With each new generation of dancer, flexibility seems to become more and more the hot topic of discussion and dissent, and with the emergence of extreme flexibility in dance students as young as eight leading to chronic injuries and even stress fractures alarm bells are ringing.
Flexibility is essential for beautiful clean lines and correct alignment, it assists in achieving good technique and prevents injury thereby promoting dancer longevity and it is interesting to note that flexibility is no longer the prerogative of the Vocational dance student but that through Social Media and new dance trends even the 'once a week' recreational dance student desires a more flexible body.
So how can student dancers with a normal or limited range of motion safely achieve more flexibility.
Flexibility will not come without a lot of consequent and careful stretching work in addition to regular classes and although some dance students will gain joint range quickly others need a longer period. Professional dancers need to briefly stretch every day but dance students need regular sessions to achieve the flexibility needed to become a dancer.
Everyone is different. For example, some students are better at stretching in the morning, perhaps before or after morning class or school and this set time each day works best for them, whereas others prefer afternoon or even late night stretching sessions. Knowing what's best for you and fits into your schedule is the key to success.
Being consequent is important and how often one can stretch per day is an interesting factor. Try stretching three times a day for 15 minutes rather than once a day for 45 minutes. Muscles have memory and this method can prove more successful. Stretching on a minimum of five days a week is essential if you want to see results but rest is also important as muscles and joints need recovery and repair time.
Don't confuse warming up with stretching. Always warm up BEFORE you stretch even if it is a short jog around the studio to get the circulation and blood flowing before starting.
Never stretch when you are in pain, tense or angry, you need a relaxed and willing mind and body. Stretching should be an enjoyable element of your dance training and not a torture session.
Always stretch the larger muscle groups before the smaller ones such as starting with the larger back muscles and long hamstrings. Knowing what you need to stretch most and what movements you will need in class also helps you plan your stretching however, having a set stretching programme that works systematically through all the muscle groups is the best plan and always spend time after your set stretch routine on your stiffer areas.
Longer stretching sessions directly before class are not advisable as joints may be weakened. After class will ensure a safer outcome. Try and match your flexibility gains with corresponding strength and control gains and always initiate a gentle core when stretching.
Never bounce or force a stretch. Gently reach into a good stretch using the correct alignment of the whole body and hold it for a couple of minutes. Every 30 seconds or so try gently stretching a little further on a deep outward breath. Always come out of a stretch carefully and try stretching the opposing muscle group every now and then so that they don't weaken. Stretch both sides of the body but certainly spend longer on the stiffer side.
Cool down properly after a stretch session and if you are very sore try going for a gentle walk to get rid of lactic acids. Massage, magnesium or a long hot bath can also help stiff muscles.
Using Deuser bands, Thera bands and Stretching bands correctly are safe methods of stretching and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) is an excellent stretch technique when applied with care. If you are getting family or a fellow dance student to help you stretch make sure they know exactly what they are doing and that they respect your limitations and stop immediately when asked.
Between seven and twelve years of age is an optimum time to really achieve good flexibility with the corresponding strength and control needed to utilise it properly. Younger students usually lack the requisite strength, coordination and understanding of alignment and older students are already much stiffer. Incidentally there is no upper age limit to achieving flexibility and if you have had a long break from dancing or been off with an injury you will always regain your former flexibility once you restart your regular classes and a consequent careful stretching regime.
Being careful, patient and listening to your body are key components to successfully gaining injury free good flexibility.