Flexibility: The truth as I understand it

Flexibility has been a main skill within dance, with many dancers always wanting to increase their mobility range. In the studio you often marvel at the dancer with the highest legs or the deepest plié. While having an achievable goal, a suitable role model and a safe way of achieving the goal can make the dancer more well rounded and determined, some goals young dancers are setting themselves are not attainable and they find they do not have the resources to create a safe pathway to achieve the goal.

When searching “dance” on Instagram it would not take you long before you find a picture of a young dancer in a position that would seem unobtainable to any non-dancer. By searching words like “flexible” and “stretching” you would come across these positions even faster and once you learn terms like scorpion and leg hold, the vast majority of the pictures become young dancers ‘showing off’ their newly acquired flexibility. Often the dancers we see are aged between 6-10 which for some it may become infuriating to see dancers that young changing their bodies, for others it may be a jealousy that at that age they couldn’t do things like that.

Often dancers will want to acquire the levels of flexibility they see on social media and simply attempt to do the move. This is not the right way to go about it. If you want to do the splits, yes you see how far away you are, but then you find other stretches that will help you increase the flexibility. The same should go for the aforementioned scorpion. The problem here is that by just viewing a picture online you have no idea about the training that they went through in order to master the position. So by even attempting to get into the position, that you have not been taught how to safely, you are likely to strain your back or worse. Positions like this are also made worse by the determination of students to master the positions quickly, the leg is often held by the hands of the student giving them control over how much stretch the position gives them. In those determined to get the position quickly the tendency would be to pull the leg higher and higher, forcing it against where it feels comfortable. This will lead to injury for most.

While the want of flexibility in dance has be great, it is becoming greater as dancers are also training as gymnasts and borrowing their gymnastic skills for dance. This is where the problems arise, trained dancers and trained gymnasts are not the same things. The art forms are different and therefore the training is different as well. Dance places a greater importance on artistic expression throughout a dancers whole career, whereas for gymnasts artistic expression may be less important than strength and skills in their early gymnastic career. As dancers borrow more and more skills from gymnastics it becomes easier for dancers to assume their training is adequate for such skills.

These moves are also becoming more and more popular within competitive settings and within the media, here Dance Moms can be used as an example for both. As young dancers see those that attempt these moves winning competitions or being on television it becomes easy to confuse cause and correlation, believing that because they did this move that is why they won. But this is not the truth. Any good judge should see the value of technique and performance over the amount of tricks that are within a routine. Some elements of flexibility come with technique, if you can do a scorpion that that’s all well and good, but if this training this skill has made it so you cannot hold a 90 degree arabesque for more than 8 counts your strength really needs to be worked on. The same can go for leg holds while it is great you can hold you leg up in a good Y-stand, surely it is more impressive if you can développé your leg to the same height without the use of your hand. These skills need strength and by focusing on flexibility dancers often miss strength training. Think of it as doing weights, you do a lower weight more time to tone, whereas you’d do a higher weight less times bulk up the muscle. In dance training you would do a lower height more times to gain strength, while you’d do a higher height less times to increase flexibility. Although this again would not be a great way to increase flexibility.

So, so far I haven’t really touched upon the reasons why stretching too extremes is bad for your body. The main reason for that is simply I am not trained or authorised to tell you that. While I could research and regurgitate the information I’ve read, there’s sure to parts that would be inaccurate and may in fact be incorrect. Instead I have found a good article written by Lisa Howell, a Physiotherapist for Dancers, that talks at great length about the injuries caused by extreme stretching, that article can be found by clicking here.

For now I can only talk about my own experience with stretching. I’ve been told by a few that I’m flexible, and while that may be true of the general population for me within a dance setting I feel very inflexible. I had my front splits on both legs and that was about it. My back has never been very flexible and I had never been able to get into middle splits comfortably. So I began stretching a little more often in order to gain flexibility in those areas. From here I could only really feel and see a visible change in the areas I was already flexible in, ie, my front splits were becoming easier, to a point where I began to attempt oversplits (Where you place a foot, usually the front, on a higher surface to increase the stretch over 180). I built this up overtime as I knew that forcing any stretch was not a wise thing to do. But I became frustrating in the lack of progress I was experiencing in my back and middle splits flexibility, so I began holding these stretches a little bit deeper and for longer. This was not wise. The pain that you feel during a stretch like that is really intense and while a little tension is fine for a stretch, pain is not something that should be strived to achieve. I still did not get any progress. All that pain for nothing. I could except that my middle splits progress was probably due to the way my hips fused as I grew through by teens, but my back was the place that was most painful when stretching. The lack of progress also made stretching seem pointless and unenjoyable, so I decided that actually this kind of stretching was not right for my body and that I may begin to increase injury risk if I had continued.

Oversplits Stretching

While I did not sustain injury from the stretching I was doing it is all too easy to see why people continue to stretch if they see progress in what they’re doing. It is also important to know the limits of your own body when beginning to stretch, for example as you can see from the above picture my left hamstring is less flexible than my right making my splits uneven, if I would have force my left leg into the same oversplit my right is in there would have been a lot more pain. This is another reason why I think it’s important for young dancers not to get carried away with stretching as at that age the body is still changing and developing so you do not have the awareness of you body that you gain through it being stable.

I understand there is a lot of pressure on dancers to become more and more flexible, and no I’m not saying “don’t stretch”. It’s important to stretch in a safe way that doesn’t create pain, go about it in the right way. If in doubt ask your dance teacher what stretches they would recommend to increase the joint’s mobility, chances are they’ve tried a lot more stretches and can give you the best stretch that doesn’t increase the risk of overstretching and straining the muscles.

Also while you’re in the studio you can acknowledge that there may be peer pressure to increase your flexibility but remember flexibility doesn’t make or break you as a dancer, there are others areas such as strength, artistic expression and stamina, if increasing your flexibility does decrease your comfort levels but you want to become a better dancer try working on other areas. I always found I was pretty good at jumping, due to my height and my determination to jump to the same height as everyone else, often meaning I had to jump a whole extra height height (yes, that does make my shorter than everyone else).

I hope this gives young dancers somewhere to turn to for more information as well opening up your eyes to what is going on in the dance world and maybe why it should be discouraged.

 

For more information:

  • Lisa Howell’s website is full of a lot more advise for other areas if you want to take a look: www.theballetblog.com
  • IADMS also has a page about all the different kinds of stretching: www.iadms.org

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