Stretching Is Good for Dancers, Isn't It?

“Blessed are the flexible for they will not allow themselves to become bent out of shape.” – Robert Ludlum

        Dancers need to be able to raise their legs as high as possible, split their legs 180° apart in a leap, and turn them out as far as possible when necessary. When all of that is considered, there is no mystery in the fact that dancers spend an inordinate amount of time stretching, working on flexibility, and trying to increase range of motion in most of their joints.

                        How then, could stretching be bad?

        There is a right way and a wrong way to stretch. Knowing the difference between the two and listening to the body will mean the difference between improving dance performance and setting a body up for injury.

        The dancer’s goal is to stretch muscles. Flexible muscles improve posture, increase a dancer’s ability to move freely, help prevent injuries, and provide increased blood circulation throughout the body. Tight muscles tend to pull on the skeleton and force the body into unnatural positions. Tight muscles prevent movement, and are more apt to tear during quick movements. They also tend to constrict blood vessels and decrease blood flow.

         One important quality of muscles is that they are elastic. When a muscle is stretched, although it becomes more flexible, the muscle fibers do not lose their elasticity and become lax. Ligaments are the fibrous strands that connect bones to each other. In addition to holding the skeleton together in correct alignment, they also prevent the body from moving in ways that it is not designed to move. Unlike muscles, they are not elastic. When they become stretched out, they cannot do their jobs; the body is allowed to move in ways that can cause injuries like bone dislocations, and the body’s alignment becomes distorted. For these reasons, dancers need to be sure to concentrate on stretching muscles and not ligaments.

        Ligaments are found at the joints. Any stretches that pull on the joints or focus on those areas stretch ligaments and could be causing more harm than good. 

The "frog stretch", pictured above, pulls on the ligaments surrounding the hip and the knee and could be setting the dancer up for injury. 

This lunge position which is often suggested for stretching the quadriceps muscle group also pulls on the ligaments of the hip. 

        Dancers need to focus on stretching exercises that stretch the center of the muscles. When stretching correctly, the dancer should feel a gentle pull in the belly of the muscle. If any pulling is felt at the joint, the dancer could be performing the stretch incorrectly, or the stretch may not be a good one because it is stretching parts of the body that should not be stretched and will not increase flexibility.

        The lunge pictured above can be replaced with a lunge with a bent back knee that will focus on the actual quadricep muscles instead of straining the ligaments of the hip.

        Dancers need to be aware of these differences and take time to listen to their bodies. By doing so, they will be able to choose stretches that are safe and effective at increasing flexibility.