There is no doubt that a high level of flexibility is a great asset in an art form that values a wide range of motion, but the pursuit toward the perfect penché can also lead to potential injury—enough to stunt your progress and set you up for greater discomfort in the future. So, if placing one leg on a chair and sinking into a split isn’t the way to go, what can you do to achieve maximum range of motion? With the help of Breton Tyner-Bryan—who we are so excited to have as part of our Summer Dance Intensive faculty for 2017— we’ve compiled 5 helpful tips to send you safely along your journey toward flexibility:
“I Iove stretching because I hate limitations, so I am always curious to learn how to my body works together, and how to create space. This has kept me surgery free. So, I started to teach myself to stretch for health instead of image.”
- Breton Tyner-Bryan
While pliés and tendus are placed at the beginning of class to prepare your body for more physically demanding movement later on, jumping into them without any preparation can shock your muscles and joints. To begin your day of classes, rehearsals, and especially performances, wake up your body with a Pilates sequence and resistance band exercises. A set of jumping jacks or a jog around the studio will get your heart rate pumping and your blood flowing to promote muscle rejuvenation. Holding a plank for at least one minute engages your abdominal, arm, and leg muscle groups all at once.
But when can I stretch my hamstrings?! After barre, and again at the end of class are the perfect times to finally work your splits and open up your hips. You are sufficiently warm and limber at this point, which greatly reduces the risk of a strain or tear. In fact, it is at this stage that you will see the most improvement in flexibility. So, at the end of class, take a few moments to catch your breath and lengthen your muscles.
2. Set achievable goals.
Artists are always aspiring to do more, and visualizing an ultimate goal is a great way to keep motivated. But, it’s important to set realistic milestones along the way to make the process more fulfilling. Rather than expecting to touch your leg to your ear a la second in one month, perhaps work towards consistently holding it turned out at 90 degrees with a stable, turned out supporting leg. For added inspiration, mark your progress in a journal, or create an album of photos to look back on when you finally reach your goal.
Remember, this is your progress, and comparing the height of your leg to that dancer you follow on social media will do nothing but distract you from the greater goal: becoming the best dancer you can be. Instead, focus inward, pace yourself and be kind to your body. Start slowly, utilize proper form and alignment, and know that often, less is more. Holding a stretch will not necessarily make you more flexible that day, or any day! In fact, maintaining a stretch for an extended period of time increases your risk for injury. Instead, hold each stretch for about 30 seconds, making sure to breathe deeply the entire time.
“Class and its expectations are typically rushed today. People want results immediately without proper strength and patience to arrive at that moment, which leads to injury. It is important to know what your body needs, where is it usually tight, and what requires extra attention. My hamstrings, the back of my legs, and low back have always been tight, so they get my attention first. Any tightness in my body leads to tears or compensation, so I stretch constantly to avoid it.”
– Breton Tyner-Bryan
A bendy back and limber hamstrings mean nothing for your arabesque if there is no strength and control to support the flexibility. Incorporating strengthening exercises like abdominal and ankle work into your stretching routine will build both the flexibility you need to create a striking line and the power you need to facilitate and move through it. After all, the role of a dancer is not to contort the body for a social media snapshot, but to utilize it to tell a story in action.
5. Listen to your body.
If you ever find yourself in pain (which is very different from the discomfort of a challenging position or new exercise) while stretching, exercising, or dancing, take note and allow your body to rest. Don’t feel discouraged that your legs aren’t doing what you want them to do, or that your back isn’t as open as it was yesterday. Instead, take the opportunity to prevent further injury right then and there. Your body will thank you for treating it well, and you will be back on your way toward your dreams in no time!
“At 27, I tore my psoas and groin on my left hip 5 months apart and kept performing for a year. I was pushing my flexibility way beyond what my already extremely "gumby" like body was capable of. I kept demanding more, and my approach of not listening got me injured.” -Breton Tyner-Bryan
Before you go off to treat your body well and prepare it for the season of classes, rehearsals, and performances ahead, we'd like to leave you with some parting words of wisdom from Breton Tyner-Bryan:
"The best dancers and performers regularly transcend physical form, it's about how they make people feel. Dance is not a modeling agency; it exits in the moment, is real time, flesh and blood. I'd say to younger dancers, do you want a photo or a career? Go for the long game, even when society is consumed by immediate visual validation through social media. Immediate doesn't last, and it also means you're reliant on others to validate you. If you have a great show, class, or rehearsal, deep down you feel it and know it's not about other people’s approval. Dancing as a career is such a personal. grueling, and rewarding path, it's best to be in it with your heart from the beginning."
Need help developing a healthy warm-up, cool down, or overall stretching routine? Want to know which specific strengthening exercises aid flexibility?
Ask us in the COMMENTS BELOW!