You may not understand exactly what causes a tight IT (iliotibial) band, but you've probably experienced that uncomfortable tension along the outside of your thigh. While it's not actually a muscle, the IT band may require daily stretching, says Suzanne Semanson, physical therapist at New York University Langone Medical Center's Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. The IT band is made of fascia, or tough connective tissue, that attaches to the pelvis through the tensor fascia lata (or TFL)—a small muscle between the pelvis and femur—and runs down to the outside of the knee.
When you're dancing with a fully extended knee, the IT band stabilizes the knee so that it doesn't move sideways out of alignment. However, “it is commonly tight in dancers due to compensatory patterns and overuse of the TFL," says Semanson. For example, if you force your turnout too much from your knees or rely on the TFL (instead of muscles in the hip) for développés to the front or side, this area might be too tight. The IT band and TFL can also build up excess tension from the demands of dancing several hours a day.
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.
Can stretching before class hurt your dancing? New science suggests it might. Yesterday, I listened to a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air program with The New York Times Phys Ed columnist Gretchen Reynolds, who just came out with a book called The First 20 Minutes. Reynolds explained that almost all research now suggests that stretching prior to working out is counterproductive: It causes your brain to think you're going tear the muscles. "When you lean over and touch your toes, and hold that pose, the brain thinks you are about to damage yourself and it then sends out nerve impulses that actually tighten the muscles," she told interviewer Terry Gross. "The result is, you're less ready for activity."
However, dancers aren't your average Joe at the gym. They have to prepare their bodies for the range of motion it needs to do a penché. But the takeaway message here is that you should never flop over your hamstrings when you’re cold. Warm up first with a little light jogging, some Pilates or a plank. Then start stretching. Nonetheless, this isn't the time to actively work on increasing your flexibiliy: You’ll see better results if you do that after class or rehearsal.