As the years go by, the expectations of dancers’ flexibility have risen dramatically. It wasn’t too long ago that simply being able to do all three splits was considered the peak of achievement in that realm. With competitive dance and even ballet taking cues from gymnastics and acrobatics, extreme flexibility has become much more desirable for young dancers. Everyone wants that hyperextended back, hamstrings that seemingly don’t exist, and hips that allow for positions and lines that were virtually unheard of as recently as 20 years ago in mainstream dance. IDA judges and teachers Maddie Kurtz and Miranda Zimmerman-Spada share their thoughts on the safety of overstretching, whether stretching devices are harmful or helpful, and what to do if your body isn’t built to stretch in certain ways.
Maddie Kurtz, who, in addition to teaching dance in Brockport, NY, is also a certified Yoga and Pilates instructor, says, “Whenever I go to studios to guest teach and/or set choreography, I see the following problematic scenario: A dance teacher tells the dancers to “warm-up” before class or rehearsal and the dancers walk into the studio and immediately drop into their splits and frog stretches, or throw their legs up on the barre and fold their bodies in half. While stretching is super important, static stretching is not meant to be done before a proper warm-up and can actually have the opposite of the desired effect.” Static stretching is designed to hold a position for a certain amount of time, and the focus is on relaxing the muscle. These are stretches that we see in the studio all the time, using either gravity or the force of a barre, floor, or wall to achieve the stretch. While static stretching can provide short term flexibility benefits, it does very little to actually warm up a dancer’s body before class. “The best way to quickly heat the body is by doing full bodied movements that increase blood flow, as well as exercises that increase core temperature. My favorite go-to warm-ups, especially when I am pressed for time, include yoga flows, planks, and the Pilates Hundred. Once dancers are warm, they can then stretch safely and effectively, in turn increasing flexibility,” adds Maddie. After the body is properly warmed up, dancers can then begin using exercises in the dynamic stretching family, such as developpés that sustain, walking lunges, attitude swings, and arm swings. These dynamic stretches mimic positions that appear in dance steps, which get the body ready to move - after all, most dancing is done by moving and not holding one position!
It’s only human to want to see immediate results. With flexibility and range of motion, however, it’s nearly impossible to progress quickly. Some dancers have natural flexibility which allows them to effortlessly move into and sustain difficult positions, but what about everyone else? Overstretching is a hot topic right now, from cheerleading to dance. Social media shares of videos of young dancers being pushed to tears in stretches have made the rounds and may be cause for concern. Miranda Zimmerman-Spada, IDA judge and teacher from Buffalo, NY, says, “For me, overstretching is pushing a dancer’s body past a certain limit in an unhealthy way. Overstretching is a tough word to use because overstretching is not necessarily a bad thing. If you only stretch a dancer to where they are continuously comfortable, their flexibility will plateau. You must continue to push the dancer. Overstretching in a negative way is when you push the dancer past that plateau too soon and too quickly. With flexibility, you cannot expect immediate results; you must take your time to develop the strength and control to effectively gain flexibility correctly.” Another important point to consider is that dancers must acknowledge their ability to tolerate discomfort. Being able to distinguish for yourself what is actual, detrimental pain and what is just discomfort because you are pushing past a normal limit of your body is important for every dancer to progress. Miranda adds, “Not every dancer will have the same strengths, at the same levels, at the same time. If you find that you are lacking in a certain field, take the ownership to get your body as ready as possibly by working at home on your own time, asking your teacher for healthy and safe ways to train the body on your own.”
Speaking of training on your own, there are several new devices on the market for dancers that aim to help with flexibility, namely foot stretchers and body stretchers that attach to door frames. Miranda cautions, “I think that the tools that are available to today’s generation should be considered and looked into/researched but not taken too seriously. Dancers have been using tried and true natural methods for years without the assistance of devices. These devices are sometimes used as "quick fixes" - we want immediate results and these tools are made and designed to help us get to where we want faster. If the tool is used correctly and monitored under a professional opinion, I do not think it is an issue; however I never want a dancer to think that without a certain device they will not be able to achieve the same results as someone that uses them.” Using something as simple as a Theraband or ankle weights to challenge yourself in basic exercises and stretches will (when used properly and consistently) help you to achieve the results you want. It just might take some patience!
It’s important to acknowledge that no matter what we might do, some bodies are not built in a way that is conducive to certain positions. Maddie says, “I would encourage young dancers who have less natural flexibility – and whose bodies are not made to achieve extreme ranges of motion – to take advantage of the explosiveness that they possess. Usually, these dancers exhibit extreme power and athleticism, which are exciting and desirable in performance!” Miranda agrees, and encourages dancers to “focus on what you DO have instead of what you don’t have. While flexibility is a component of a dancer’s journey, it is not THE component. There are so many facets of dance that are crucial and integral to becoming a well-rounded dancer.” As long as you keep working at the top of your ability when stretching, you will be doing YOUR best – which is not better or worse than anyone else’s best. Keep working hard and be safe!