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Ballet Talk for Dancers

To stretch or not to stretch?


Celestrial'sKiss

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Celestrial'sKiss

I've lost quite a bit of flexibility in my years, particularly with my hip flexors, and now I'm working extremely hard to get it all back. However, now that I'm back in a ballet company again, all three of my new ballet instructors keep telling me that it is not necessary to stretch every single day. I have a lot of trouble believing them because I always grew up where everybody kept saying that if I wanted to increase my flexibility, nothing was going to happen unless I stretched at least a half-hour every single day.

 

I am trying to regain my middle splits and I don't want to be stretching for ten years before I reach the floor again, yet at the same time, I know the dangers of overdoing stretches and I've felt the pain of muscle tears before, and I never wish to feel them again.

I've been working on the new stretch routines for about three or four monthes now, and I was doing the stretches almost twenty to thirty minutes every single day. Now, I'm sort of at a stand still, because I don't know if I'm losing ground by stretching too much. :shrug:

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Celestrial'sKiss

No, what I meant by being back in a company again is being back with a group of dancers. My hardcore ballet years are behind me now. I just take three adult classes a week, and dance on my own for a few hours each day for recreational purposes. In other words, I belong to a group of dancers taught by a company (business) that teaches and sells dance stuff.

 

But with all due respect, that's not the point. I just want to know if I have to stretch every single day if I'm working towards my middle splits. Thank you and I greatly appreciate your help. :shrug:

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There's a lot of different and conflicting advice about stretching. Professionals I know (family & friends) are sceptical about the push by student (and adult amateurs) to stretch for its own sake. It was interesting to hear a professional choreographer & artistic director say in conversation (at dinner so relaxed, rather than in a professional context) that she didn't see the need for dancers to stretch beyond 90 degrees, and that she found oversplits "disgusting." (I was interested in the strength of that last opinion!) She talked of being trained by a pretty famous Russian ex-prima ballerina who was offended if students stretched, because the idea of class is that it's her class was designed to give you everything you needed to dance.

 

My current teacher is (tactfully) quite explicit about stretching: she doesn't like us to do flexibility stretches before class, and never sets stretches at the barre between barre & centre. She regularly posts articles about the science of stretching on the studio website section for adult dancers. Mostly, her advice is that before class, you should literally warm up the big muscle groups by walking & slow jogging, or skipping. We also do big leg & arm swings as we walk around the studio, but that stretching for flexibility should be done carefully, and only after you are fully warmed up - we do some calf and quad stretches at the end of class.

 

The other thing to think about is the balance between flexibility and strength. As far as I understand it (caveat: not a medical doctor) stretching actually makes tiny tiny breakdowns in your muscle fibres. If you're working in class to strengthen muscles, then extreme stretching can break down those strengthened muscle fibres.

 

So it's a balance for each individual body, and only you can know what is the right point of balance.

 

But I'm coming to think (I'm in my late 50s and still do class several times a week), that flexibility is about what you have functionally. I can do the splits, but I don't need to to be able to them, to do class and dance in a way that gives me the pleasure of continually learning the techniques and artistry of this wonderful art form.

 

I follow several dancers on Instagram and I see their beautiful easy flexibility & wish my body could do that, but you know - it can also degrade one's body, and it's not necessary for the art form. So I think those people who tell you you can't progress unless you stretch for 30 minutes each day are maybe making a huge generalisation which doesn't necessarily apply specifically to you. If it were me, I'd be thinking rather about doing some kind of aerobic (fitness building) exercise for 20 minutes, followed by some Pilates or yoga - Pilates/yoga build strength and flexibility via breathing & alignment. And both focus on ease and smoothness. Nothing wrong with careful stretching, I'd have thought, after properly warming up; and thoughtful stretching, as in thinking about what you need to stretch and why.

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Claude_Catastrophique

I think you have to find out what works for you. I was always told to stretch when only fully warmed up. Bad thing to do for my body, as after strain of my muscles due to going through a full class, that was too much and I ended up with several major issues. When warm, I do not feel my limits and regularly overstretched. I found out that a mix of warm up stretches and exercises help me to increase flexibility without causing damage. I have a good amount of natural flexibilty but everything that goes beyond that takes me a lot of effort and time. Good thing is, that once I have it, it takes a lot of time to loose it again. I am very strong and I have a lot of tension in my muscles. I need to loosen up before I work them to get good results. Nothing worse for me than doing classical warm up exercises like jogging or jumping around.

With the years and a lot of physical problems I *think* I could figure out now what works for me and what not. It is good to listen to people working in the field and take it as advice but I think there is no absolute truth at it depends so much on how YOUR body works.

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It is good to listen to people working in the field and take it as advice but I think there is no absolute truth at it depends so much on how YOUR body works.

 

 

Yes absolutely. Excellent advice, Claude.

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The other thing to think about is the balance between flexibility and strength. As far as I understand it (caveat: not a medical doctor) stretching actually makes tiny tiny breakdowns in your muscles

This is how *all* muscular training works. Training at high intensity causes microscopic tears. This causes soreness and then growth (if you let the recovery phase happen). That's why it's important to rotate exercises so you don't hammer the same muscle twice in its training/recovery cycle.

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Also, remember there are several ways of stretching. Opinions about this have changed a lot over the years.

 

-Static stretching: only do this when you are warm, between 30-120 seconds, no longer, in the same position. This is the most "traditional" form of stretching. This slightly damages the muscle fibers as pointed out by Redbookish, which is why I don't recommend this in the middle of class either.

-Dynamic stretching: can be used as a warm-up, if you start gently. This can include yoga-type movements (for example sun salutations are a very nice way to stretch your whole body), even light ballistic movements are good. (There is some controversy about this, for a while it was said that ballistic stretching is all bad, but the last few years they do think it can be useful, when done correctly and carefully). When you don't gain anything anymore in static stretching, putting the focus on dynamic stretching can help continuing past the plateau.

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The professional training school near me gives strict instructions to its teachers: the students are never allowed to stretch for flexibility until they are done all of their dancing for the day. As far as I know, this means stretching is included in the last class of the day but not before. (I do not believe this applies to limbering movements such as port de bras.)

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Guest Pas de Quoi

All great information!!

 

Knowledge is power in so many ways. We all must determine what will work best for us.

 

I like the books by Jacqui Haas, and Eric Franklin. I like the information available from Lisa Howell. I really like the Progressing Ballet Technique work. Good luck to you!

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So, so good to see that it is starting to make the "rounds" that extreme and continual stretching is not really good for a dancer!

My students also do not stretch during class, and I try to discourage stretching before class, and only gentle, careful ones afterwards, when they are really warm. It is not necessary to overstretch, and sure can cause serious problems later on in life (like, as of 25.... :P ) .

 

Thank you so much for all the great posts here!

 

-d-

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Princessroja

Add me to the chorus against overstretching. You mentioned stretching every day but also said that you weren't dancing every day. Are you warm before you stretch? You should definitely be warm beforehand, and like the others have said, minimize or avoid it (if you can) before class. My own routine is bits and bobs of what works for me; the dance class I take has a very, very long break in between barre and center so I do use that time to stretch gently, and I'll stretch sometimes when I'm not warm (or at least, not as warm as post-class). And I have one or two muscles (usually hip flexors and calves) that I'll very gently stretch before class, because otherwise I run into issues. BUT here's the difference, I'm not pushing and I'm not expecting improvement. It's more of a relaxation than a stretch, if that makes sense, for my own comfort and not because I'm actively working towards a super flexible body. I haven't got one and I'll never have one, so it's more for functionality at this point. If you're pushing towards improvement you need to be warm, both to maximize your results and more importantly to stay safe.

 

Quite honestly, you may at some point hit a limit to what your body can do. I seem to have hit that with my middle splits--they're good, but not perfect, and nothing I have done, literally, at any point in my life has moved them past this seemingly set limit. I've gotten close but never there.

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I'm in a fitness class besides (adult) dancing, and there is another aproach. But it's for amateurs, not profis!

 

It's doing a light stretch before class - to get rid of stress from office, work, too much car driving and the day. It's more to get yourself somewhat flexible and remember all your muscles, not to get better extensions. That is for stretching after class, or after fitness.

 

You notice it, after office it's often at the beginning a 'can't move at all' - feeling in the body.

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those are good points, Old_Faun, that the relatively short, gentle stretches before exercise (of any kind, actually) help to give the muscles about to be used a little "notice" that they are going to have to get busy; I was told (by some dance-med.specialists) that it helps the muscles get ready. Longer stretches should really only be done after one is finished, as they seem to often lower the ability of the muscle fibers to react quickly to stimuli. (which is why between barre and centre in a ballet class is not the best time to do strong, long stretches).

 

-d-

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Claude_Catastrophique

I would like to add that it takes about 15 min for the muscle to get back to its normal reaction time. I talked about this with my physiotherapist because I was unsure when to stretch more intensivly with my kids. Plus the long and deep stretches should be postponed till after the very last class of the day.

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