How to Access Your Full Range of Motion—Even When You're Dancing At Home

January 6, 2021

2020 was the year of social distancing, Zoom classes and working from home. It was enough to make you feel like the walls were closing in on you.

Moving expansively may feel impossible as you continue your training from home or readjust to COVID-19-compliant in-person classes, but it’s one of the qualities that can set a good dancer apart from a great one. The expansive mover not only shows up better onstage, but they travel further and have more freedom in their bodies. Cultivating that quality will be just as important post-COVID as it is now, and with the right approach and proper conditioning, dancing with your fullest range of motion will be not just possible, but pleasurable.

Do Pre-Class Self-Care

Before you start class, attend to your nervous system. University of Iowa visitingvassistant professor Britt Juleen, whose somatic approach to ballet pedagogy is influenced by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s method of Body-Mind Centering, recommends a hot bath or shower with some self-massage before class. “The nervous system wakes up and the blood capillaries expand,” she says. “Things have gotten so closed in, so it’s important to open up our fluids.”

Replicate Your Commute

Even if you’re dancing at home, find a way to incorporate aspects of your former commute. “Getting to class gets the blood flowing,” says Juleen. “It became apparent to me when I stopped having to commute. I felt so condensed.” Getting out into the world awakens the senses, which affects how expansive you can be. If possible, take a walk or bike ride before class.

Start Inward and Move Outward

When it comes to moving bigger, you can’t go from 0 to 60 without risk of injury. “You don’t get there right away,” says San Francisco–based choreographer and teacher Robert Moses. “You start smaller. You get the trunk going initially and then the hips going from there.”

Kester Cotton, physical therapist and dance program coordinator at Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, says it’s helpful to start at the spine and work out towards the extremities. “Big movement can’t come from an unstable base,” he says. For example, your warm-up could start with some gentle flexion and extension of the spine via rolling down and up from a standing position. Add on tilts to the side and gentle twists, increasing your range as you get warmer. Pliés are a classic way to warm up your hips, knees and ankles. Start small and work your way into grand pliés. Moses includes spinal movements and circular actions of the shoulders and hips during the coda of his plié and tendu combinations.

Moses leads a class, reaching one arm forward while slightly leaning forward, legs in a crossed position. Dancers copy him behind him
Peter Earl McCoullough, courtesy Moses

Stretch Muscles, Not Joints

“We want length in the muscles so that you can get into the groovy positions, but you want the stretch in the muscles, not where they attach,” says Cotton. Overstretching in the front of the hip joint in the splits or a runner’s lunge, for instance, may create instability in the joint itself, which heightens the risk of injury. You don’t need to cut these types of stretches out of your routine. Just make sure that you’re working in healthy alignment and not dropping all your weight towards a joint area. For example, if you’re doing a runner’s stretch, you want to feel the stretch in the middle of the quad rather than at the tendon in the front of the hip joint.

Use Your Sight Lines

Notice where you’re looking while you dance. In her ballet classes, Juleen has students find focal points in the room or out the window into the distance. “I have students really look at things to stimulate the optic nerves,” she says. “Being inside at home, everyone has gotten so internalized.” Try going outside and looking at the most distant tree you can find. Notice how that affects your sense of space.

Prioritize Deep Core Stability

Having a strong core will allow you the freedom to expand through your limbs without losing control. Cotton recommends focusing on strengthening the deep core stabilizers—the transverse abdominis and multifidus. But engage your core in an open way as you dance—don’t just clench the muscles.

Be Mindful of Your Breathing

If you’re wearing a mask, focusing on your breath may feel like a nuisance. However, being mindful to breathe deeply helps oxygenate the blood and muscles and eases tension, which can aid your full range of motion. Juleen sometimes asks students to locate their heart and the different lobes of the lungs to bring awareness to the breath, blood and respiratory system as a whole. She recommends concentrating on how the lungs and heart are in constant cooperation, sending fresh, oxygenated blood throughout the entire body. “Becoming aware of the rhythm of the breath and the pace of the heart can invite a sense of fluid pulsing through the body,” she says.

Strengthen Your Hips and Shoulders

Your hips and shoulders connect your stable core with your free limbs.It is essential to develop strength and stability in these ball-and-socket joints (which have the greatest range of motion). Cotton recommends side plank on your elbow to strengthen the rotator cuff and, for the hips, Pilates clamshells (without the hips in flexion) and this warrior-three–like exercise: Standing on one leg with your torso pitched forward and your free leg floating behind you in an “airplane position,” open and close the working hip so that you alternate between facing the side and facing the floor.

Use Helpful Images

The right imagery can create spaciousness in your body and movement. Juleen frequently offers her students the image of a jellyfish with tentacles that float and reach out from a central core. She also likes late ODC Dance Commons ballet director Augusta Moore’s idea of the Miss America sash stretching across the torso. “You don’t want to let the sash slacken. It keeps opposition between the shoulder and opposite hip,” she says. Also, try thinking of the muscles as sponges. “Play with the idea of the muscles being porous. When you plié, the water comes out.” Experiment and see what works best for you.

Don’t Expect to Be a Carbon Copy

Test your body’s limits, but don’t try to replicate someone else’s. “My primary goal is for each student to take away something that is of use to them and to find their own voice in it,” says Moses. “The highest expression of being in class is finding that complete and utter freedom.”