Things We Don’t Tell Students: Flexibility

I’ve been teaching students for nearly 3 years now and throughout that time I’ve noticed there’s a few things as a teacher I leave out when talking to my students. I’m not, yet, a full-time dance teacher but am still in regular contact with students 4 nights a week. These trends may only be within my practise, but I’m sure many others would agree, we don’t tell young dancers the whole truth sometimes. Often this inadvertent avoidance of higher details is to help children progress further, or have more motivation to keep going. But as the students get older they seem to hold these mistruths to them and this can often set them back. In this post I’ll discuss some mistruths, as a teacher, I tell, or don’t tell, students about flexibility in order to aid dancers who want to progress even further then they currently have.

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The biggest mistruth is perhaps one that is said most often, “If you do this stretching, you’ll become more flexible”. While there is truth in this statement: Stretching will make you more flexible. It isn’t a whole truth. The stretching we have time for within lessons isn’t nearly enough to make you more flexible overall. It will help your muscles warm up and become a little more pliable for that lesson, so in a sense you are becoming more flexible. But if you want marked changes in your flexibility, if you want to get into the splits, or get a good back bend you need to have more consistent periods of stretching. The ten minutes or less that happens within class once a week, will not change the range of motion you experience within your joints all that much. The best thing to do to have these changes is to stretch on your own.

Which goes onto the next mistruth that is almost always unspoken, “We do everything within class that will make you a better dancer”. Many people will see having greater flexibility as you being a better dancer. You’d be able to get your leg higher, motions would feel more effortless and some leaps and jumps will become more accessible to you. But as with the last mistruth the stretching we do within class is not enough to make these changes alone. To become better you often need to take what you’ve been learning in class and practise in your own time. If each day you did the same stretches you perform within class, holding them for maybe 15-30 seconds on each side, you’ll bound to improve at a much higher rate. As with any type of teaching independent study of the materials will help improve your knowledge, dance may not give you homework in the same way but it certainly helps if you do do some.

Another unspoken mistruth, affects most dancer, “Keep stretching and you can get into your splits”. While when you say this you fully believe the child is capable of getting into the splits, some children and adults are actually unable to do the splits, regardless of how much they try. Young children are the most likely to be able to get into the splits in whichever direction they want to. But as teens go through puberty, girls in particular the hip bones fuse, which can make box splits impossible for some. We continue to tell students that they can get into the splits if they keep trying to maintain their hope and optimism. I’ve seen a few students completely skip out on stretching altogether the minute they loose hope of being flexible. This is a hard situation to deal with, stretching is part of dance, without it the muscles aren’t as prepared for movement as they can be, and the dancer will never improve their leg height in their kicks. But you can never force a student to do something they don’t want to. In these cases we need to give children something else to work towards, why should being able to do the splits be the main aim of stretching?

One final unspoken truth, that isn’t a very nice piece of truth, is that for some genres of dance, you do indeed need to be flexible. We often want to believe that in all cases strong technique and motivation will get students through exams and on to doing the style they really enjoy, even without having good levels of flexibility. This can be true for some styles of dance, but for others being able to get your leg up high and to touch your toes, are things that make the style look how it should be. The motivation the student has to continue in that genre needs to be funnelled into improving their flexibility levels so that in the future they’ll be able to accomplish some of the more demanding steps and movements without pain or failure. It can be harsh to tell students that they are simply not flexible enough, but if they want it enough they should also want to improve there level of flexibility. Written into some exams are where the leg height should be, and some exercise require that the leg should be at a minimum height, gaining flexibility will help students to achieve this and in turn get higher marks. There’s a right way and a wrong way to approach this, and luckily I’ve not had first hand experience in having to do this, as the students I work with are fairly motivated to become more flexible and for those who aren’t the syllabus that I teach is itself flexible, meaning there is no need to worry about high their kicks are. But in the long term, having higher levels of flexibility will help them stand out as dancers and aid their success in future endeavours.

Starting this ethos early, of how important stretching can be for their flexibility as well as their dancing and well-being in general, can make the difference in creating fierce supple dancers. We tell these mistruths in good will, hoping it will spur our dancers on and help them improve. But students wishing to pursue a dance career need to learn, either on their own terms or with your help as a teacher, the truth about flexibility.

 

I hope you enjoyed this topic, it is should help you in your own practise. As always, be sure to let me know your thoughts in the comments, or via my social media.

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