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Are You Stretching the Wrong Way?
All-too-common mistakes many dancers don’t even realize they’re making
Keelan Whitmore used to be on a tireless quest for elastic hamstrings—until he began experiencing “a very weird and scary feeling” each time he finished stretching. “I’d have a sharp, shooting pain on the outside edge of the back of my knee,” says the Alonzo King LINES Ballet dancer. Only after seeking physical therapy for another injury did he learn that his habit of doing intense hamstring stretches before class was actually overstretching the back of his knee joint.
Unfortunately, Whitmore’s mistake is not unusual. With their constant pursuit of greater flexibility, dancers have a tendency to favor extreme, sometimes dangerous stretches, instead of following a gradual approach. This impulse stems from several misconceptions, often ingrained at an early age by well-meaning teachers. It usually takes a painful visit to the physical therapist before dancers learn that their risky stretching practices are actually creating weaknesses in their bodies. The first step in switching over to a safe stretching regimen—one that increases muscle flexibility without sacrificing the stability needed for balances and the power needed for jumps—is losing these bad habits.
Don’t Hold Static Stretches Before Warming Up
Static stretching, or holding a stretch position for more than 30 seconds, is one way to increase flexibility—but it only works if you’re warm. Stretching cold muscles rarely targets the muscle belly and often leads to overstretching ligaments and tendons, increasing instability and resulting in the kind of pain Whitmore felt in his knee. It also decreases the muscle’s ability to contract, resulting in less power and available strength once you start dancing. According to a recent article in The New York Times, scientists have found that static stretching before exercise can reduce strength in the stretched muscles by about 5.5 percent, and even more if you hold a stretch for longer than 90 seconds—something a dancer definitely does not want before a class or performance!
Physiologists recommend instead doing a dynamic stretching routine after a general five-minute warm-up: Rather than simply sitting in the splits or throwing a leg up on the barre, keep the muscles moving as you open up your range of motion. Doing lunge walks or yoga’s sun salutations will help you flow through stretch positions while increasing your heart rate and circulation and raising your body’s temperature. That way, your muscles warm up as they loosen up.
Take It Easy on Your Hamstrings
To achieve a high grand battement or développé, you need more than flexibility: You also need stability and strength. Look at your body as a system of checks and balances: Try to build strength in the muscles that assist in the action of lifting and holding your leg—the deep hip flexors, quadriceps and core muscles—as much as you increase the flexibility of your hamstrings. A tree can only grow taller when roots of the same length grow into the ground, just as a leg can only be lifted higher into the air when the connection to your abdominals is equally deepened.
What’s more, don’t get so caught up in hamstring stretches that you neglect your other muscles. Leigh Heflin, program coordinator of the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University’s Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases, warns that if you don’t stretch all areas of tightness, you could create imbalances in the body. When a group of muscles such as the hamstrings is overstretched, the opposing muscle group, in this case the quadriceps, will be tight and potentially overworked. Be sure to spend an equal amount of time stretching your quads as you do your hamstrings.
Use Caution in the Yoga Studio, Too
Dancers typically think of yoga as a safe place for restorative work and a gentle way to limber up. But just because the room might be warm does not mean that your muscles are. It can be dangerous to sink deep into positions that feel great, such as downward facing dog, especially when they are held for longer than a minute. Teachers will often cue the room to go further into a stretch, but because of dancers’ extreme flexibility, following that advice could push vulnerable joints too far. Be careful to maintain proper form, and hold your body with activated muscles rather than dropping into hyperextension.
Skip the Stretch, Grab the Roller
Typically, when dancers feel tight, their automatic response is to try to stretch it out. But stretching alone won’t help if that tightness is caused by tension in your fascia, the connective tissue that provides support and protection for the muscles. “This soft tissue can become restricted, resulting in muscle tension and sometimes pain,” explains Heflin. In this case, dancers should actually be reaching for a foam roller in order to help release the fascia. “Foam rolling can be done prior to activity, even on cold muscles, or post-activity to release inhibited muscles,” says Heflin. “Although it doesn’t necessarily increase range of motion, it can allow more freedom in a muscle that was otherwise restricted.”
Now that he’s recovered from injury, Whitmore has learned that the key to stretching effectively is “to be incredibly warm, by first activating the muscles and getting blood flowing throughout my body” before working toward greater flexibility. Performing simple exercises, such as the bridge—lying on the back, then elevating the hips with the feet flexed (heels digging into the ground)—has also helped him strengthen his hamstrings, and build more awareness about potential muscle weaknesses. For him, stretching is no longer only about working toward greater flexibility—it’s about achieving a more balanced body.
Photos by Nathan Sayers; modeled by Jane Anthony of NYU/Tisch dance department
Candice Thompson, a former Milwaukee Ballet dancer, is a certified Pilates teacher and a writing fellow at Columbia University.
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo asked the women auditioning for ensemble roles in his newest musical to arrive in guys' clothing—"men's suits, or blazers and ties," he says. He wasn't being kinky or whimsical. The entire ensemble of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is female, playing men and women interchangeably as they unfold the history of the chart-busting, Grammy-winning, indisputable Queen of Disco.
Have a scroll through Agnes Muljadi's Instagram feed (@artsyagnes), and you'll notice that in between her ballet shots is a curated mix of lifestyle pics. So what exactly sets her apart from the other influencers you follow? Muljadi has made a conscious effort to only feature natural beauty products, sustainable fashion and vegan foods. With over 500k followers, her social strategy (and commitment to making ethical choices) is clearly a hit. Ahead, learn why Muljadi switched to a vegan lifestyle, and the surprising way it's helped her dance career.
When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:
"Dance isn't for everyone."
This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.
The #MeToo movement has made its way to France's biggest ballet company.
An anonymous survey recently leaked to the French press revealed major turbulence at the Paris Opéra Ballet. The Straits Times reports that the survey was conducted by an internal group representing POB's dancers. In it, there are numerous claims of bullying, sexual harassment and management issues.
Nearly all of the dancers (132 out of 154) answered the questionnaire, but they didn't know it would be made public. (Around 100 of them later signed a statement saying they didn't consent to its release.)
He may not be a household name, but you probably know Brandon Stirling Baker's work. The 30-year-old has designed the lighting for most of Justin Peck's ballets—including Heatscape for Miami City Ballet, and the edgy The Times Are Racing for New York City Ballet—but also Jamar Roberts' new Members Don't Get Weary at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a trio of Martha Graham duets for L.A. Dance Project.
He's been fascinated by lighting ever since he attended a public performing arts middle school in Sherman Oaks, California, where he had his first experiences lighting shows. He also has a background in music (he plays guitar and bass) and in drawing. Both, he says, are central to the way he approaches lighting dance.
Update: Due to an overwhelming response, the in-person audition has been moved to a larger location to accommodate more dancers. See details below.
For the first time in more than 10 years, Janet Jackson is holding an open audition for dancers.
Even better? You could land a spot in her #JTribe simply by posting a video on social media.
What does it take to become an international superstar? Carlos Acosta might have a few ideas.
At the Oxford Literary Festival earlier this month, the BBC sat down with Acosta to ask for his life lessons. His answers—which he says he will pass on to his kids one day—give incredible insight into how he's become such a beloved worldwide success.
The ballet world will converge on San Francisco this month for San Francisco Ballet's Unbound: A Festival of New Works, a 17-day event featuring 12 world premieres, a symposium, original dance films and pop-up events.
"Ballet is going through changes," says artistic director Helgi Tomasson. "I thought, What would it be like to bring all these choreographers together in one place? Would I discover some trends in movement, or in how they are thinking?"
Several weeks ago, Youth America Grand Prix announced that the lineup for tonight's Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow gala at Lincoln Center's Koch Theater would include Bolshoi Ballet principal Olga Smirnova and first soloist Jacopo Tissi. But an article in Page Six published last night states that Smirnova and Tissi were denied visas to enter the US.
YAGP organizers "believe the Department of Homeland Security's decision may be motivated by the myriad tensions between the superpowers," says the piece, noting that "Smirnova is so revered in Moscow that her treatment could create a Russian backlash."
Is it any surprise a world premiere by choreographer Uri Sands and musician Justin Vernon, both renowned for the profound beauty and gorgeous musicality of their work, immediately sold out? We're hungry for creative collaborations that take reflective deep dives into what constitutes our humanity—and then there's the undeniable cool factor. Nine members of TU Dance will perform alongside Bon Iver (Vernon's band) during the evening-length piece. Presented as part of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's Liquid Music Series. April 19–21. The work will also appear at the Hollywood Bowl Aug. 5. tudance.org.