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balletla
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My DD has been working hard on her flexibility over the last year or two, particularly around splits and turnout. Somebody told me though, that flexibility should come naturally and that the more you have to stretch to attain the required flexibility, the more damage you do long term. The reason for this apparently is that increases in flexibility mostly come from stretching ligaments and just like an elastic band, they can become weak and lose their strength the more they are stretched, and reach a point where they don't necessarily return to their pre-stretched shape when the stretch stops.

 

Has anyone else heard this? My DD is not that flexible and has had to work hard to get into splits and I am worried that she may be damaging herself.

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Individual dancer's physiques are either naturally "tight" or "flexible". Flexibility and stability are the opposite sides of the same coin. So those who are naturally tight do need to stretch lots to gain flexibility. Those who are naturally flexible need to work on strength to gain stability. It is highly unlikely your dd will lose her strength. Up until the mid 20th Century dancers were told this, and discouraged from stretching much but it was proved not to be so - hence the higher extensions now expected, compared to that time. If in doubt, she should talk it over with her teacher.

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A lot of flexibility is not related to the muscles, but to the surrounding structures eg bone, tendon, ligament etc. Most of these are inelastic and cannot be stretched anyway. Tendons are totally inelastic. Ligaments can be stretched up to about age 11/12 which will give a bit more flexibility but after that stretching the muscles is the only way to increase flexibility (other than dealing with anything else that might be hindering flexibility like an overweight person who can't touch their toes because their belly is in the way - which I'm sure is a problem none of our young dancers have!).

 

Joints such as the hip are more flexibile if the socket is shallower, and also the angle that the head of the thigh bone is at will affect turnout. There are ligaments at the hip that also restrict/allow turnout although as I said above, they can be stretched up to about age 12.

 

 

As long as a dancer strengthens the muscles that he/she stretches there won't be an issue. Overuse Injuries come from imbalances - dancers often have thighs that are strong but tight, and hamstrings that are loose but weak. That's an imbalance. As Pas de Quatre wrote - loose joints do tend to be a bit weaker and therefore more prone to acute injury (eg sprains, strains, twists) but again, as long as you strengthen what you stretch, and stretch what you strengthen, you're ok! (That's one of my 'golden' rules, by the way!)

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The problem of attaining more flexibility doesn't lie with the facts as correctly stated in several of the posts above - but with the aspirations of the student. The desire for perfect splits, high extensions or other "attributes" the student sees in others is only seen by comparing oneself to others. That's always a risky game.

 

The problem is to take one's own assets and learn to use them to counter those deficits that everyone has.

 

Learning to use a less than "perfect" foot in a way that enhances the beauty of the foot is the dancer's true work.

 

If the split is not perfect in a grand jeté (because the student is more strong than flexible) use that strength to make that grand jeté soar (which is the point of it, anyway).

 

If the back bend is not where we dream we would like it to be - learn to use the head, shoulders, arms (and smile) to make what we have effective.

 

Since so much is dependent upon things we can't change - bone structure (shape, size, how fitted together) - tendons - ligamets -it is more important to learn to use what we have.

 

Can informed supervised stretching help? Yes - to a degree. Some of it at the expense of small tears - some of it at the expense of stability and alignment and much of it unnecessary. No miracle of dance occurs when one has a perfect split.

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Anjuli I love what you wrote. You said something the other day about missing conversations about musicality, expression, etc. I hope in my teaching I will not only help to correct the splits, a dozen pirouettes and the perfect pointework but also how to dance.

 

I am sure you will .....:)

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I actually thought that most people would be able to do the splits if they stretched enough in the right way!maybe because I tried it and it only took me about 3weeks to do front splits with both legs,but I was very flexible when I was a kid and was quite good at gymnastics,I can actually still do walkovers and flips if I warm up properly and I stopped 25 years ago.

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Anjuli is so very right - I have never been naturally very flexible but always managed to hold my own among my peers as a youngster as I could use my skills in musicality, and I had a good strong jump.

 

Having said that, flexbility is an element of dance fitness that needs to be good, in order to be successful as a professional dancer. It's another of those 'Darwinian' elements that separate those destined for professional careers from those who despite wanting it and working for it, and despite having wonderful musicality etc, just aren't made in the right way.

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Anjuli is so very right - I have never been naturally very flexible but always managed to hold my own among my peers as a youngster as I could use my skills in musicality, and I had a good strong jump.

 

Having said that, flexbility is an element of dance fitness that needs to be good, in order to be successful as a professional dancer. It's another of those 'Darwinian' elements that separate those destined for professional careers from those who despite wanting it and working for it, and despite having wonderful musicality etc, just aren't made in the right way.

 

There is no disagreement here that a dancer needs flexibility. The question is to what degree and at what expense and to what outcome?

 

The constant refrain is "how do I stretch more?" "How do I get a perfect splif?" "How do I get banana feet?" and so on.

 

It has become similar to the plague of being thinner than thin which overwhelmed the dance world not that long ago. A lot of girls discovered to their surprise that being thin did not a dancer make. The message had been that it was thinness which did the trick.

 

The students we correspond with here and in our daily lives are young and it is easy for them to over focus on this aspect (flexibility) of dance to the exclusion - or minimalization - of the other aspects.

 

The problem is also that the other aspects are more ephemeral - whereas comparing splits is more quantifiable.

 

I feel that the issue of flexibility and how it winnows out - or in - those aspiring to a vocation in dance will take care of itself. Either the teacher on the scene will handle it or the outcome of auditions or true self assessment will make the point obvious.

 

For the student who desires to dance but not at the level of an international company - there are many doors to open. When we encourage the necessity of a perfect split or a super high extension, we are perhaps negating the joy that these other doors of dance can offer. We are discouraging the less than perfect split student. I spent much of my life cheering for them because they are the majority and despite their less than perfect bodies - they are often the ones who love it most. The little mouse in the back row - I admit to loving that mouse.

 

Darwinism affects bodies - but not hearts and minds. I'd rather watch an interesting dancer than a perfect one.

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I would like to watch a perfect dancer and a interesting one who has the full package and there seems 100s of them getting into the top companies. My daughter has the flexibility but not always the strength to maintain height and keep it there. She is working on it though. Bit of a chicken and an egg is it easier to work on strength than it is flexibility then?

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A lot of flexibility is not related to the muscles, but to the surrounding structures eg bone, tendon, ligament etc. Most of these are inelastic and cannot be stretched anyway. Tendons are totally inelastic. Ligaments can be stretched up to about age 11/12 which will give a bit more flexibility but after that stretching the muscles is the only way to increase flexibility (other than dealing with anything else that might be hindering flexibility like an overweight person who can't touch their toes because their belly is in the way - which I'm sure is a problem none of our young dancers have!).

 

Joints such as the hip are more flexibile if the socket is shallower, and also the angle that the head of the thigh bone is at will affect turnout. There are ligaments at the hip that also restrict/allow turnout although as I said above, they can be stretched up to about age 12.

 

 

 

 

As long as a dancer strengthens the muscles that he/she stretches there won't be an issue. Overuse Injuries come from imbalances - dancers often have thighs that are strong but tight, and hamstrings that are loose but weak. That's an imbalance. As Pas de Quatre wrote - loose joints do tend to be a bit weaker and therefore more prone to acute injury (eg sprains, strains, twists) but again, as long as you strengthen what you stretch, and stretch what you strengthen, you're ok! (That's one of my 'golden' rules, by the way!)

 

Is it possible to tell without an assessment by a physiotherapist or similar what it is that is limiting those with less than perfect flexibility and if there is potential for it to be improved? Would you say that generally speaking it isn't really possible to improve flexibility much beyond the age of about 12?

 

 

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I would like to watch a perfect dancer and a interesting one who has the full package and there seems 100s of them getting into the top companies. My daughter has the flexibility but not always the strength to maintain height and keep it there. She is working on it though. Bit of a chicken and an egg is it easier to work on strength than it is flexibility then?

 

Yes, it is much easier to work on gainiing flexibility. A dancer who is less flexible is generally more stable and thus able to maintain a stable core while working for flexibility. For instance - a strong dancer who is working to gain height of extension has much less difficulty maintaining balance and alignment while working on height of extension. On the other hand a dancer with a flexible body has to fight for stability while working for strength.

 

In her autobiography Natalia Makarova several times discusses her problems with maintaining her strength. She said that if she didn't work on it all the time her body would simply not support her and she would fall apart. I interviewed Bolshoi Premier Danseur Nikolai Tsiskaridze and he told me that his body is so flexible that he has to be very careful not to warm up too much or even to be in a room that is warm or his muscles simply don't engage correctly. He said he is always fighting for stability.

 

Is it possible to tell without an assessment by a physiotherapist or similar what it is that is limiting those with less than perfect flexibility and if there is potential for it to be improved? Would you say that generally speaking it isn't really possible to improve flexibility much beyond the age of about 12?

 

An experienced ballet teacher can do quite a good job of making this kind of assessment as it pertains to ballet.

 

I have never found it impossible to improve at any age. There are studies showing that even the frail elderly in wheel chairs can improve flexibility - however little that may be. I have seen 50 yr old beginner dance students improve.

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That's true, pdq. I have always had hypermobile hip joints (and left thumb, rather bizarrely!) and was more than comfortable as a child sitting in splits, but I had to work to carefully stretch the other muscles and ligaments to get there beforehand.

 

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As for whether it is dangerous to push oneself through stretching, I'm afraid this is a rather generic question and there will be no right or wrong answer. As far as I know, streching to increase muscle length, at any age, isn't dangerous to the muscle itself IF DONE SAFELY AT THE TIME - dangerous stretching methods will always be dangerous and can cause muscle injury there and then but as for whether there is any delayed danger to the muscle fibres from stretching, I genuinely don't know the answer to this question but will check with a colleague of mine who works in this area.

 

As for the age question - increasing flexibility by increasing muscle length can be achieved at any age. Increasing flexibility by stretching ligaments can only really be done up to around age 12 - and I say 'around' because all children are different!

 

It is worth pointing out here that flexibility as a term, refers to the range of motion at a joint not just the length of the muscle. Altering muscle length is the most productive way of working on increasing this, as the other factors (of which there are many) tend to be less easy to alter.

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My question is really about whether it is damaging to continue to push yourself to continually increase flexibility through stretching, if you aren't someone that sits naturally in splits?

 

I think the key words in your question are "continually increase" as opposed to "maintaining flexibility." To continue to increase flexibility rides up against the reality of the body - it has a finite limit. This far and no farther. How do you know this? You listen to what the body is telling you - pain is an "no more" indicator and you want to stop before that. Unfortunately, most of us don't listen and end up with problems, injury and pain. But, if you listen carefully you will know.

 

I remember working on renversé entournant and to do it with the correct head movement meant to use my neck in a way in which my body thundered a distinct "NO" in my brain. So, I learned to do that particular step another way.

 

Now, "maintaining flexibility" is an entirely different question. When you find your optimum - go that far and no farther.

 

But, even then there are "stop" and "caution" signs: cold weather, illness, fatigue, a sense of a lack of welbeing. These are all signs that you may need to do less that day and/or just give it a break.

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