Inside PT

Your Best Body: Beyond the Hype

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."


Show Comments ()
Photo by Rob Becker, courtesy DePrince.

In January, a commercial for Chase's QuickPay Mobile App starring Michaela DePrince aired on national television. In March, it was announced that Madonna would be directing the movie version of DePrince's autobiography. And in April, she graced the cover of Harper's Bazarre Netherlands. With all the buzz, it's easy to forget that the Dutch National Ballet soloist has been sidelined since August 2017 with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Pointe checked in with DePrince to see how her recovery is going.

Last fall, you ruptured your Achilles tendon. How did that happen?

It was the first of August. I was in Sicily doing an event with Google. We had dinner at a temple and it was just absolutely incredible. I'm kind of clumsy outside of ballet, so I thought it would be safer if I took my shoes off. Then Lenny Kravitz starts to sing a song and he dedicates it to me. I got up and went to go sit next to him on the stage. When I got up from sitting, I stepped in the wrong place at the wrong time. I knew right away that I ruptured my Achilles. They brought me to an ambulance and took me to the hospital. I flew back to the Netherlands the next day and had an appointment with the doctors here in Amsterdam. They said, "Yeah, you ruptured three quarters of your Achilles." And then on August 14, I had surgery.

Keep reading... Show less
Make sure you're comfortable slipping into pointe shoes for center. Photo by Jim Lafferty.

I was offered a company contract (my first!) starting this fall. What should I do in the meantime to make sure I'm as prepared as possible? —Melissa

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Photographed by Jayme Thornton for Pointe.

This is Pointe's April/May 2018 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

If you are a dance lover in South Korea, EunWon Lee is a household name. The delicate ballerina and former principal at the Korean National Ballet danced every major classical role to critical acclaim, including Odette/Odile, Giselle, Kitri, Nikiya and Gamzatti. Then, at the peak of her career, Lee left it all behind.

In 2016, she moved to Washington, DC, to join The Washington Ballet. The company of 26 is unranked, making Lee simply a dancer—not a soloist, not a principal and not a star, like she was back home.

"I try to challenge myself, and always I had the urge to widen my experience and continue to improve," she says one blustery winter day after company class, still glowing from the exertion of honing, stretching and strengthening. "When I had a chance to work with Julie Kent, I didn't hesitate."

Keep reading... Show less
Olga Smirnova. Photo by Quinn Wharton.

Several weeks ago, Youth America Grand Prix announced that the lineup for tonight's Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow gala at Lincoln Center's Koch Theater would include Bolshoi Ballet principal Olga Smirnova and first soloist Jacopo Tissi. But an article in Page Six published last night states that Smirnova and Tissi were denied visas to enter the US.

YAGP organizers "believe the Department of Homeland Security's decision may be motivated by the myriad tensions between the superpowers," says the piece, noting that "Smirnova is so revered in Moscow that her treatment could create a Russian backlash."

Keep reading... Show less
Houston Ballet principal Connor Walsh getting early practice as a leading man. Photo courtesy Connor Walsh

It's that time of year again—recital season! And not so long ago, some of your favorite ballet dancers were having their own recital experiences: dancing, discovering, bowing, laughing, receiving after-show flowers, making memories, and, of course, having their pictures taken! For this week's #TBT, we gathered recital photos—and the stories behind them—from five of our favorite dancers.

Gillian Murphy, American Ballet Theatre

Murphy gets ready for her role as "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Photo courtesy Gillian Murphy.

"This photo was taken by my mom when I was 11, waiting in the dressing room (the band room of West Florence High School in South Carolina) before I went onstage as 'Mary' for a recital piece featuring 3-year-olds as little lambs.I had so much fun being the teacher's assistant in the baby ballet class each week, particularly because my little sister Tessa [pictured below] was one of the 3-year-olds. I remember feeling quite grown up at the time because I was dancing in the older kids' recital piece later in the program, but in this moment I was just looking forward to leading my little lambs onstage in their number."

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Thinkstock.

From the latest launches to forever favorites, these stretch-canvas flats will (comfortably) keep you on your toes:


Bloch Inc. Infinity


Bloch combined the top features from two of their best-selling shoes to create this arch-enhancing slipper. An elastic top line (instead of draw- string) allows the shoe to mold to your foot, and a ridge-less outsole helps with balances and turns by giving the toes more room to spread out.


Keep reading... Show less
popular
Photo by Jacob Bryant, Courtesy Random Acts

"When you turn up at someone's door saying, 'I would like to make the first dance in Antarctica,' they often call you crazy."

So says Kiwi choreographer and former ballet dancer Corey Baker. Luckily, his persistence paid off. On Sunday, April 22 (that's Earth Day, everybody), Baker, who now directs the U.K.–based Corey Baker Dance, is releasing his short film "Antarctica: The First Dance." Commissioned by Random Acts for Channel 4 and The Space (UK), the four-minute film stars Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer Madeleine Graham—who performed in unimaginably frigid conditions to promote Baker's very important message. "I wanted to highlight Antarctica's epic landscape and vast beauty, but at the same time show that it is under threat," he says. "Climate change impact is real and immediate. By showing up-close the beauty of this incredible place, people can feel closer to something that may otherwise seem abstract and unconnected."

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!