A Primer on Stretching
As a teacher of some years standing I have read the various dance related boards on the Internet with some interest over the last few months. During this period it has been noticeable how certain issues keep recurring. Having written a few individual replies I thought it might be an idea to put together some thoughts on one topic, in this case stretching, from the experience and knowledge I have gained attending various courses, studying and from my own teaching.
I hope I will be forgiven for posting such a long piece, but trust this will be found interesting enough to print out and be read at a later date. I would also appreciate any feed back as to whether the following is useful or not, so that I can assess whether it might be worth tackling other issues that are frequently raised at a later date.
Aims of Stretching
Asking why stretching is necessary may seem a pointless question because dancers, most particularly ballet, jazz and modern dancers, are expected to be loose. However, it is important to understand that flexibility is not just necessary for its own sake. The range of movement expected from the dancer of today has come about as a result of the demands of choreographers. It is as a response to an artistic requirement that dancers are loose. However this is not the only requirement of a dancer. Just like a musical instrument can produce more then just a few top notes the dancer requires a range of physical abilities.
The problem of over emphasising stretching can be exacerbated in the studio setting by an unfortunate tendency to be competitive in the wrong way. Amongst student dancers the challenge should be in pushing to ones own limits and beyond, not in trying to score points over fellow students. That is not to say that it is wrong that the presence of other pupils may serve to motivate a student, perhaps even through some good-natured urging on. However, it should be remembered dance is not a sport it is an art form.
This is very important when it comes to stretching. A dancer has to work with his or her body. To try and beat others in stretching exercises is not only pointless but also potentially dangerous. A better approach, and one that will be expanded upon later, is to set goals, achieve them and progress from there.
The first, and perhaps best, advice that a dancer should seek is from someone who can assess his or her relative strengths and weaknesses personally. This means starting by talking to a respected teacher, perhaps after class. Frequently a dancer may judge his or her flexibility only in relation to others in the class (see above). This is an unfortunate measure of self worth, because being loose is not the being or end of being a good dancer. What is needed is a more objective eye that can reassure and then be specific in what does and does not need work.
The teacher may well be able to help the student devise a program that will aid with this aspect of their work. If not the best course of action may be to approach a Pilates or similar body conditioning teacher. Again such a teacher will be able to assess the needs of the dancer and give specific exercises to help. A list of Pilates teachers worldwide can be found on www.bodycontrol.co.uk
Avoiding trying merely to beat others in class is not the only important factor when it comes to safe stretching. The importance of being adequately warmed up cannot be over emphasised. Injuries due to stretching in inadequately warmed up muscles are very common, but what is not often realised is that a muscle can quickly cool down due to a short period of inactively or a cold environment. It is always best to stretch in a warm studio so that rapid heat loss does not occur. This is why sudden draughts, caused for instance by someone deciding to throw open a window in a room they consider too hot, can be dangerous. Putting on dance warm up clothing can help but it is important not to mistake the apparent warmth of a pair of sweat pants for the real warmth of a muscle that is ready to be stretched.
To reiterate, an adequate warm up before starting any stretching routine is absolutely essential. By raising the body temperature and respiratory rate the dancer becomes more focused, while movement of the various joints, muscles and connective tissue becomes freer. One of the most effective forms of warm up exercise is low impact aerobics. Five minutes can raise the body temperate to a level where gentle dynamic stretching can be begun. These should include the kind of limbering exercises listed in the next section performed with a gradually increasing range of movement. This kind of movement is also mentioned in the section on types of stretching.
Flexibility has two requirements. The first is the range of movement available in the various joints of the body, the second the length to which the muscles can be extended. Though some dancers posses what is frequently termed "hypermobility" in certain joints most have a normal range of motion. This is, however, more then adequate, as it is the ability to utilise the full range that makes the dancer flexible, not some special quality of the joints.
It is important to ensure that before going on to stretch the various muscle groups, the dancer gently mobilises each of the joints through their full range of movement. The following includes some of the movements that should be done after the warm up and prior to stretching. These should be done slowly and fluidly several times. It is generally better to do some of them on the floor where they are not restricted by having to retain balance and where the associated muscle groups can be more easily relaxed.
One important thing that a dancer should understand when it comes to both limbering and stretching the spine is that in this part of the body movement occurs not just in a few places, but as a culmination of all the possible movements in the joints between the vertebrae (the bones of the spine, 7 cervical, 12 thoracic and 5 lumbar and their associated joints). In doing any limbering or stretching movement it is best to try and work either from the top or the bottom, depending on the movement, trying to visualise how each joint moves in its sequence. It is often a surprise to the dancer to realise just how much they are really capable of because they have been utilising only certain parts rather then all of the spine, restricting their available range of movement.
Order of Stretches
Though many people create their own stretching routines it does seem that the order in which different parts of the body are stretched can add to the overall result that is achieved. The following list is derived from Paul Blakey's book Stretching Without Pain (1994, published by Twin Eagles Educational & Healing Institute), a book which is worth reading on all aspects of stretching.
In most stretches a number of muscle are involved. By ordering a routine in this way it is possible to release the tension in the associated groups, starting from the extremities, and to allow the major muscle groups to be lengthened more efficiently.
Types of Stretching -- How Long and How Often
Most dancers have a wide range of different stretches for the various parts of the body listed above, so rather then listing a series of exercises this section will deal with the different kinds of stretching. (Again this derives from Paul Blakey's book Stretching Without Pain) There are two main categories moving and non-moving. Many of the exercises in the dance class fall into the moving category. Movements such as ronds de jambe jetés, battements cloche, jazz kicks etc are examples of ballistic style stretches. However they don't really serve to extend flexibility and should only be done when the body is really warm.
Dynamic stretches that involve gradually increasing the range and speed of movement are more common in modern (contemporary dance in the UK) dance forms. These, as has already been mentioned, are particularly useful for warm ups.
Active stretching would include a movement like a battement lent, where the leg is lifted to a position such as second and held for a short period of time. This is perhaps more for developing strength then improving flexibility.
Of the non-moving forms of stretching passive or static stretches are perhaps the safest whilst still being very effective. (For those dancers who have heard of PNF stretches (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation - a real mouth full) the best advice is to work with an experienced dance or body control teacher who can show how to do this form of stretching safely.) Passive stretches are done in a slow and relaxed manner, although this does not mean that the body goes limp when performing them. Some of the best examples can be found in a yoga class. It is perfectly possible to take many of the common yoga stretches into a routine suitable for a dancer. Also in yoga asanas (postures) tend to be held for a certain period of time. For stretches this tends to be between 20 seconds and a minute. This seem to be the optimal time for the muscle groups to release their intrinsic tension and lengthen out into the stretch. Some teachers may prefer a stretch to be held for longer. As long as this causes no strain there is no harm in doing so.
How often stretching exercises are done is a matter for the dancer to experiment with. Like the stretches themselves it is dependant upon the needs of the dancer and how his or her body reacts. It is possible with stretching, as it is with any exercise, to do too much and find that there is a trailing off in results. Gentle dynamic stretches to warm up and quite passive stretches to cool down should be part of the dancers class routine. However intensive stretching sessions need to be spaced out in the way that makes them most effective without the problem of fatigue setting in.
The principal aim of stretching exercises is to maintain and/or increase the dancers flexibility. So it makes sense to ascertain what range of movement the dancer has at present in order to assess his or her progress. This can be as simple as sitting facing a wall with the legs extended to the maximum second position and marking how far apart they reach. This gives a benchmark against which further improvements can be measured.
By making several such measurements for various different stretches the dancer has a target to reach and progressively surpass. This should not be done by trying to bounce past the previously attained mark, but by stretching to the maximum and holding for at least 10 seconds. Even if the improvement is only a few millimetres the gains in flexibility add up over time. The goal is constantly to go just a little further.
It should, however, be said that from time to time the dancer may find him or herself unable to reach the preset mark. This should not be regarded as a step backwards as there are several factors that can restrict flexibility in the short term. Tired aching muscles may benefit from a gentle stretch at the end of the day, but they are unlikely to be able to extend to their utmost. The best time for a dancer to take such measurements is when they are well warmed up and stretched, but still quite fresh.
Stretching, Flexibility and Problems in Class
It is not uncommon to see student dancers who are already very loose lying on the floor of a studio trying to stretch even further. The problem is that flexibility without the strength to utilise and control it is next to useless to a dancer. Even for those who need to attain greater flexibility it must go hand in hand with exercises for maintaining and improving the strength and control of the various muscle groups.
By combining stretching and strengthening exercises into a body conditioning routine the dancer not only can make gains in muscle tone, flexibility and co-ordination but the kind of exercises that they perform can relate directly back to the work they do in class. This can help with the problem of why can a dancer who is very flexible not seem to utilise it when they are dancing. The most obvious reason is a lack of strength in the relevant muscle groups. However there is also another quite common problem that may be exacerbating the situation.
Movements in dance require a balance between various muscle groups that subtly alters as the dancer moves. The posture and placement of the whole dancer, and particularly of the dancer's pelvis, is vital to this. Misplacement causes the muscle groups to be held in the wrong way, setting up tensions that throw out this balance and restrict movement. What is required is for the dancer to achieve a sense of poise. This is where posture and placement are understood and the fine adjustments necessary to maintain them become part of the dancers technique. Often when this is achieved the loss of unnecessary tension in the various muscle groups frees the dancer up to use his or her full range of movement. This is really something that an experienced teacher should help the dancer with, although an excellent adjunct may be classes in Alexander Technique if they are available.
Stretching and Injuries
Depending on the extent of a dance related injury the best advice might be to see a medical practitioner in order to get the extent of the problem assessed. If there is any doubt as to the seriousness or other wise of an injury then such a visit should be made as a matter of course. It is far better to be seen for something minor then to allow a potentially serious problem go untreated. Also a rehabilitation program devised by a registered physiotherapist will be most likely to lead to a quick and full recovery.
Where it is appropriate with minor injuries the normal procedure of rest, ice, compression and elevation should be followed. Whilst it is not part of this posting to discus injuries it is important to remember that rest requires time. Dancers are often impatient to get back to class, but going too soon can exacerbate an injury, meaning even more time off. It is at this point that a dancer's head must overrule his or her heart.
As regards stretching following an injury it should not be started until the swelling has receded and good muscle tone has been restored. If there is any scar tissue, caused by tears in the muscle this will have to be gently and progressively stretched out. In many if not most cases the degree of mobility available prior to the injury should be restored. Again it is a matter of common sense and patience.
Relaxation and Conclusion
Three things are necessary for the dancers body to achieve its maximum potential. These are correct exercise (both in class and in any supporting activity), good nutrition and rest. This latter, rest, is often ignored but it is vital to allow time for recovery and growth and the stress of the day to drain from the dancer. This means not only sleeping or sitting watching television, but also giving time to really relax and free the tensions that have built up in the body.
If possible the dancer should find a quite place, make sure he or she is going to be warm and comfortable and lie on the floor face up with the arm resting slightly away from the body. Then try to release the tensions out of the body, starting with the head, feet and hands and working towards the centre. Imagine being a block of ice that laying in the sun progressively melts into the floor.
This may seem a strange thing to advise in an item on stretching but there are two important reasons for doing so. The first, which is very relevant, is that tense muscles are less flexible. The second, which comes to be important later, is that a relaxed dancer is often able to achieve far more in the long term. So practicing letting go of unnecessary tension may be just as important an exercise as any other the dancer does.
The length of this posting may seem excessive but, as with most things in dance, there are no real quick and easy answers when it comes to stretching. Time, effort and determination are important, but so too is knowledge. I hope the above goes someway in helping dancers to gain this. Please let me know what you think.
The following books may be helpful both to the teacher and student. Much of the information given in this posting derived, at least in part, from having read these and other available literature on the subject. However any mistakes in the text are my own.
Blakey, Paul (1992) The Muscle Book, Bibliotek Books Ltd
Blakey, Paul (1994) Stretching Without Pain, Twin Eagles Educational & Healing Institute
Grieg, Valerie (1994) Inside Ballet Technique, Princeton Book Company
Howse, Justin and Shirley Hancock (1992) Dance Technique and Injury Prevention (2nd edition), A & C Black (Publishers) limited
Mehta, Silva, Mira Mehta and Shyam Mehta (1990) Yoga The Iyengar Way, Dorling Kindersley Limited
Selby, Anna and Alan Herdman (1999) Pilates Creating The Body You Want, Gaia Books Limited
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