Flexibility is a required and admired trait for dancers. But lounging in a split isn’t necessarily the most effective way to stretch. “The more flexible a dancer is, the more adaptable they can be,” says Anneliese Burns Wilson, owner of ABC For Dance, a dance education company, and a Stott Pilates instructor trainer in Dallas, TX. “But flexibility needs to be useful. There is a kind of flexibility where someone else can move the dancer’s limb through a wide range of motion, but the dancer themselves cannot, because they don’t have the strength to support it.” To help you stretch for optimal supported flexibility, DM spoke to Burns; Christine Wright, ballet teacher at Studio 5-2 in New York City, and Vanessa Muncrief, a physical therapist at New York’s Harkness Center for Dance Injuries.
Habit: Stretching to the point of pain Though a deep stretch can feel intense, some dancers push beyond that sensation to actual pain. “We are a motivated and disciplined group of people,” says Wright. “Plus we want results quickly, so there’s this idea that if you stretch the muscle hard, it will elongate more. But that’s not true! The muscle doesn’t want to tear, so if you go beyond your stretch threshold, the muscle will contract to protect itself.”
Break It: Learn to distinguish between a healthy stretch and a potentially damaging one. Wilson says that shaking, redness, bruising, or continuous popping are signs that you’re stretching too intensely. Wright adds, “When stretching, you’re asking your muscle to accommodate a different length. But the most intense feeling should dissipate after a few moments. If it doesn’t, you’ve gone too far.”
Muncrief says a change of mindset can be helpful. “Dancers often think, ‘If I just push harder, I’ll get better.’ Even our society supports that path of thought,” she says. “So, I try to bring my dancers some yogic principles of letting go. Get back to the joy of effortless movement. Think, ‘Yes, I need to work hard, but where can I do less?’ ”
Habit: Hanging in a static stretch At one point or another, you’ve probably lain on your back against the wall, let your legs drop to either side in a straddle—and stayed there for a while. While this kind of stretching was once recommended for dancers, it’s no longer considered beneficial. Muncrief describes it as “gravity pulling on your ligaments, not muscle stretching.” Wilson explains, “An effective stretch works in the belly of the muscle to lengthen the muscle fiber.” When you hang in a straddle, “you’re stretching ligaments, the fiber that holds bones together. Once stretched, ligaments can’t tighten back, and that destabilizes the joint. It’s very harmful and dangerous.”
Break It: Try this new version of the wall straddle: “Lie on your back with your bottom against the wall, legs straight up,” Wilson says. “Then envision your toes reaching away from each other. Don’t focus on your toes going to the floor. Instead concentrate on your turnout and sending energy to the side walls. If you can’t pull your legs back together, and if they release into your sockets, you’ve relapsed into static stretch.”
“A few-second stretch won’t lengthen the muscle either,” Muncrief points out. Hold a stretch for 30 seconds to a minute, and repeat several times. “Muscles respond to a low load over this period of time.” she says.
Habit: Stretching Cold Walking into the studio and dropping to the floor to stretch before class is a common routine. “But stretching should actually come later,” Muncrief says. “Think of muscle like silly putty: When it’s warm, it’s pliable. But if you put in the fridge and it’s cold, it snaps! Muscles have the most power in normal resting length, so deep stretching before activity won’t yield the best results.”
Break It: To warm up, “Do full-body movements, like marching in place or doing a light jog,” says Wilson. “Sweating is a good sign that your body is warm, but don’t try to artificially heat your body with plastic pants or a too-hot room. You haven’t created mobility for yourself. Artificial heat just puts you at risk for injury.” Wright suggests using a ball or foam roller to release muscular tension without over-stretching. Muncrief recommends moving through active yoga poses: “You’re stretching but also working your muscles and building heat.” The best times to stretch are between barre and center, and after dancing, when you can take advantage of the body’s warmth and pliability.
Habit: Stretching “Key” Areas Only Wright observes that when a dancer identifies a personal weakness, “they will work like crazy to improve that area.” This might mean stretching a certain muscle group over and over. Wilson adds that teachers also sometimes concentrate on a specific area—like lengthened hamstrings for extension—and fail to communicate that the body works as a whole system.
Break It: Think of the body as one network rather than separate compartments. The fascia is integral to this concept. “Fascia is a continuous band of tissue that wraps your entire body. It connects all the pieces. Think of it as shrink wrap,” says Wilson. “If your fascia gets a kink in one area, it can affect a different body part. You could do something to your right little toe, and you won’t find out until your left shoulder hurts. So if you are working on one area and it’s not getting better, try investigating other body parts, too.”
Schedule a few sessions with a physical therapist to address to your personal stretching needs. “It’s best to work with a PT individually, even just a few times,” Muncrief says. “They can specifically take into account the roles you dance, classes you take, and your cross training activities.”
Miss Fokine’s Finale
Last August, Irine Fokine, niece of Michel Fokine, closed the doors of her ballet school after 60 years and 52 annual Nutcrackers. Many of her former students (including myself) gathered at her studio in Ridgewood, NJ, to say our farewells and share memories. Her recent students include Amanda Hankes of New York City Ballet (who was present) and Eric Tamm of American Ballet Theatre, a 2010 “25 to Watch.”
A hard taskmaster, Miss Fokine mounted Swan Lake as well as many of her own ballets—usually with a full orchestra. She made challenging, beautiful, or funny works to a wide range of composers including Prokofiev, Bach, Smetana, and Grieg. That music got under out skin.
Guest teachers included her mother, Alexandra Fedorova; Irine’s brother, Leon Fokine; his wife, Gloria Fokine; Vitale Fokine, son of Michel; and jazz great Peter Gennaro.
However, for us old-timers, the joyous summer intensives on Cape Cod were the highlight of the training. I learned three things from those weeks among the dunes. One, that spending two thirds of your waking hours dancing and the rest at the beach with friends was idyllic. Two, that hard work pays off, because we all improved by the end of the six weeks. And three, that no one looked better in a bikini than Miss Fokine. Now, at 88, she still looks like she could jump up and do a grand battement. —Wendy Perron
Notes & News
With the death of Denise Jefferson, former director of The Ailey School (“Transitions,” Oct.), Tracy Inman and Melanie Person have been appointed co-directors of the school. Both Inman and Person worked closely with Jefferson over the past decade as co-directors of the school's Junior Division, which more than tripled in size under their leadership. They became associate directors of the school in 2009.
Michael Uthoff , artistic and executive director of Dance St. Louis, received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the University of Missouri—St. Louis in August. A former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, Uthoff has choreographed numerous works for the Joffrey and other international companies. In 1972 he founded Hartford Ballet, which he directed for 20 years before becoming artistic director of Ballet Arizona. Under his direction since 2006, Dance St. Louis became a partner of UMSL in 2007. Uthoff has worked with the university to present performances, offer educational activities, and establish the annual Spring to Dance Festival, an adventurous showcase for mostly midwestern companies.
In August, The School at Jacob’s Pillow presented its seventh annual Lorna Strassler Award for Student Excellence to 21-year-old Calvin Royal III. The recipient of this award, selected each spring during The School’s audition process, receives a full scholarship to attend one of the Pillow’s professional advancement programs, as well as a $2,500 cash stipend. As a student in the Ballet Program, Royal was a featured soloist in Karole Armitage’s bracing Red, choreographed for the Pillow’s season opening gala. A former member of ABT II, Royal became an apprentice with American Ballet Theatre in October. —Siobhan Burke
For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.
New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns wasn't sure she was strong enough. A ballerina who has danced many demanding full-length and contemporary roles, she was about to push herself physically more than she thought was possible.
"I said, 'I can't. My body won't,' " she says. "He told me, 'Yes, it will.' "
She wasn't working with a ballet coach, but with personal trainer Joel Prouty, who was asking her to do squats with a heavier barbell than she'd ever used.
Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"
At eight, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.
Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.