Briar Nolet's "My Prerogative" routine on NBC's "World of Dance" last season encompassed every crowd-pleasing acrobatic move you could imagine—and not imagine: aerial forward rolls and walkovers that seemed to come out of nowhere; leaps, turns and tumbles all stitched together in well-crafted, surprising ways. Nolet's body looped, bent and threw itself through impossible-looking sequences with easy control. On top of it all, she remained fierce and unfazed, like the woman in the Britney Spears song.
Thirty years ago, dancers with such extreme flexibility were rare. Companies and casts might have had one or two dancers who could stretch their legs to the sky and bend their backs to the floor in very specific roles, like the Arabian dance in The Nutcracker, or Victoria the White Cat in CATS. Today, a far greater number of dancers across genres have exceptional range of motion with more opportunities to showcase it.
Now, audiences expect it. Choreographers create for it. And young dancers aspire to it.
While high extensions can be very exciting, it is thought that this trend has led to an increase in injuries in the lower back, hips and ankles. Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West, has noticed that dancers who are incredibly supple often have a greater lack of control. "You should be able to say, 'This is 45 degrees; this is 75 degrees; this is 90 degrees,' and anything above," he says. "That is what artistry and technique is all about."
The fact is, the more flexible you are, the more you have to work on gaining the strength to manage it. Dr. Nick Cutri began treating injured dancers in Los Angeles seven years ago after completing his doctorate in physical therapy and a fellowship in applied functional science. He quickly noticed a pattern of very high mobility and poor stability.
"All these dancers had ever worked on was stretching because they were always told, 'The further it goes, the better,' " he says. Cutri could see from their training that they were not building adequate strength and endurance for the demands of the job. "When you look at what dancers have to do, landing with four to nine times your body weight from leaps and in extreme ranges of motion, you have to create tissue and structural tolerance to these forces," he explains.
The issue of dancers overstretching is not new. In the early days of ballet, dancers used turnout machines which contorted the feet sideways 180 degrees between two planks of wood. August Bournonville claimed those contraptions "deformed and disfigured the body and warned his own students against chaining themselves 'like machines' to the barre rather than strengthening their bodies through hard work and muscular control," writes Jennifer Homans in her history of ballet, Apollo's Angels.
Now we can back up Bournonville's warning with research, thanks to the flourishing of dance science and medicine. Dr. Sue Mayes, principal physiotherapist at The Australian Ballet, has done extensive work in this area. Following her advice, in 2001 the company took all calf-stretch incline boards out of the studios and advised its dancers against long, passive stretches.
"Often a muscle is tight because it is fatigued," says Mayes. "We can fix the fatigue, which is a lack of endurance. Then their muscles won't get as tight." She explains that the body needs to act like a spring, and too much passive stretching diminishes its ability to do this.
Mayes recognizes that today dancers need to have high extensions and use their maximal range of movement. It's what is expected. But she is proving that strengthening is a much safer way to get there. The Australian Ballet has not had to perform a hip arthroscopy for over 15 years. The incidence of calf tears has dropped significantly, and ankle surgeries are now a rare event.
When Cutri started treating his dance clients with a program of strength training, he began to see results very quickly. "Some of the problems people had been dealing with for 10 years were going away," he says. Following those results, Cutri and his wife, professional dancer Katie Schaar, developed Sugarfoot Therapy, a series of conditioning routines to help dancers build more stable mobility.
A Sugarfoot Therapy class
Ashley Barker, Courtesy Sugarfoot Therapy
Mature dancers who have their sights set on long careers can understand the importance of balancing their
flexibility with strength. It is much harder, however, to get that message to young dance students who want to win a competition in six weeks or to emulate the wow-worthy poses that attract thousands of likes on Instagram.
Cutri is alarmed by the numbers of young dancers with chronic injuries. "An 8-year-old should never have orthopedic pain," he says. "We are seeing 8- to 15-year-olds who have neurologically oriented back pain and spine compression that will never get better.
"Dance is so competitive right now and social media only fuels that fire," says teacher and choreographer Jessie Riley, who founded the teen dance company WESTSIDE Dance Project in Orange County, California. She notices young dancers at increasingly early ages doing excessive forced stretching and performing ever more acrobatic routines at competition—and has noticed that many incredibly mobile dancers end up being weaker movers.
Riley believes it is up to studio owners to become better educated about what young bodies should and shouldn't do. "There's just not a lot of education for dance teachers on safe flexibility," she says. "Studio owners need to be giving their teachers resources and guidelines. Let's really learn about the connective tissues of our bodies and how they react to stretching."
Today, some dance students are augmenting their training with gymnastics and acrobatics. While these forms do build strength and coordination, they also place the emphasis on physical exploits front and center.
"Dancing is art and not sport," says Larissa Saveliev, founder of Youth America Grand Prix. She and her jury reiterate year after year that ballet is not about tricks and high développés. "But when teenagers see the engagement on social media, it is very hard to explain to them that they should pay more attention to artistry, because they don't see immediate results of that," she says.
Nor are those teenagers ignorant of the general public's delight in watching dancers' remarkable athleticism and physicality. Just listen to the audience cheer at each of Briar Nolet's extraordinary extensions, flips and bends.
The pressure to be more and more athletic in dance has led to increasingly exaggerated lines and crazier tricks, notes Sklute. While he acknowledges that these can be great additions at times—"Who doesn't love a beautifully placed high développé à la seconde or a double revolhoohaa?" he asks—he emphasizes that it depends on the venue and context.
There is no going back to pre–21st-century extensions. There is, however, a way of moving forward more safely with all the knowledge about the problems associated with overstretching and hyperflexibility. All bodies are different and there is no telling how the joints of a beautiful dancer like Briar Nolet will fare in the long term. Mayes points out that the problem with the hip joint is that dancers often won't feel the effects of what they are doing to it until much later, when they are in their 40s and probably have stopped dancing.
"And anyway," says Saveliev, "today you will not stand out by being flexible." So many dancers have so much facility, high legs no longer turn heads. "You will stand out by other beauty. By your artistry," says Saveliev. "That's what you have to keep in mind."