Dance Training

Six Ways To Improve Your Extensions

Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.



Rule #1: Don't Grip

Get to know at least the CliffsNotes version of your anatomy: The main muscles responsible for lifting your leg front and side are your psoas, quadriceps and tensor fasciae latae (TFL). Going into arabesque uses the glutes, hamstrings and low back muscles.

These "mover" muscles work best when the deep rotators, inner thigh muscles and deep abdominal muscles stabilize the hip. If you let the movers multitask as stabilizers, it leads to gripping, which means those muscles can't move freely.

"When I see dancers who are struggling to get their leg up, the problem is usually coming from gripping the quads, TFL or glutes," says physical therapist Emma Faulkner, who works with Atlanta Ballet. The key is to strengthen those small stabilizing muscles so they do their job and you're not tempted to grip.

Try This Stabilizer Strengthener: Stability Ball Bridges

  1. Lie on your back with heels on top of a large stability ball, legs straight and together, in parallel.
  2. Bridge your hips into the air, drawing your navel towards your spine to activate your abdominals without gripping the glutes.
  3. Rotate your legs to first position, activating your deep rotators.
  4. Return to parallel and lower your hips.

Repeat 5 to 10 times.

Modeled by Mikayla Sciafe of The Ailey School's Professional Division. Photo by Nathan Sayers

Try This Rotator Strengthener: Rotational Disc Progressions

  1. With each foot on a rotational disc, rotate to first position, then demi-plie.
  2. Transfer weight to one leg, bringing the other to coupé.
  3. If you can maintain your turnout and the stability of the disc, lift to passé. Don't grip the top of the glutes. You should feel the activation lower, near your sits bone, at the gluteal crease.
  4. Progress to attitude (front, side or back), and eventually développé as long as you are able to maintain the turnout and stability of your standing leg without gripping. Take a few breaths in each position. Try with both a stretched standing leg and a demi-plié. Stop or go back a step if gripping occurs.

Repeat with your other leg.

Modeled by Mikayla Sciafe of The Ailey School's Professional Division. Photo by Nathan Sayers


Rule #2: Find Your Alignment

Focus on the correctness of the position, suggests Jenifer Ringer, dean of the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. "If placement in your turnout is proper, your strength will grow incrementally and your legs will eventually go up."

Make sure your weight is in the ball of the foot. "Weight can't be in the heel in à la seconde—it makes your working leg too heavy," explains Ringer.

Likewise, avoid hyperextended knees. "Hyperextension turns off muscles you need to stand on your leg and then the pelvis tilts forward, which encourages gripping," says Faulkner. "While hyperextension is beautiful, you should only use it in the leg that is off the ground."

Lastly, your hips should be square—not tilted forward or under—and even right to left.


Rule #3: Engage the Psoas

For lifting the leg above 90 degrees, the psoas is the best hip flexor to use, says Faulkner . But dancers often have weak and tight psoas muscles. "When the muscles become stuck in an over-contracted state," she says, "they quit and become weak and tight, and are unable to lengthen properly." A common mistake is to compensate for a weak, tight psoas by overusing the quads and TFL.

Try This Psoas Strengthener: Leg Lifts on a Stability Ball

  1. Lie on your back, hips on the ground in a neutral position, with heels on top of a stability ball, legs extended.
  2. Find your right psoas by palpating with your fingers between your belly button and hip bone. (For a tight psoas this can be painful, so tread lightly; for others, you may not feel the muscle until you activate it.) Place the left hand on your quad.
  3. As you exhale, lift your right leg off the ball using your psoas, without gripping your legs or glutes. "Keep a neutral spine, don't squeeze your butt, don't squeeze anything," says Faulkner. "Use your exhale to engage your pelvic floor and deep abdominals on your way to finding your psoas."

Repeat 10 times on each side.

Modeled by Mikayla Sciafe of The Ailey School's Professional Division. Photo by Nathan Sayers


Rule #4: Use Your Glutes First

"Issues with arabesque can come from a shortened psoas or an incorrect pattern of muscle activation," says Faulkner. "Some dancers try to lift their leg from their back first. The correct sequence is to activate the glutes, then the hamstrings and then the lumbar muscles."

Try This Arabesque Activator: Prone Knee Float

  1. Lie on your stomach, legs parallel, knees relaxed and toes tucked under as if in preparation for plank.
  2. The right hand can be under your forehead and the left can rest on your left glutes.
  3. Float the left knee off the ground, activating only your glutes.
  4. Once you are able to do that, point through your foot as you float the leg a little higher, feeling the hamstrings engage.
  5. Finally, to lift the leg higher, let the muscles of your lumbar spine engage.

Repeat until the pattern of activation happens naturally, then do the other side.

Modeled by Mikayla Sciafe of The Ailey School's Professional Division. Photo by Nathan Sayers


Rule #5: Stretch Strategically

As dancers know, flexibility is only one half of the extension equation. "Our physical therapist keeps telling my students not to overstretch, because you are sacrificing strength," says Ringer. To help students gain flexibility gradually while becoming strong enough to maintain it, at Colburn, stretches are held gently and never for more than 30 seconds at a time.

Troy Powell, artistic director of Ailey II, credits the Horton technique with building the beautiful lines that Ailey dancers are known for, because it balances strength training alongside smart stretching. His class includes a variety of stretches, but only after a long warm-up that builds strength. "Students should cool down right after class," says Powell. "While your body is still warm, work on any additional stretches you might need to open the hips or lengthen the back and hamstring muscles."

Try This Psoas Stretch for Arabesque: Modified Runner's Lunge

  1. Kneel on one knee with the other foot planted in front of you, hips square.
  2. Find an exaggerated tuck of your hips under, then shift your weight forward into a small lunge.
  3. Reach up with the same arm as your standing knee, close to your head. Continue to keep the tuck and lunge as you side bend away from your standing knee. Hold for a couple deep breaths.

Repeat on the other side.

Modeled by Mikayla Sciafe of The Ailey School's Professional Division. Photo by Nathan Sayers


Rule #6: Release Tight Muscles

A lot of times when muscles are tight, they've developed trigger points, says Faulkner. "If you have a muscle full of trigger points, it cannot be stretched nor contracted properly until it is released." If you're stuck with a stubbornly gripped muscle that's limiting your extension, see a physical therapist for manual release or advice on the best ways to use a foam roller or ball.

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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

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Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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Dear Editor,

I've just read Emma Sandall's piece on hyperextension and the 180-degree position. It's intelligent, interesting, well-written. But there are a few mistakes and some misleading remarks. I can't resist writing the following.

1. If Guillem says Fonteyn said would have lifted her leg higher if she could, then that's what Guillem says.

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