Training

Extreme Stretching: The Risks of Sitting in Oversplits

Illustration by Emily Giacalone for Pointe

It's a familiar sight on Instagram: A dancer lounges casually in an oversplit, drinking her morning coffee. One foot is propped up on blocks (or even a chair) as her legs split well beyond 180 degrees.

In recent years, extreme flexibility has become the new normal, with social media flooded with images of dancers contorting themselves into pretzel positions. The question of whether one must be this flexible to achieve a professional dance career is a matter of taste, but it's clear that at competitions, circus-like penchés and développés are being rewarded with medals, scholarships and contracts. But can extreme stretching cause injuries down the line? In truth, it can be either safe or risky.


Why It's Risky

According to Marika Molnar, PT, LAc, who founded Westside Dance Physical Therapy and directs New York City Ballet's physical therapy program, dancers should avoid static stretching (holding for longer than 30 seconds) in extreme positions at all costs. In addition to loosening the ligaments that protect your hips and knees (which do not spring back into shape once overstretched), Molnar says, “in such an oversplit, you are actually pressing the femur bone into the acetabula at such a damaging angle and with so much force that you can injure the labrum, causing a tear in the cartilage of your hip."

Dr. William Hamilton, a New York City–based orthopedic surgeon who often works with dancers, agrees, noting that most dancers are pretty flexible to begin with. “Hypermobile dancers can take the joint through more than it is designed to do," he says. “Anyone moderately loose should be careful holding such positions." In addition to labral tears and other injuries, extreme static stretching can cause joint destabilization in hypermobile individuals.

Flexibility vs. Function

Ballet dancers need to jump and turn as much as they need a high battement, which requires as much core strength, placement and coordination as it does flexibility. Molnar notes that, “unless you're in Cirque, it's not necessary to hold extreme positions because it's not functional for ballet."

In fact, static stretching can also have a negative effect on muscle contraction, decreasing your ability to get into the air during jumps and interfering with controlled landings. “Any kind of stretching, extreme or not, that is held for more than 20 seconds can cause a reduction in the height of jumps," says Molnar. “It is important for dancers to understand that direct correlation."

Kee Juan Han, former director of The Washington School of Ballet, has a go-to quiz for dancers who are worried more about flexibility than strength and placement. “I ask them what word goes before ballet," says Han. “In my book it is 'classical,' and I try to remind the students of that context."

Sweat + Patience = Flexibility

Luckily, there is a safer way to develop flexibility. For Slawomir Wozniak, director of the Master Ballet Academy in Arizona, warming up is a nonnegotiable rule for the school's weekly conditioning classes. “We never go into stretching without first skipping around the room with arms crossed, doing squats or push-ups for at least two minutes to increase blood flow," Wozniak says. Molnar agrees: “Stretching is not a warm-up. Jog around the room, even before a stretch class. Or use your diaphragm muscle to do quick breathing like 'the hundred' exercise in Pilates, alternating inhaling and exhaling."

Once warm, avoid holding stretches for longer than 30 seconds. If you really need to gain more flexibility, hold stretches for shorter periods but repeat more often throughout the week to safely lengthen the muscle. “The slower you build stretch the better," cautions Wozniak.

Check in with your body constantly, he continues. If you feel a sharp or stinging pain, or if you can't take deep breaths, stop. Extremely flexible dancers often have a hard time feeling their limits and should avoid using any gadgets, such as foot stretchers, that can easily push the joint too far.

Keep in mind, too, that flexibility is just one half of the puzzle needed to lift your leg. Han begins his ballet classes with conditioning on the floor for the abdominal and back muscles. Once the core is warm, the stretching that is naturally woven throughout class combinations will be more properly placed.

“Students get so fixated by something on YouTube, but for me, it is about placement," says Han of his approach to ballet's increasingly gymnastic demands. “Your core is what is going to hold you and your leg up."

Similarly, Wozniak is careful to build a mix of floor barre, Pilates and yoga—along with some gymnastics—into his conditioning classes. “Stretching without conditioning muscles doesn't help much," says Wozniak. “You have to be flexible and capable."

While it's hard not to be jealous of the latest Instagram post, focus on the big picture. “Dancers aren't just more flexible," says Wozniak. “They are getting stronger, faster and more coordinated."

Elizabeth Abbick as the Snow Queen in Butler Ballet's "Nutcracker." Photo by Brent Smith, Courtesy Abbick.

Pointe caught up with three college dancers last spring to see what it's like juggling ballet, academics and a social life on campus. First up is Elizabeth Abbick, a student at Jordan College of the Arts, Butler University getting her BFA in dance performance and her BA in mathematics.

Abbick studying in the library. Photo by Jimmy Lafakis for Pointe.

Leawood, Kansas, native Elizabeth Abbick faced some tough choices her senior year of high school. Equally talented in math and ballet, she wanted a professional dance career but also desired to plan her post-performance life. "Butler University had always been on my radar because I knew the faculty was stellar and the students are the best of the best. I realized it could offer me both worlds," she says. Now a senior majoring in dance performance and mathematics, she hopes to work on the business side of the ballet world after her stage career.

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If you're in the NYC area and are in need of weekend plans, you might want to consider heading to the Film Society of Lincoln Center to see Jean-Stéphane Bron's documentary, The Paris Opéra. While the film was originally released in France this past spring, it just made its way to the US on October 18th, and it chronicles the 2015-2016 season at the Paris Opera.

Encompassing the entire institution (which was founded in 1669 by King Louis XIV!), dancers will particularly enjoy an inside look at the Paris Opéra Ballet—both in rehearsals and onstage. Most notably, Bron captures the then POB director Benjamin Millepied as he decides to leave his position with the company barely a year after his appointment.

Check out the full trailer below, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's full listing of showtimes here.

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Bianca Bulle was always prone to ankle sprains. When she was 18, her recoveries became more complicated: She started experiencing Achilles tendonitis due to muscle weakness and fluid buildup in the ankle. "The last thing to get back to normal would be my Achilles, which was so incredibly tight and painful," says Bulle, now a principal at Los Angeles Ballet.

The Achilles is the body's largest tendon, attaching the bottom of the calf muscles to the back of the heel. It contracts and releases as you relevé and plié, as well as when you jump and even walk. Tendonitis, or inflammation, of the Achilles is one of the most frequently reported overuse injuries among active people, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. You'll know it by the pain or tightness at the back of the heel. If the condition gets bad enough, the tendon can rupture, which requires surgery to fix.

Achilles tendonitis is especially common among dancers on pointe, but it's not inevitable. With rest and proper conditioning, you can work to avoid it with careful technique and a commitment to cross-training.


Boston Ballet School pre-professional students. Photo by Igor Burlak Photography, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

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According to Deadline.com, Moss will produce a documentary featuring Peck and her work curating BalletNOW, last summer's star-studded, critically acclaimed program at Los Angeles's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Peck was the first woman to lead BalletNOW's programming, and she brought together dancers from companies including The Royal Ballet, Miami City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opéra Ballet, putting them on stage with tappers, clowns and break dancers (sometimes simultaneously).


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Looking for creative and healthy ways to get your pumpkin fix this fall? First, back away from the pumpkin-spiced latte—the season's unofficial drink is often laced with sugary syrup and comes with a complimentary mid-rehearsal crash. Instead, try these simple snacks with puréed pumpkin. It's high in beta-carotene, which converts to immunity-boosting vitamin A, and is a good source of vitamin K, iron and fiber. You can buy it canned or make the purée from a "sugar" or "pie" pumpkin (they're commonly available at grocery stores or farm markets).

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- Spread purée onto whole-grain toast.

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When Maya Plisetskaya first toured abroad with the Bolshoi Ballet, she stunned the world. Her dramatic and technical abilities were far beyond what anyone outside the Soviet Union had seen before. She quickly became an icon, symbolizing Russian ballet.

Plisetskaya was the perfect ballerina to play the Tsar Maiden in The Little Humpbacked Horse when choreographer Alexander Radunsky and composer Rodion Shchedrin recreated the classic Russian folktale in the 1960s. This vintage clip of the ballet offers a glimpse into an era gone by. Although ballet technique has advanced since then, Plisetskaya's performance is still electrifying. She is daring and agile in her manèges and fouettés, while she shows gentle purity and authentic emotion in the pas de deux with the wide-eyed Ivan. Even half a century later, this magnificent artist continues to transfix us with her radiant presence onstage. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


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