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.
A correctly rotated, aligned and stabilized arabesque can feel elusive. It's tricky to find the right balance between strength and flexibility, so we combined two of our best tips to help you find your line. Read on for training advice, and visualization exercises to get that leg soaring higher.
You’ve probably heard it time and again throughout your training: Flexibility isn’t all that helpful unless you have the strength to support it. Leigh Heflin Ponniah, MA, MSc, from the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries of New York University’s Langone Medical Center, offers this exercise to build lower-back strength to better support and hold arabesques. Try it two to three times a week as part of your warm-up before class, and you’ll be on your way to a stronger arabesque balance.
a physio ball
a clear space where the wall meets the floor
1. Position a physio ball under your hips. Lie facedown on top of it with your chest slightly curved over the ball and hands by the ears. Your feet should be against a wall, with the toes on the floor, heels on the wall and legs slightly bent.
2. Use your lower-back extensors, which allow backward bending of the spine, and your gluteus muscles to slowly lift your chest up and away from the ball. The body should pass through a straight diagonal before the chest continues lifting into a slight arch without crunching in the lower back. The core should also be engaged.
3. Curve back down over the ball and do 10 repetitions, increasing up to 20 as you gain strength.
If you don’t have access to a physio ball, you can also do the exercise lying on the floor. However, Heflin says the ball allows for an increased range of motion in the lower back and challenges dancers’ stability. —Madeline Schrock
"Square your hips!" Susan Jaffe, dean of dance at University of North Carolina School of the Arts gives a fresh take on the classic correction.
Fresh Take: Jaffe says to think of a twisting energy in your rib cage to counteract your open hip, “like an internal ‘S.’ ” For example, if your left leg is in arabesque, you “square off” by feeling an opposite, twisting energy pulling up through the left side of your ribs. “Otherwise you’ll collapse the rib cage on the lifted hip,” Jaffe explains. “You need to lift out of that.”
The Real Issue: “Square off” can be misleading when it comes to arabesque or attitude. “If you’re lifting your leg in arabesque, your hip bones cannot be square because your knee and the top of your arch will face the floor,” says Jaffe. “They have to face the audience, and in order for that to happen, you have to lift your hip. What is square is the rib cage.” —Katie Rolnick
Everybody wants a higher extension, but achieving your best line is a long-term effort that includes both flexibility and strength. Here are two of our best tips on how to improve your développé devant by engaging and releasing the hard-to-find psoas muscles.
Controlled extensions to the front are not only physically difficult, but they’re sometimes hard to understand anatomically. Obviously, you want to work on increasing your flexibility with daily hamstring stretches. But often, the culprit is a weak iliopsoas—a group of deep core muscles that attach at the spine and run through the abdomen to the front of the hip. Your iliopsoas is crucial in lifting the leg, but it’s tough to find, and even tougher to activate.
Try this iliopsoas strengthener recommended by kinesiologist Karen Clippinger, author of Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology: Tie a medium-weight Thera-Band around your legs just above the knee and lie back on your elbows with your knees bent and feet lifted off the ground. Your pelvis should be tucked under at first to help you find your iliopsoas. Pull one knee in towards your chest, straighten the leg without letting the knee move away from the torso (it’s okay if you can’t fully straighten it) and return to the starting position, repeating six times on each side (eventually increasing to 10 reps). As you gain strength, practice the exercise with a more neutral pelvis, and gradually progress from leaning on your elbows to a more vertical position leaning on your hands.
Another exercise is to simply place the leg on the barre in croisé devant, keeping the hips square and lifting out of the supporting hip. Rotating from the top of the hip, feel a lengthening, spiraling energy through the working leg and lift it off the barre. Hold for five counts and slowly lower. Don’t worry if you can only lift it a few inches—this exercise will strengthen your deep turnout muscles, which will take pressure off the quad and create support from underneath.
If you constantly find yourself reaching for a foam roller, you’re not alone. “Dancers’ hip flexors are very often tight because of how much they use them every day,” says Michelle Rodriguez, founder and director of Manhattan Physio Group. Each développé devant and cambré forward fires this set of muscles, so it’s no wonder why dancers complain of the chronically tight spot. Here, Rodriguez offers her tips for a proper lunge that stretches not only the tensor fasciae latae, psoas and iliacus muscles, which all help flex the hip, but also the quadriceps. “Ideally this stretch should be done every day, even on your day off from dancing,” says Rodriguez. Save it for after barre when your body is warm, or at the end of class or rehearsal.
1. To set up to stretch your right side, kneel on your right knee. Rodriguez says you can position a towel or legwarmer underneath to cushion it if necessary. Place the left leg in front of you with your knee bent to about 90 degrees. You can place your hands on top of your knee, or hold on to the barre with one hand for balance.
2. Firmly squeeze your lower right gluteals, and zip up your abdominals from your pubic bone to your belly button. “By activating these muscles, you will be able to place your pelvis in the best position to maximize the stretch,” she says. You should now feel it in your right hip and thigh.
3. Throughout the stretch, keep the thigh you’re kneeling on vertical. “A very common mistake dancers make is to go too far into a much deeper lunge,” says Rodriguez. If you use a larger range of motion, you risk getting less of a stretch in the tensor fasciae latae, psoas, iliacus and quadriceps.
4. Once you can maintain the shape with proper muscular engagement, only then should you slowly lunge forward, says Rodriguez, towards the end of the stretch.
Repetitions: Hold for 30 to 60 seconds and repeat on the other side. Do two complete sets.
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It seems like every other week I have a new injury: hip issues, Achilles tendonitis, back problems. I’m afraid this will stunt my career— it’s hard to improve when I’m always injured. What can I do? —Frustrated
Injuries are exasperating, but nonetheless a part of our profession. Make sure you’re taking time to heal properly. It’s tempting to try to push through when you should be resting. I developed a rare hip injury early in my career. I could barely lift my leg, but I was so anxious about casting that I did not have it properly evaluated for months. Well, I didn’t get the part, and I permanently damaged my hip. I also developed knee and ankle problems as a result of compensating.
Use the time off as an opportunity to learn about your body’s weaknesses, quirks and asymmetries. I found that my right hip socket cocks slightly inward, so certain muscles are weaker. Now I regularly stretch and strengthen that side to prevent further strains.
Once your body is well enough to get back to class, don’t be embarrassed if you need to modify combinations for a while. You’ll learn to work correctly, which will benefit your dancing in the end.
I’m never satisfied with my pointe shoes. I’ve tried several and they always make my feet look more turned in than they actually are! What should I do? —Janice, California
Pointe shoes can sometimes magnify imperfections. In all honesty, maintaining turnout is more difficult once you’ve got the boots on. Make sure you’re taking a sincere look at your technique and not just blaming your shoes.
That said, finding the perfect pair takes a while. I’ve changed my shoes many times during my career. Find a professional fitter to measure your feet and recommend shoes based on your foot type. “Look at the box shape of your shoe,” says Mary Carpenter, a New York–based teacher and shoe fitter. “If you have a square foot and you’re wearing a tapered box, it’s going to twist. If you have a narrow, tapered foot and you wear a square box, you’re going to sink in it.”
There are also tricks that can improve the look of your shoe. Some dancers criss-cross their elastics to tighten up excess material, or sew the sides down lower. Consider trying a special-order shoe. They take a while to come in, but you can customize everything to your liking.
My arabesque is stuck at 90 degrees. How can I make it go higher? —Talia, Florida
I’m so glad you asked—I used to have the same problem! Thankfully, my arabesque significantly improved over time. It’s still not great—94 degrees on a warm day—but at least it’s acceptable.
I suspect you either have an inflexible back or you’re holding your arabesque improperly. Or both, as was my case. Luckily, a teacher taught me a great exercise that can help you increase flexibility and find proper placement.
You’ll need two portable barres and a mirror. Set the barres parallel to the mirror, one about four feet behind the other. Take an arabesque, placing your foot on the back barre and your hands on the front barre. Observe your position. Are your shoulders down and square, ribs aligned, hips pulled up, arabesque leg turned out and behind you? (Use a lower barre if you can’t maintain the correct position.) Take three slow, deep pliés, keeping your upper back lifted. After the third plié, lift your back leg off the barre (without compromising your shoulders), hold, and lower the leg back down. Repeat, for a total of four times on each side. Stretch your back and hips in the opposite direction as soon as you’re finished. My flexibility, position and strength improved, and hopefully yours will, too.
Talking to Amy: Houston Ballet Principal Barbara Bears
I’ve had four foot surgeries, and have unfortunately experienced trickle-down injuries when coming back. You tend to compensate when you’re not 100 percent, so other things flare up. As dancers, we have to listen to our bodies. If something’s bothering you, talk to your instructor and then have it looked at by a dance medicine specialist. If you have several serious injuries, look at how you’re working. Are you not wearing the proper shoes, or not warming up well enough before class? Do your own little bit of investigating.
When San Francisco Ballet soloist Elizabeth Miner found herself huffing and puffing through David Bintley’s The Dance House, she knew it was time to increase her cross-training. “The piece was nonstop,” says Miner. “Just running it was not enough. I needed to build my aerobic capacity.” In addition to Pilates—which she already did—Miner began using the elliptical trainer for 30 minutes three times a week. She noticed a change almost immediately. “I could finish the ballet and not be completely exhausted,” says Miner. “I felt more in control, able to think about other things onstage, like the music and movement. Being tired is the last thing you want to focus on.”
Whether it’s running, yoga, spinning classes or weight lifting, non-dance exercise can help improve your technique. Marika Molnar, director of physical therapy at New York City Ballet, believes cross-training is an essential part of any dancer’s regime. “I don’t just recommend it, I insist on it,” says Molnar, who has been working with NYCB dancers for the past 30 years. “Because dancers perform the same movements using the same muscles all the time, strength, flexibility and motor coordination exercises help to nourish the body.” NYCB apprentices are offered a full wellness program that includes an individualized workout. “Once they experience how great it is, they make time for it,” Molnar adds.
A physical therapist or trainer can help you find the regimen that will be most effective for your body. Generally, exercises should be done two to three times a week, working to the point of fatigue to build strength while making sure your form is correct at all times.
Problem: Low Extensions
According to Molnar, strength at the end range of your flexibility is crucial to developing higher extensions. “Pilates reformer exercises are great,” she says. “One of my favorites is the single leg circle; it helps to improve abdominal stabilization while strengthening the whole leg through the range of motion.”
Athletic trainer Mike Howard and Pilates teacher James Harren, who both work with Houston Ballet dancers, recommend strengthening and stretching the psoas muscle through slow, deep sit-ups with the abdominal muscles contracted both on the way up and down. “Everything is connected, so extensions are easier with a stronger core,” Harren says. “Because the psoas attaches to the inner part of the thigh bone, it rotates the leg and lifts it.” Add the obliques in by twisting slightly to the left and right. Do two sets of ten three times a week.
Don’t leave out the strength of the standing leg. Harren recommends placing one leg on a medium-sized physio ball while lying down, the other leg in the air turned out and in first position, then lifting and lowering the pelvis in this position.
Problem: Low Jumps
Stretching correctly is the first step to improving your jumps. “Hanging out with your leg on the barre while chatting with friends will weaken ligaments and negatively impact your jumps,” warns Molnar. “Ideally, stretches should only be held for two to three minutes.” Molnar also believes plyometric training (which builds muscle power through quick, explosive movements) is essential to improve the strength, elasticity and activation of the muscles you use to jump. Try jumping with a two-pound weight, or jump on and off a six-inch box. “Have someone put their hands on your waist and push down to provide resistance,” Molnar suggests.
Howard advises strengthening the feet to improve your jumping. Try picking up marbles or cotton balls with your toes to engage the muscles in your arch.
Problem: Weak Port De Bras
Harren has dancers practice port de bras while lying on a roller. “Balancing on the roller will steady the core and build greater sensory motor coordination,” he says.
To strengthen the shoulder joint, stand up and do small shoulder circles with a dumbbell. Have a trainer determine the appropriate amount of weight. Any exercise where you pull something in front of you backwards, like on a rowing machine, will strengthen the muscles of the shoulder blades, creating a strong back.
Problem: Lack Of Stamina
Elliptical training, swimming and biking all offer low-impact ways to increase your stamina. Be sure to set the elliptical on a smaller incline and use light resistance. If you prefer the treadmill, Molnar recommends walking (both forward and backward), not running. “Running puts extreme force on the joints, especially the knees.” says Molnar. She advises staying away from the StairMaster altogether because it’s stressful on the knees and good form is hard to maintain.
In any aerobic exercise, try to achieve 65 percent of your maximum heart rate (you can determine your MHR by subtracting your age from 211). You need at least 15 to 30 minutes three times a week to see a difference in your endurance. “Make sure you are breathing in the lower lungs and not just the upper chest,” Molnar says. You can continue working on your endurance even while dealing with some injuries. Ask a doctor about low-impact swimming or biking.
Nancy Wozny covers the arts and health from Houston, TX.
The only thing dancers ever brag about to me is something least under their control: the beauty of their arch. An elegant arch is the grace note at the end of an extended line. It’s no wonder that teachers and choreographers single out dancers with beautiful feet and harangue the unendowed.
What if you’re a talented dancer, but you feel held back by your feet? Is there anything you can do to improve your arch? Yes, a lot, depending on your age and certain structural factors.
In medical terms, when you see a foot in tendu, you’re looking at the ankle, the midfoot joints and the toes in maximum plantar flexion (literally, the bending of the sole of the foot). Deficiencies or excesses in these joints add up to the look of the pointed foot. The chief player is the ankle. To point, the top of the foot moves downward away from the shin. This activity gives a fist-like appearance to the top of the foot and directs the remainder of the foot to the floor. Inadequate range of movement in the ankle keeps most feet from achieving a graceful point.
Some ankles simply do not have enough range of movement. Like the screen on a laptop, the ankle was designed only to open a certain amount. If you try to force the screen beyond its designed limit, it will break. If an ankle is forced beyond its design, it may be injured. This is more often the case for anyone with flat feet. Because these are the hardest feet to improve, many teachers discourage those with very flat feet from seeking a career in dance to avoid disappointment after investing years of hope, time and money.
Twenty-six years ago, a young dancer in A Chorus Line showed me a simple way to measure an ankle’s capacity to point—and check to see if your efforts realistically stand a chance. I’ve used his method ever since: Point your foot to the max. Take a ruler or some other straightedge and place it along the top of your shin, just above the ankle (see above). Look at the part of the straightedge that extends over the top of the foot. There should be a space between it and your foot. If the straightedge touches your foot, pointe work will be a challenge.
Most often dancers who experience difficulty pointing have a raisin-sized extra bone called an “os trigonum,” which occurs deep in the back of the ankle joint. When dancers born with an os trigonum try to point, this bone blocks the action. Sometimes there is no extra bone, but extra cartilage, called “marsupial meniscus,” causing another kind of blockage.
For those who have a little space under the straightedge, the arch can be developed. Be mindful that young people are usually more flexible. Stretching will work better on the young ballerina than on the recent empty-nester who wants to try pointe. Also remember that if any of the following solutions cause pain or problems, ease up or stop. If the pain persists, see a doctor who is familiar with issues dancers face. Finally, whenever you try something new, especially if you’re trying to change something you were—or were not—born with, approach the project gradually. Don’t rush things and end up with an injury.
A visit to a foot orthopedist or podiatrist who has experience working with dancers can help you determine the nature of any difficulty you may have achieving a full point. For those with a bony obstruction in their ankle, surgery may help; for others there are less drastic solutions.
Stretching is one option. While some ballet dancers have been known to just wedge their feet under a piano and go for it, there are more sane ways to stretch the ankle, such as commercially available arch-stretching devices. (Caution: Don’t use these devices if you have loose ligaments!) Some companies even encourage their dancers to use them. Most safely, a dance physical therapist, osteopath or chiropractor can work with you to increase the range of extension in your ankle.
Also consider toe-strengthening exercises to maximize your point by working the muscles behind the toes during tendu and on pointe. It may take years, but the overall result is usually better than any other strategy.
While frowned on by some, there are pads available (www.fancyfoot.com), which, when worn on the foot, enhance the appearance of your instep. Choosing split-sole ballet slippers and avoiding bulky arch support in your dance shoes is another way to help you feign a higher arch. I don’t recommend sewing your ribbons too far forward in your pointe shoes to pull up the arch, because you’ll lose valuable ankle support. If your toes are strong, you can remove the rear half of your pointe shoe shank to give your foot a higher-looking arch.
Often dancers between the ages of 12 and 14 become aware of problems with their feet and arches as they begin pointe. But given time—and a little extra effort—their point improves. Hang in there. There’s help in most cases!
Dr. Novella has been a doctor of podiatric medicine in New York City since 1978. He specializes in dance injuries and