Most dancers would say they want to be more flexible. From what we see on TV and social media, the perceptively “best dancers” are the performers with the most impressive kick, split or back bend. Is this natural or is this something we can train?
It is crucial to have a good level of muscle flexibility for dance to help reduce risk of injury to muscle fibres (tears, pulls). Tight muscles can also lead to other muscles having to compensate for the lack of mobility, leading to malalignment and poor technique- essentially muscles that are not flexible enough for your activity can pull your body out of whack.
At the same time muscles that have had the flexibility pushed beyond safe limits can also be more prone to injury. We are constantly seeing overly flexible people performing dance on TV programmes and social media performing impressive tricks with scarily/ desirably high legs, this means extensive range of motion (ROM) can often be seen as a ‘must have’ for success in the dance industry. However, even though stunts such as over-splits, needles and grand rond de jambe by your ear may look aesthetically pleasing on the gram, for a lot of us this is something that just may not be possible…and that is no ones fault!
So what can we do to improve our flexibility?
To increase flexibility (muscle length and joint range of motion) you need to stretch. There are two types of stretching: active (when you are performing the stretch yourself) or passive (when you are allowing gravity, an object or another person stretch the muscle for you).
There are also different methods of stretching you can try:
Static stretching is simply holding a stretch still. This is the most common and considered the safest form of stretching when positioned correctly and the muscles are warm. If you are performing static stretches as part of your warm-up these should be held for no more than about 10 seconds, otherwise you might reduce the strength of the muscle. If you are performing these as part of a cool-down then you can hold the stretch longer to increase flexibility and prevent sore muscles.
You should always get into a static stretch nice and calmly, if you start your stretch to quickly a reflex mechanism in the body will initiate the muscle to shorten and tighten to protect itself from further damage.
Simply put, a stretch while moving. This kind of stretch is usually used as part of a warm-up, gently moving the muscle in and out of a stretched position gradually increases the range of motion ready for dancing. This kind of stretching should be performed during the warm-up but after raising the heart rate, this is to make sure we have increased blood flow and our joints are lubricated.
This method for stretching involves a small bouncing motion, this means the stretch is not held and involves more speed than dynamic stretching. Ballistic stretching was very fashionable in the past but has since been revealed to be potentially dangerous. Muscles must be warm before attempting this kind of stretching and it shouldn’t be practiced by beginner or inexperienced dancers. Ballistic stretching has shown to have short term benefits when preparing for explosive movements such as jumps, however there is no evidence to suggest there are long term benefits to this stretching method.
PNF stretching (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation)
This type of stretching, when done correctly, can be effective for increasing muscle length. However, it can also be dangerous and lead to injury if not performed correctly. This kind of stretching involves a contraction followed by a relaxation of the muscle during a passive stretch, most often used for the hamstrings. Be sure to have this kind of stretch demonstrated for you before you attempt it! (hence why I am not giving an example in this blog!)
All stretching should be performed when the muscles are warm.
It is also key to note that no matter how flexible you are, you need the strength in the muscles to be able to perform flexible movements unassisted.
Little bits of stretching will only show short term effects, in order to really increase muscle length and joint range of motion it is best to follow a consistent and regular stretching plan, including rest and recovery times to prevent overstretching and injury.
To reduce your risk of injury within our dance or movement classes, a combination of dynamic and static stretches works best to ensure you have your full range of motion for the session.
There will be a warm-up focused blog post coming up soon for more details!