All dancers want to be flexible. Stretching correctly yields the best results and helps prevent injury.
Who doesn’t want to be more flexible, able to slide effortlessly into a split or (even better) roll through second on the floor into “Chinese” splits? Being flexible is key to healthy muscles and expands your capabilities for class and choreography.
Stretching correctly-do this, not that
Stretching correctly is a learned skill that you get better at it the more you do, just like your ability to remember combinations or obscure song lyrics from cancelled tv shows. So what exactly does “correctly” mean? One basic rule of thumb-never stretch before warming up, at least a little bit. (A brisk walk, short easy jog or 10 minutes on a treadmill or elliptical machine are ways outside of class to warm up). Another no-no-“ballistic” or bouncing stretching. This puts extra stress on your muscle(s) and doesn’t make the stretching any more effective-it actually can have the opposite effect. Sitting in a static stretch isn’t the best either (and I plain don’t think it feels good). The stretching method that’s most effective (and feels the best too) is one that I call a “long” stretch, where you feel as if you are moving through the stretch, slowly working to go just a bit further. Visualizing the stretch as lengthening the muscle(s) is useful, as is “breathing into the stretch”-doing a conscious inhale/exhale as you stay in the stretch, and allowing the exhalation to help move you a little deeper.
Stretching habits that drive me crazy part one: get out of your heels
Many many many dancers perform a lovely ports de bras forward and counterbalance by pushing their weight back into their heels. Don’t do this! You always want to stretch the belly of the muscle, not the attachment site(s). Get your weight over your feet (engaging your core is very helpful here) to stretch the belly of your hamstrings, the muscle group on the back of the thigh.
Stretching habits that drive me crazy part two: the “helper” shoulder, back, etc.
It’s called a side stretch, not an I-am-working-so-hard-that-I-am-crunching-my-neck-and-my-shoulder-is-crawling-toward-my-ear stretch. In a funny way stretching is an isolation-certain muscles are working, others are relaxed and being stretched, and everything else needs to be engaged and stay in place-but also stay out of the way and not participate in the main event. Shoulders are the biggest culprits, but dancers also often do what I call the “turtle back”, hunching into what appears to be a vigorous stretch over their leg(s)-after all, curving your upper back into the letter “C” gets your face just a liiiitle bit closer to your leg or the floor. Wrong. Be humble. Back off the stretch, get your shoulders out of your ears, and lengthen your upper back. You won’t go down as far but you will get a truer, quality stretch, and help stave off that nascent dowager’s hump in the process-a total win win!
Bonus round-PNF stretch
PNF (or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation for all you acronym nerds out there) stretching is a great way to improve your flexibility. It uses isometrics to effectively increase your flexibility, and can be done with a partner or alone. Check out the beginning of this video for a good demonstration of assisted PNF stretching for the aforementioned hamstrings on the back of the leg:
You can use your hands or loop a towel around the back of your leg to offer resistance if you want to try this solo. PNF stretches can be intense, and should only be done a few times a week. Supplement with other, gentler methods, and watch your flexibility increase!