Stretching for Dancers
Dancers are often known for their ability to bend and twist into various contortions, but many are not aware of the hours spent stretching all sorts of muscles - from hamstrings to deltoids - to ensure their safety and to add a wow factor to their performances.
Some people are born naturally flexible, others are not. Personally, I was of the second group; although I danced from age 4, I did not achieve my right splits until age 13 and still to this day have trouble with my left side. There's nothing that say dancers have to be flexible to be talented and beautiful performers, but it definitely does help with choreography and certain skills. Therefore, here are some tips and tricks I've learned throughout the years to help you achieve your flexibility goals!
1. Figure out which muscles in your leg are the least flexible.
There are three major muscle (groups) on your upper leg that most influence your capacity for stretching - the quadriceps, hamstrings, and hip flexors. Made up of three seperate muscles, the hamstrings are located on the back of the upper thigh. The quadriceps (or quads), on the other hand, are made up of four muscles on the front of the thigh and are responisble for extending the lower leg. The hip flexors (iliopsas) are well-named, as they describe the muscles connecting your hips to your pelvis.
Start by sliding into your splits slowly (after a sufficient warm-up to decrease the risk of injury), and determine what section of your leg feels the most stretch by using the diagram below.
a. If you feel the most stretch in your hamstrings:
This means that you usually have trouble toughing your toes, executing a needle or penchee, and bending your front leg in the splits gives you relief from the majority of the stretch. The following stretches are geared toward hamstring flexibilty. Remember to always warm-up by doing jumping jacks or a similar cardiovascular activity before you plunge into intense stretching!
This stretch always gets me no matter how much I've warmed up because it targets the hamstring muscles so efficiently. Hold the stretch for 1 minute repetitions with at least 30 seconds of rest in between. Tip: try this with flexed feet for an added challenge!
Start with your feet together in parallel position and slide your right foot forward, keeping it in line with your hips (like a pair of scissor shears!). Then slowly lean forward until you feel a stretch in your right hamstring. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch legs and repeat the motion on the left. Do each side 3 times, adding in a flexed foot on the third time for a deeper stretch.
As the name suggests, you will need a chair (or a barre) for this stretch. Start facing the chair and lift one leg on top with the foot pointed. Stretch your upper body forward for 30 seconds before switching sides. Arch your back for more of a stretch!
This yoga classic is a great deep stretch for the hamstrings. Start with your feet together and hip-width apart. Bend from the waist and walk your hands out (allowing the heels to raise). Then, take a deep breath before arching your back and pressing your heels into the floor as you exhale. Breathe through this stretch, allowing you heels to come up and your back to curve in between each exhale.
b. If you feel the most stretch in your quadriceps:
Lunges are more difficult for you, but quadricep tightness has generally less obvious effect on dance exercises. The following stretches are geared toward quadricep flexibilty. Remember to always warm-up by doing jumping jacks or a similar cardiovascular activity before you plunge into intense stretching!
This stretch is one of the easiest stretches to complete, and can be altered in various ways to change the level of stretch. Start in parallel position and bend your right leg behind you and grab it with your right hand. Pull the leg closer to the body or switch hands to enhance the stretch.
Start kneeling on one knee facing your back the wall. Inch closer to the wall until the weight-bearing knee is up against the wall or until you feel a deep stretch. Hold for 30 seconds each leg 3 times through.
Lay on your back and bring one leg up to you chest and hug it tightly to you chest. Make sure that the bottom leg is straight. To increase the stretch, do this on a higher surface such as a couch or bed and let the bottom leg hang off.
b. If you feel the most stretch in your quadriceps:
This means that you have difficulty lifting your back leg on leaps (often it can feel as if the back leg gets stuck) or on arabesques. The following stretches are geared toward hip flexor flexibilty. Remember to always warm-up by doing jumping jacks or a similar cardiovascular activity before you plunge into intense stretching!
Start sitting with your legs tucked underneath you before stretching one leg out behind you. Make sure to keep your hips squared off. To gain a deeper stretch, lift the back foot.
Start in a kneeling postion with one leg out in front. Push the hips forward, making sure to keep the knee above the heel of the same leg. To get more of a stretch, lift the back foot with the opposite hand.
Karate Kick Stretch
This floor stretch starts with the front leg straight and the back leg bent behind you. Start leaning back until you feel a stretch in the hip flexor. For a deeper stretch, left the hip off the floor.
2. Middle Split Stretches
The middle, or straddle, split is useful for tilts and second leaps, to name a few. The muscles stretched in this split are some of the thickest, and therefore tightest, muscles in you body, so sufficient stretching is necessary to acheive the best split.
Start with your derriere against the wall with your legs straight in the air. Release your legs open into the middle splitby using gravity to push your legs open. Hold this stretch for 2 minutes at a time and don't forget to continue to breathe.
Start in second position and slide your legs down into a straddle position with your legs in line with your hips. Hold for 1 minute at a time.
3. PNF Stretching
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (or PNF) stretching is a revolutionary way of stretching that engages the muscles while stretching them for a safer and more efficient stretch. You will need a partner for both stretches.
Hamstring PNF Stretch
Start laying down with either a partner to help you. Raise one leg in the air with your foot flexed. Make sure your leg starts at your maximum angle of stretching. Have your partner press down with their hand on the ball of your toe as you engage your hamstring muscles to press against their pressure. Continue to engage the hamstring for 10 seconds before pointing your toe and having your partner stretch you further. Repeat the exercise 3-4 times on each leg.
Quadricep and Hip Flexor PNF Stretch
Start in a kneeling postion with one leg out in front. Push the hips forward, making sure to keep the knee above the heel of the same leg. Have your partner lift your back leg up to balance it against their shins. For 10 seconds, press your leg into their shins before having them scoot further to increase the stretch. Repeat 3-4 times on each leg.
Breathing through the stretch is quite possibly the most important part of stretching. Without breathing, your body will naturally stiffen and keep you from engaging the most effective stretch. Additionally, not breathing decreases the blood flow to the extremities and cools down your muscles exponetially faster, increasing risk of injury and decreasing your ability to stretch.