My dancers are often passionate about developing their flexibility and attaining ever-greater ranges of motion (ROM). Choreographers require ever-more spectacular contortions of the body and the online environment has allowed dancers to be exposed to new movement. This has resulted in an increasing range of movement styles being combined.
Example: The female students in my class have more initial flexibility but boys are more eager to develop their strength and flexibility encouraged by the height and flexibility of professional dancers they have observed. My students have accessed a wide range of images and videos online which show young dancers, 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. They feel they should achieve the same level and in a short time.
As a teacher it is 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.
Complex physiology of stretching
The links between stretching and increased flexibility are not understood. Little research on stretching has been conducted on dancers and where it has there is a range of confounding variables. As a result, research on optimal stretching approaches changes often and it is essential for teachers, dancers and choreographers to revisit their knowledge of stretching for dancers, and update their practice regularly. This makes my area of Practitioner Enquiry Current and relevant.
To teach stretching principles an understanding of the muscular-skeletal system and its interaction with the nervous system helps both the teacher and the learner. As a teacher my understanding of the physical structure of muscles and their function allows me to understand the effect of stretch protocols and to relate to the adverse effects these may have on dancers if they are not performed correctly.
The length of the muscle fibre can be altered by stretching but the length of ligaments and tendons should not be altered or the function at joints will be impaired. 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. Attempting to find the balance between flexibility, muscular release, alignment and strength is vital to the physiology of stretching (Wyon, 2010)here.
Different stretches suit different body types
It is essential all dance teachers understand that every dancer’s body is different. I have been in a dance class recently where the teacher ridiculed me for lack of turnout. This is the result of sitting all day and not practicing turnout at night but the other dancers in the class quickly picked up on this. One thing for a teacher to ridicule but another for members of the class to be allowed to do so. As an adult I am still angry at this but imagine if it had been a child. My point is that different bodies have different flexibilities and limits-the teachers job is to maximise ability not remove it. Some dancers are inherently less flexible or hypermobile 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. I know the hypermobile physique has an increased risk of injury (link to my essay on the problems associated with teaching the hypermobile dancer). These dancers tend to have a larger joint ROM, but are also vulnerable to serious ligament sprains and do not remember choreography as quickly as they have uncontrolled proprioception. 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 it important to recognise as a teacher:
- some joints are not meant to be flexible.
- bony structures can limit movement of a joint.
Young dancers (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.
- Young dancers will go through a phase of apparent loss of flexibility when there is an increased chance of injury to muscles. It important to work gently at this time, not only to avoid injury but support the dancer’s psychological wellbeing – the apparent loss of strength, control and flexibility can upset training and confidence. I return to my earlier example of my turnout comments..
Images on the web of teachers pushing their students’ limbs into positions. I have seen obviously wrong practice 1. contorting the angle of the pelvis or 2. crunching the vertebrae of the lower back are prevalent.
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 is at absolute maximum length, attempting to stretch the muscle further only stretches the ligaments and put undue stress upon 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.
My practitioner enquiry aims to find ways to educate dancers in the safe practice of stretching and balancing that with strength development.
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.
‘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.”
IADMS blog (2015) Review of Morrin and Redding (2013) here.
Quin, E., Rafferty, S. and Tomlinson, C. Safe Dance Practice. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2015. 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.
Wyon, M. Stretching for Dance. IADMS Bulletin for Dancers and Teachers. 2010;2(1):9-12. Available here Discusses: benefits of static stretching, PNF techniques and fast stretching and when to best undertake these approaches for best results.
Great little animation ‘Do you really need to stretch’ here.