stretching. “Don’t look for pain or a position that causes you to tense up,” she says. “Find that sweet spot in the stretch or position where you can relax and let go of tension. And breathe into it.”
Kester also recommends that young dancers look for positive improvements in their stretches, rather than focussing on comparing themselves to others. “Don’t look for a confirmation of what you can’t do or adhere to the expectations of others. Instead, focus on yourself and notice the improvements in your movement capabilities, however small.”
For experienced dancers heading back to class in the new year, one of the biggest challenges can be those pesky old injuries that rear up just as class intensity builds. Those niggles are a natural protective response that tell you that an old injury may not be fully healed. This is your cue to seek professional advice about how to best manage the inflammation or instability. Rushing back to an intensive regime of stretch, massage and cross-training to counter tight spots will likely be a Bandaid solution to a deeper weakness that needs attention. Although easing back into your training may see a more gradual return to your full physical capacity, you can rest assured that the results will sustain you in the long run.
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind what the goal is, and whether stretching is really the best method to attaining that goal. Sometimes attempting a shape, position, or step that challenges your physical extensions requires more power and strength than it does flexibility. Consequently, shifting your cross-training to focus on strengthening your muscles to support an increased range of motion might be the most efficient approach to improving your ability to achieve extended positions, rather than lengthening your muscles and subsequently decreasing your ability to control your range. Most likely, a balance between strengthening and stretching will be the most efficient and injury preventative method to increasing flexibility all year round.
Top Tips for Safe Stretching
1. During holidays, take time to relax your mind and body – accumulated mental tension will result in physical tension.
2. Don’t compare your progress to social media stars – an image only shows a small fraction of the reality. Listen to your own body.
3. Use visualisation techniques as you return to full fitness – this will help you develop the neural pathways needed for full extensions.
4. Look to exercise balls of diverse sizes to help massage out any sore spots, instead of over-stretching tight muscles and causing gradual weakening.
5. When stretching, don’t look for pain – find a position you can relax in, and breathe into it.
6. Engage in a diversity of cross-training and movement styles to develop body awareness – you never know what new ways of moving you might learn!