Stretch vs. Strength: The Key To Higher Extensions
Sylvie Guillem, Svetlana Zakharova and Misty Copeland are three of the incredible classical ballet dancers that I most often hear students wanting to emulate. Their extensions are envied by many and achieved by few. So what is it that these professional dancers did to be able to showcase their mobility in such an extreme form - was it copious amounts of stretching, or resistance and weight training? Chances are, they did both.
Flexibility, like so many attributes, is something that some dancers are born with, and some need to work ten times harder at to achieve the same results. Obviously, some degree of natural ability will make the task of heightening your extensions that little bit less daunting. Flexibility of the muscles and mobility of the joints, can be relatively simple to achieve as long as you’re consistent and determined with your perseverance. However, flexibility is not the only factor in achieving those highly sought after lines.
A popular misconception among young dancers is that if you have the most mobile hip joints and longest hamstrings of everyone in the class, then you’re developpe a la seconde must be the highest. This has led to a trend in dance which is the excessive use of Ballistic Stretching to show extreme flexibility. This is seen more in commercial dance and acrobatics training than in classical ballet – however, the social-media posts of dancers forcing their bodies into extreme hyper-mobility is slowly seeping into all forms of dance. This could be because students believe that if they work solely on increasing their flexibility, it will improve their movement quality. This is not the case, as flexibility can go almost completely unnoticed in a student’s dancing, unless they also have the strength and technique to showcase it to its full extent.
I’ve taught many students who had previously only trained in commercial dance styles. Often I would set these students an adage exercise, and although I knew for a fact that they could over-split close to 260 degrees, most of them could only demonstrate held extensions just above 90 degrees. In some more modern contemporary, lyrical and jazz techniques, students are learning ‘tilted’ developpes. This is where the dancer extends their leg in the air to 180 degrees or further, but with their pelvis tipped to one side so their entire body is on a lean. This position makes it easier to fight gravity and allows a dancer to show higher extensions. This technique is incorrect for classical ballet as the pelvis is out of neutral alignment which, if done excessively could cause injury to certain joints. Classical ballet focuses on the aesthetic of the lines and shapes that we make, it also focuses on the quality of how we make these shapes. This is why putting your focus solely on stretching will barely make a difference to the height of your extensions in ballet.
Stretching to a certain level is, of course, important. Ballet requires mobile joints and long, flexible muscles to perform most steps to their fullest and without feeling restricted. If a dancer does not feel a stretch any longer when doing a flat split on the floor, then slowly platforms can be added to increase the stretch beyond 180 degrees. However if the dancer’s split is not held in correct alignment with pulled up knees and a ‘square’ pelvis, then increasing the stretch will only cause stress and damage to the tendons and muscles. Stretching should never involve pain - note that there is a difference between pain and slight discomfort. Therefore, a dancer should only increase their stretch if they feel zero pain. Static Stretching is also not the only means of improving flexibility. In fact, I’ve found that a mixture of Dynamic Stretching, Isometric Stretching and Static Stretching is the most useful for myself and my students.
But remember, every dancer should aim to pair their stretching with equal amounts of strength work. Generally, the more malleable a dancer’s joints and muscles are, the weaker they are. While a dancer is still growing, their bones and muscles are much more susceptible to damage. This is why it is imperative to incorporate exercises that strengthen the muscles around the hip joints, the back and the core muscles into a dancer’s daily conditioning. Copious amounts of over-stretching will eventually wear muscles down and make them more vulnerable to injury. Therefore, building strength to support the joints is vital for practising dance safely and prolonging a dancer’s career. Strength is also what will allow a dancer to demonstrate their abilities while dancing, rather than just while holding a static stretch on the floor. A strong dancer is much more reliable, consistent and dynamic than a dancer who is just super bendy!
So if your goal is to achieve high extensions, your method should include a mix of different stretching methods and lots and lots of strength work! If you’re not quite sure which areas are the weakest for you, a yoga class or a reformer Pilates class will soon tell you if you have enough strength to support your mobility! However, as all dancers’ bodies are different, it is important that you seek out a qualified dance coach, Pilates instructor or physiotherapist to assist in creating a conditioning program that is specific to your personal needs.
Below is guide of techniques that could be useful in incorporating stretching and strengthening to achieve your goals:
1. Get warm
The most efficient way to stretch your muscles without becoming susceptible to injury would be to first make sure the muscles are really warm. Start by doing at least two minutes of non-stop cardio to warm up. I get my students to jog or skip around the room to music, but you could also use a skipping rope, or jump on a treadmill, cross-trainer, exercise bike or a mini trampoline. Alternatively, you could do your stretch routine at the end of your ballet class.
2. Dynamic Stretch
Get the joints moving! Once your body’s warm, Dynamic Stretching is a way to ease your muscles and joints into a stretch. Dynamic Stretching is where the body and limbs perform controlled, consistent movements that slowly increase the range of motion. For example, you could do 16 leg swings at the barre on each side, increasing the height after every 4.
Practice some clams with resistance from a theraband to strengthen the glutes and other muscles around the hip joint. This will also assist in stabilising the pelvis which will improve your overall alignment in extensions! Some other important areas to target in your strength training are the lower back, hamstrings and core. I recommend trying out a reformer Pilates class to discover your weakest areas and to learn some personalised at-home exercises to incorporate into your stretch and strength routine.
4. Static/Isometric Stretch
Finish with a Static Stretch (such as a split or gentle over-split) that challenges your range but does not cause pain. For older dancers whose bones have finished growing, try some Isometric Stretching. This is where resistance is applied to the muscle during the stretch. So find a partner (or a wall!) who can hold your leg in the air while you attempt to push it down to the ground. The contraction and subsequent release in the muscle allows it to stretch more efficiently. Young dancers can try Isometric Stretching also, however they must be carefully supervised as the intense contraction in the muscles can more easily cause injury in younger dancers, so be careful. Remember, you only get one body so treat it well!
For the best results, stretch and strength work should be practised daily, or close to! Remember that improvement takes patience, don’t expect results right away. The best goals are those worth persevering for, so don’t give up!
Higher extensions are achievable with the right knowledge, work ethic and commitment. So get stretching (safely), build your strength (consistently), and practise, practise, practise!
4th August, 2018