Your Best Body: Beyond the Hype

Use hyperextension to your advantage--without letting it get the best of you.
Published in the December 2011/January 2012 issue.

Photo by Nathan Sayers

Kathi Martuza has legs to die for. On pointe in an impossibly high développé, her standing leg is so extended that it bows slightly backwards. The Oregon Ballet Theatre principal admits that she enjoys the advantages of hyperextended knees. “My legs always look straight,” she says, “and it creates a really nice line.”

But Martuza has found that she can’t allow herself to give into her hyperextension, letting her legs sink backwards. Not only can it strain the backs of her knees, this “lazy” placement also renders multiple turns nearly impossible. She is always in search of her “straight” standing leg. “You have to find it over time by strengthening the right muscles, but you also have to find it daily,” she says. For Martuza, this process starts anew every morning at the barre with a simple rule: While standing in first position, the heels must touch.

Whether you’re hyperextended is just a roll of the genetic dice—you’ve either got it, or you don’t. Although most dancers covet the long lines that hyperextension creates, it’s a double-edged sword. Jennifer Green, a physical therapist and founder of PhysioArts in New York City, says that dancers with hyperlaxity in their knees tend to be more flexible in the rest of their body as well—which means they have a host of strength issues to work on and potential injuries to avoid.

What Not To Do

According to Green, dancers who consistently allow their standing legs to bow backwards into full hyperextension can loosen the knee joints to a dangerous degree. “It’s not just flexible muscles, you have overstretched ligaments as well—and ligaments don’t tighten up again,” she says. “You’ve lost that security in the joints that the ligaments used to provide.”

In addition to damaging the joint, you’re opening yourself up to a host of other problems. Green likens it to children’s blocks: If you have your blocks stacked up straight, you have a strong structure; if one block is off to the side, something else will have to compensate for it or the whole thing will fall. “There becomes a chain reaction,” she says. “A counterbalance will come in the form of gripping in the muscles, or swaying your lower back and pushing your hips forward.” While Green often sees knee pain in hyperextended dancers, she is more troubled by the core instability that sinking back into hyperextension can cause.

“That standing leg has to be straight at the back of the knee and up through the hips into the core,” says Kathleen Mitchell, a teacher at Boston Ballet School. However, since the working leg is not bearing any weight, “it can go ahead and just stretch into hyperextension for that beautiful line.”

Discover “Straight”

Finding the correct position to stand in can be difficult because your leg won’t feel like it’s straight—you actually have to bend the knee slightly. To discover a true vertical line, Mitchell says to sit on the floor with your legs extended in parallel in front of you. Straighten your knees without allowing your heels to come up off the floor. This will fire your quad and glute muscles and emulate what you should feel in a strong supporting leg. Try this exercise with flexed, then pointed, feet, and practice it often to learn the muscle memory of what “straight” legs actually feel like.

Strengthen To Straighten
You should also actively work to strengthen the muscles needed to keep your legs straight. “Even just strengthening your calf and hamstring muscles helps,” says Green, “but I like to do it dynamically, and in a way that you will use the legs while you’re dancing.”
Start by standing sideways to a mirror. Tie a Thera-Band in a loop around your legs and the leg of a barre. Stand in parallel, facing away from the barre with the Thera-Band just below your knees. Step forward until you feel the Thera-Band pull your legs back, but be careful not to let your knees give in to your hyperextension. Looking in the mirror, resist the backwards pull until your legs have reached a truly straight line. Maintaining this leg position, relevé a few times in parallel, then try the exercise on one leg at a time. (See demo on previous page.)

If You Don’t Have It
Although dancers without hyperextension may feel like they got the short end of the genetic stick, there’s good news. “In general, tight dancers have more longevity,” says Green. They also tend to have more strength and be better jumpers, she adds.

Doing anything that forces your knees backward in hopes of gaining hyperextension is dangerous and can cause a myriad of serious injuries, including overstretched ligaments. Stretching your hamstrings the right way is the safest path to straighter legs. According to Green, this means stretching with an engaged quad muscle. “Using your quads naturally relaxes the hamstrings,” she says. “When you pull up your quads, you’re actively straightening your knee and stretching your hamstring at the same time. If you do that in a stretch, you’re going to get to that last bit of hamstring tightness that’s behind the knee.”

One of the biggest mistakes dancers make is lying on their backs and développéing the leg all the way up to the top of their range of motion to stretch it. Instead, you should work up to that height with a straight leg (as in a slow battement), slowly stretching through each point of your range of motion while engaging the quad muscle.

Martuza admits that, while she is thankful to be frequently complimented on her hyperextension, it’s more meaningful to be praised for her musicality or épaulement, rather than an aspect of her physicality she was born with. It isn’t what you’ve been given, but what you do with what you have that will ultimately make you an impressive dancer. “Everybody has strengths and weaknesses,” she says. “Play up your strengths and show them off. Then work on your weaknesses.”

Icy Cool
Need to ice an injury? Skip the ice pack and try a DIY ice massage. Because the ice touches your skin directly, the
temperature of the skin decreases more rapidly, constricting blood vessels to reduce swelling and blocking pain
receptors. Freeze a paper cup filled with water, peel back the edges, then rub the ice onto the injured area in a circular
motion for five minutes. But stop before your skin feels numb—at that point, the area’s gotten too cold, undoing the
beneficial effects.

Work It Out
Like most dancers, Complexions’ Natalia Alonso needs more than class and rehearsals to keep her body in top form. Here she shares her finely tuned cross-training regimen.
Pre-Class Prep: Core-stabilizing exercises. “I have a flexible body type, so I need to get centered before barre. I do small Pilates exercises like pelvic lifts, and toe touches where you lie on your back with the knees in tabletop position and touch one toe to the floor at a time.”
Rehearsal Antidote: Bikram yoga. “When you’re
rehearsing, you’re repeating the same movements over and over, and the body gets a little lopsided. Bikram’s simple postures get me back in balance—and I like the heat!”
Go-To Workout: Gyrotonic. “It’s helped me stabilize my core while building fluidity in my extremities. After doing Gyrotonic, I feel a lengthening in my body, and relief in my joints.”
Off-Season Addition: Swimming. “To keep my legs strong when I’m not dancing, I use a kickboard in the pool. It’s a great resistance exercise in a weightless environment.”
Cooldown: Food and foam roll. “I should probably do it earlier, but my cooldown happens when I go home: I have dinner, take a shower, then roll my body out on the foam roller and stretch my legs to end the day.”

What’s the biggest stretching mistake dancers make?
“When they’re stretching their calf, dancers often drop the arch of their foot, which makes the knee fall inward. That sets up a habit for when you’re dancing that stresses everything from the tendons that control the toes up to the ankle, the calf and the knee. When you stretch your calf, look down: Make sure to maintain the arch of your foot, and keep the center of your kneecap over your second toe.” —Chris Melkovitz, a physical therapist at Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin Sports Medicine Center who works with dancers from Milwaukee Ballet

Wear Red

Want to put a little more power behind your movement? Put on a red leotard. A new study in the journal Emotion suggests that when people see the color red, they’re able to move with more force and faster reaction times, possibly due to a quirk of evolution.

Eat Like A Pro
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancers Sam Chittenden and Katie Dehler start every morning with a bowl of their homemade breakfast muesli. Says Dehler, “It always gives us enough energy to dance until lunch!”
1/2 to 1 cup raw rolled oats
Handful almonds
Handful raw cashews
Handful chocolate or
peanut butter chips
1–2 tsp agave nectar
1 tbsp flaxseed meal
Handful berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, etc.) or a banana
Directions: Combine the first six ingredients, top with berries or a banana, then serve with rice milk or whatever milk you like. 

Weight A Minute
Conventional wisdom used to suggest that weight control was all about calories in and calories out. There may be more to it, says a group of researchers at Harvard University. After tracking the weights and diets of more than 120,000 people for 12 to 20 years, they found what’s more important is where those calories come from.
Worst foods: Increased consumption of french fries alone was found to add almost a pound a year. Potato chips, sugary drinks, red and processed meats, other potatoes, sweets, refined carbs, fried foods, juice and butter also caused weight gain.
Best foods: As expected, fruits, vegetables and whole grains topped the list of foods that resulted in weight loss. More surprising? An increase in dairy products, whether low- or full-fat, had a neutral effect on weight. In particular, eating more yogurt was strongly linked with weight loss, most likely because the bacteria decrease hunger, and may raise your metabolism. Also, nuts (including peanut butter!) helped people lose weight and keep it off, most likely because the vegetable fat keeps hunger at bay.