Dancers sometimes stretch to the point of contortion to improve their flexibility. But painful forced stretches can cause micro-muscle tears or pulls. Even seemingly harmless ones can do damage. Here are some popular stretches that physical therapists caution can strain muscles, plus some tips on smart ways to stretch.
The Frog: Turnout Without Tears
In this stretch, the dancer lies on her stomach and rotates her legs externally with her feet pressed together to create a diamond shape. The thighs, knees, and pelvis lie flush with the floor, while she attempts to bring the feet as close to the floor as possible. “For hypermobile dancers, this can needlessly strain joints,” explains Liz Henry, a physical therapist with Westside Dance Physical Therapy in New York. “It puts pressure on the sacroiliac pelvis joint, the lumbar vertebral segments, and the hip joint.”
Henry recommends an isometric approach: Lie on your back parallel to a wall, feet flat on the floor with knees bent towards the ceiling. Let the leg closer to the wall turn out so the knee touches the wall, making a half-diamond shape. Gently press the knee against the wall for about six seconds. Relax, then repeat six times and switch to the other leg. After each sustained contraction the muscles elongate, allowing the leg to release further in the hip socket. Be careful to maintain alignment by keeping the outside hip pressed into the floor.
Forced Feet: Don’t Sit Tight
Dancers sometimes use gadgets or extreme pressure to achieve well-arched feet. Some ask a partner to push their toes toward the ground when they are sitting on the floor with their legs extended, or have them sit on their feet while pointed. Needless to say, these tactics put the entire ankle and foot in jeopardy.
“That kind of force can stretch the wrong joint,” says Henry. “Pointing the foot requires mobility in the ankle and foot joint, and the amount of give needed at each joint is different for every dancer.” If you’re not satisfied with your arch, have a physical therapist recommend exercises that are tailored to your particular feet. Henry says stiffness in the front of the ankle is the most common complaint she hears. To help release the ankle, she suggests sitting on your heels in a kneeling position, keeping your spine long to apply low-level pressure.
Over-Splits: Don’t Get Hung Up
As choreographers wow audiences with extended split leaps and side tilts, dancers have been inspired to try a new generation of super-split stretches. To increase their front split, dancers prop a foot up on a block and then sink into a spread that exceeds 180 degrees. Making matters worse, they may “hang out” there for several minutes.
Rather than creating a healthy hamstring stretch, Henry says this move strains the back of the knee, causing hyperextension. Too much hyperextension can accelerate arthritic breakdown, or throw off a dancer’s alignment and cause them to be more prone to injury.
Julie O’Connell, director of performing arts rehabilitation for AthletiCo in Chicago, who works with dancers from Joffrey, Hubbard Street, and Giordano, recommends alternating stretching with strengthening. Lie on your back with feet flat on the floor, knees bent, and slowly push the pelvis up towards the ceiling. Hold for about 10 seconds. Lower it, straighten one leg on the floor and point the other straight up, pulling gently towards your body. Repeat the cycle six to eight times. This active warm-up will strengthen and lengthen the hamstrings and gluteals rather than straining knees.
Feeling your way
There’s no definitive guide to how long to hold a stretch. Henry, for instance, recommends staying there anywhere from 30 to 120 seconds. “Prolonged, end-range stretches increase the muscles’ give and lengthen them over time,” she says. Longer, however, can actually overstretch the muscle, causing weakness or instability.
Stretching cold muscles requires caution. “I tell dancers to break a sweat before they stretch,” says O’Connell. “It’s important to have blood flow in the muscles so they become pliable.” Try doing some cardio to warm up.
Keep in mind that any movement that’s painful will not stretch muscles. “Our bodies are wired to protect us. Receptors pick up pain signals, causing the muscles to tighten,” says Henry. Your body has a stopping point: Is the joint too stiff or is the muscle too tight? You want to feel your stretches in themuscles, not the joints.
Every body has different degrees of flexibility. “Work within your own facility, and strengthen within your length,” says O’Connell. Being a smart stretcher improves your facility now and lengthens your dance career in the future.
Jennifer Thompson Peters is a New York dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works.