Health & Body
You can improve your flexibility through proper stretching and strengthening, but there's no quick fix. A slow and steady method is safest and most effective. Photo by Hudson Hintze/Unsplash

I can barely get my leg up to 90 degrees in grand battement, and I still don't have my splits. How do I become more flexible? —Kassidy

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Health & Body
All photos by Jayme Thornton, modeled by Kailei Sin of The School at Steps.

During class, you're tuned in to every aspect of your dancing. But when the day is over, you may be tempted to head home and skip out on a proper cooldown. Don't: Going from grand allégro to a full stop is hard on your muscles. Bené Barrera, an athletic trainer who works with Houston Ballet, says, "If you're doing an end-of-day cooldown, you're going to need at least 20 minutes. That allows the muscles to calm down." And your body should notice the difference: "You'll have less trigger-point pain later, and your soreness might reduce a bit." A proper cooldown may even help you sleep better.

But post-class stretching isn't about sitting in a straddle. "As a dancer, you're never truly isolating one area," says Barrera. Your cooldown should mimic that. "You want to cover the whole body altogether. You don't want to just stretch one muscle group."

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Just for fun
The multitalented Merritt Moore (photo by James Glader, courtesy Moore)

For the past decade, Merritt Moore has been living a double life as both a professional ballerina and a quantum physicist. While dancing with Zurich Ballet and Boston Ballet, she received her undergrad degree from Harvard in physics, and she's currently pursuing a PhD in quantum physics at Oxford while performing with English National Ballet and London Contemporary Ballet.

Now, Moore is hoping to add another ball to her juggling act: becoming an astronaut. She's one of 12 contestants competing on the BBC reality show " Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?" For six weeks, Moore and her competitors face a series of demanding physical and psychological challenges to see if they're astronaut material. (Show mentor Chris Hadfield, former Commander of the International Space Station, will recommend the winner to space agencies recruiting for astronauts.) Even in a cast of extremely accomplished people—the contestants include a military pilot, a surgeon, and a dentist who has summited Mount EverestMoore's unusual combination of skills stands out.

We leveled with the renaissance woman about how she's managed to pursue all her different passions.

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Nathan Sayers, modeled by Nicole Buggé.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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