Dancers are often passionate about developing their flexibility, reaching ever-greater ranges of motion (ROM), as choreographers require ever-more spectacular contortions of the body. For example, it’s been observed that the height of the développé in Les Sylphides Nocturne section has increased from 60° to nearly 180°, and of course, different dance styles require different ROM at different joints; Spanish dancers need increased ROM in the shoulders compared to a non-dancing population whereas classical ballet dancers need extensive ROM in the hips. We see a wide range of images and videos online nowadays which see young dancers especially, pushing their body into incredibly contorted positions, often compromising safety and alignment, and possibly leading to increased likelihood of injury as they pursue increased ROM. It’s not as simple as pushing dancers into various positions, as it has been reported that up to 17 factors can affect flexibility, including age, body morphology, genetics, gender, bones, nerves, muscle, ligaments, and connective tissue, so it becomes vital as dance educators that we educate our dancers to look after their body, practise safe stretching activities and understand that achieving optimal flexibility is a complex process.
How does stretching work?
The physiology of stretching is complex, and in fact the causal links between stretching and increased flexibility are not wholly understood. As a result, research on optimal stretching approaches changes often, and it’s because of this that it is so important for teachers, dancers and choreographers to revisit their knowledge of stretching for dancers, and update their practice regularly. Having an understanding of the muscular-skeletal system and its interaction with the nervous system helps, as does knowing that the main physical structure whose length can be altered is the muscle fibre. The resistance to lengthening that is offered by a muscle fibre is dependent upon its connective tissues; when the muscle elongates, the surrounding connective tissues become more taut. And so trying to find the balance between flexibility, muscular release, alignment and strength is vital. For more in-depth discussion of the physiology of stretching, look at Matt Wyon’s article for IADMS Bulletin for Dancers and Teachers here.
Every body is different
Every dancer’s body is different. Some dancers are inherently less flexible or mobile. Dancers with ‘tight’ bodies are built for stability and have dense connective tissues. Their muscles are less extensible. Conversely, some dancers are innately more flexible; however, the hypermobile physique has an increased risk of injury. These dancers tend to have a larger joint ROM, but are also more vulnerable to serious ligament sprains. It is important to avoid comparing the flexibility of one dancer with that of other dancers and therefore it is imperative to work on the individual needs of each dancer.
It is worth noting that:
o some joints are not meant to be flexible.
o bony structures can limit movement of a joint.
When working with younger dancers, there are added complications. The skeletal growth spurt in adolescence often results in a loss of flexibility so that muscle tissues become shorter relative to bone length until muscle growth catches up to bone growth. Dance teachers need to recognize that young dancers will go through a phase of apparent loss of flexibility. During this time there is also an increased chance of injury to muscles. It is so vital to work gently with the body at this time, not only to avoid injury but support the dancer’s psychological wellbeing – the apparent loss of control, strength and flexibility at this time can be debilitating.
· It is important to perform stretching after dancing or another activity when muscles and connective tissues are warm. Never stretch cold muscles.
· Stretch muscles and their connective tissue (fascia) and not structures such as ligaments, tendons and joint capsules.
· Holding a static stretch for 30 seconds is enough to maintain joint range of motion and current flexibility but if increasing flexibility is the goal, then deformation of the connective tissue is necessary to produce permanent muscle length change. This will require gradual increase of duration and frequency of stretch.
· A dynamic stretch moves a muscle group fluidly through an entire range of motion and some studies suggest a dynamic stretch is just as effective, and sometimes better, especially before a workout.
· Never ever stretch to pain.
· Stretch in aligned positions.
· It is important to balance a stretching program with strengthening exercises. The reason for this is that flexibility training on a regular basis causes connective tissues to stretch which in turn causes them to loosen and elongate. When the connective tissue of a muscle is weak, it is more likely to become damaged due to overstretching. Strengthening the muscles, which are bound by the connective tissue, can prevent the likelihood of such injury. In the words of Julie Alter, "strengthen what you stretch, and stretch after you strengthen!”
Matt Wyon again explains the various approaches to stretching that exist here, discussing the benefits of static stretching, PNF techniques and fast stretching amongst others, and when to best undertake these approaches for best results. New research by Morrin and Redding also suggests that "...a cardiovascular warm-up, followed by 30 seconds static stretches, followed by 30 seconds dynamic stretches, provides the optimum performance of vertical jump, balance, and hamstring range of motion." Their research was reviewed on the IADMS blog back in 2015, you can read it here.
Images on the web of teachers pushing their students’ limbs into positions, contorting the angle of the pelvis for example, or crunching the vertebrae of the lower back are prevalent. It’s vital to remember that it is possible for the muscles of a joint to become too flexible. As muscles become more flexible, less support is given to the joint by its surrounding muscles because those muscles become more lax. Excessive flexibility can be just as bad as not enough because both increase the risk of injury.
Once a muscle has reached its absolute maximum length, attempting to stretch the muscle further only serves to stretch the ligaments and put undue stress upon the tendons. Ligaments will tear when stretched to more than 6% of their normal length. Even when stretched ligaments and tendons do not tear, loose joints and/or a decrease in the joint's stability can occur and there is a greater potential for injury either in that specific joint, or indeed in other parts of the body.
Yet our young dancers do aspire to achieve these positions – let’s work harder to educate them in the safe practice of stretching and balancing that with strength development. IADMS have a wealth of resources to help teachers, dancers and parents to guide towards safer stretches, not only Matt Wyon’s paper that we have already referred to but the IADMS Resource paper on stretching also has some great guidance for safe practice. Quin, Rafferty and Tomlinson’s excellent new book Safe Dance Practice has extensive references on the topic throughout, updating us with all recent research so we are as current in our practices as possible.
Critchfield, B. (2011). Stretching for Dancers Resource Paper. Available here
Deighan M. Flexibility in dance. J Dance Med Sci. 2005;9(1):13-17.
Morrin N, Redding E. Acute effects of warm-up stretch protocols on balance, vertical jump height, and range of motion in dancers. J Dance Med Sci. 2013;17(1):34-40.
Quin, E., Rafferty, S. and Tomlinson, C. Safe Dance Practice. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2015.
Wyon, M. Stretching for Dance. IADMS Bulletin for Dancers and Teachers. 2010;2(1):9-12. Available here
Great little animation ‘Do you really need to stretch’ here too.
Maggie Lorraine is the Leading Teacher in Ballet at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, Australia and is a member of the IADMS Education Committee.
Elsa Urmston is the DanceEast Centre for Advanced Training Manager in Ipswich, UK and is also a member of the IADMS Education Committee.