The most frustrating and discouraging thing for a dancer is bending over and not being able to touch his or her toes. If this is you, you can blame age, long hours at a desk, an exchange of ballet shoes for running sneakers, but excuses don’t change the fact that your days of side-splits and grand plies are long gone and just pointing your feet causes cramps. Rather than looking for excuses, blame the fact that either you don’t stretch enough or you’re stretching incorrectly.
A common misconception is that successful stretching involves kicking your leg as high as possible or trying to pull your knee as close to your nose as possible. As impressive as these moves may be, they actually defeat the purpose of stretching. “Usually when people are stretching, something is bent; the leg is bent, the back is rounded,” explained Donna Flagg, a dancer and instructor with the Joffrey Ballet School in New York. “But bent is not stretched.”
According to Flagg, who created a ballet-inspired stretching class called Lastics, stretching in ballet is about opposition: pulling one point away from another point, analogous to stretching a rubberband. This is why dancers’ bodies are long and lean, their movements are robust and suspended, and they’re the most flexible subjects. “It’s about maintaining the form, which may mean not going as far,” Flagg clarified. Rather than touching your toes or bringing your knee to your face, the objective of stretching is length.
To help get your body to bend like a prima ballerina, dancers from the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago (separate from the Joffrey Ballet School in New York) demonstrated some of their favorite stretches for the Chicago Tribune’s Health Section. Be not intimidated by their superhuman extensions and try not to match their levels; what is most important is form.
How: Kneeling on one knee, straighten and flex your other leg in front of you, keeping your hips square and facing forward. If you’re very tight and are feeling enough of a stretch like that, stay upright. If you can, lean forward, keeping your back and knee straight, and put your hands to the floor. If you still have more stretch in you, grab your foot and pull it toward you, keeping your back and knee straight. Repeat with the other leg.
How: Stand up straight next to a barre or something to hold onto, raise one arm up, lift your torso, and arch backward. Your legs and butt should be tight, and sure to pull in your abdominals to maintain strength and control.
Stretches: Hips, quadriceps, spine
How: Knelt on one knee, bend your other leg so that it’s in front of you at a 90-degree angle making sure it is directly above your heel. Tuck in your rear and push your hips forward, keeping your hips square and that front knee over your heel, until you feel the stretch in your hip and the front of your thigh. For a deeper quadricep stretch, grab your back foot and bring it toward your butt. Finally, if you can, twist your body toward your back leg to stretch your spine. Repeat on the other side.
Stretches: Outer hamstring, lower back
How: Raise your leg to the front and place your foot on a barre with your leg turned out. The key is to keep your hips down and square, so aim for a lower level if you find your hip lifting; if you lift one hip, you’re allowing the muscle to slacken and you’re not getting a full stretch. Flex your foot. If you can, lean your upper body toward your leg (with back straight and hips down) to stretch your lower back.