Hyperextension In Ballet - A Help Or A Hinderance?
Classical ballet is an art based on emotive storytelling, athletic ability and aesthetic lines. The line of a hyperextended leg is regarded as beautiful and highly sought after among professional ballet companies. However, hyper-mobile joints are much more prone to injury and if used incorrectly can simply look weak and flimsy. The usefulness of hyperextension depends entirely on the knowledge and strength of the dancer utilising it. This is why educating young dancers on safe dance practice is vital in maintaining the integrity of classical ballet in the up and coming generations.
A well-educated, hyper-mobile dancer can use their hyperextension to their advantage in many ways. Learning not to ‘lock back’ into hyperextended knees when standing (especially on one leg), but instead to fully engage the muscles that support the knee, is a skill that requires meticulous repetition, focus and attention. A strong supporting leg is the base for showing stable balance and controlled transitions.
In a position such as a Développé à la Seconde or an Arabesque en l’air, the lifted leg can be hyperextended, because to fully extend the knee while the leg is lifted, we are forced to engage the muscles that support the knee. This means that although the leg is in hyperextension, it is still actively engaged and strong.
In other words, our supporting leg should remain straight and strong, but not hyperextended, while our lifted leg should show our full range of extension to create the nicest line. Other hyper-mobile joints such as the hips, shoulders or the lumbar spine are an asset in classical ballet because they allow for a larger range of flexibility, which creates more exciting positions and a greater range of overall movement. However, any hyper-mobile joints must be supported with an equal amount of strength to avoid injury and to be able to fully showcase the range during movement, instead of only in a static stretch.
Hyper-mobility in joints such as the elbows and wrists can result in showing very harsh and broken lines. Instead of ‘locking in’ to hyperextended elbows, dancers need to maintain a softness in their port de bras to create graceful lines. Dancers are often required to portray non-human characters, such as in the ballets Swan Lake or Les Sylphides. For these roles, it is important that the use of the arms creates an illusion of ethereal movement. Hyperextending the elbows and wrists can ruin this illusion. Dancers should instead learn to initiate the port de bras from the upper back muscles and develop awareness of always showing slightly ‘rounded’ elbows.
In any hyper-mobile joints, incorrect use of hyperextension can mean overworking and over-stretching the muscles, ligaments and tendons that support the joints. This can lead to injuries that could put dancers out for several months or even be potentially career-ending. Imagine a position such as a Penché and think about the amount of weight that is placed onto the supporting knee in this position. Now imagine that the muscles in the supporting leg are completely unengaged, the full weight of the penché position is being held solely by the hyperextended knee joint. Working like this puts an immense amount of stress on the body, so it is not only incorrect but also unsafe. This is why it is so important to educate dancers from a young age on how to utilise their hyper-extension correctly and in a way that supports a long-lasting career.
The ballet world has its own ideals in terms of assets and qualities. While hyperextension doesn’t necessarily alter or improve your ability to dance, it can be an advantage in creating a longer and more mobile appearance. However, it can be a disadvantage in the lack of strength that usually comes with hyper-mobile joints. Either way, it is important to remember that creating lines, shapes and positions is only one facet of dance. If you have not trained your muscles to work in the correct and safe way for your body type, natural facility will only take you so far. Dance educators have a responsibility to the industry to place emphasis on safe and correct training. If hyper-mobile dancers learn the correct way to utilise their bodies, there will be far fewer injuries and far longer careers in the classical dance industry.
25th October, 2018