Dancer stretching


Stretching for Dancers

Posted By Kathleen Darley, PT, DPT


As a dancer, it is important to maintain both strength and flexibility. Dancing demands a level of control and stability while performing dynamic movements, requiring a greater range of motion than most other sports. Many dancers focus on the unique need for a classical dancer's line with positions such as arabesque, develope al a seconde, and high grande battements. How many times have you thought, “I should have gotten to class earlier to stretch”? As it turns out (no pun intended), you can achieve your personal best line and increase range of motion by following these guidelines.

When to Stretch


Stretching is not the same as warming up. The purpose of warming up before class or rehearsal is to increase the temperature of your core and muscle tissue, which is important for preventing injuries, not increasing flexibility. You should be warm when you are stretching; warm muscles are more extensible and responsive to stretching. Research shows that applying a small amount of stretch force to warm connective tissues lengthens them more effectively than a larger stretch force applied at normal body temperature. There are also greater long-term benefits of stretching when warm; for example, lengthened tissue lasted more than twice as long when low load stretch was applied to warm tissues versus normal body temperature. Studies have also shown that stretching with higher temperature tissues, such as after class or rehearsal, resulted in fewer injuries. The most effective way to increase your flexibility is to make sure your muscles are warm and responsive to stretching—after your class or rehearsal.

When Not to Stretch


Do not hold static stretches before a demanding class, performance, or rehearsal. Additionally, intensive stretching of a muscle has actually been shown to impair strength, power, endurance, sprint time, and jump height. Decreases in muscle strength are thought to be both mechanical and neurological and may not be recovered for up to one hour afterward. This could interfere with making gains in strength during class. However, brief stretches of less than 15 seconds are less likely to cause performance problems. Dynamic stretching, such as dance movements, are also less detrimental to performance than static stretching. For a practical application, perform a set of attitude leg swings as part of a dynamic warm-up rather than the traditional sustained leg on the barre—save that for after!

How to Stretch


Research indicates that holding a static stretch for 30 seconds, three to five repetitions at a time, is enough to maintain joint range of motion and current flexibility. There is little benefit in doing more than four repetitions of a stretch. If increasing flexibility is your goal, it is vital to make sure the muscles are warm first. Increasing the frequency of stretching throughout the week also shows continued benefits and carryover. 

Finally, each dancer’s body is different. It is important not to compare the flexibility of one dancer with another. Bodies that are naturally very flexible and hypermobile need more strengthening and stabilization exercises to avoid injury, while other bodies have denser connective tissue and require more stretching and flexibility. Each body is unique, and it is important to customize a combination of stretching and strengthening to a particular dancer’s needs for optimal performance.

Meet the Author


At Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, Kathleen Darley specializes in treating musculoskeletal disorders and pelvic and women’s health. She studied at the Houston Ballet and danced professionally for numerous companies including The Joffrey Ballet, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Ballet Memphis, and Chicago Festival Ballet. Darley’s passion for dance—and the science behind the art—inspired her to earn a bachelor's degree in kinesiology from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a doctorate in physical therapy from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She also has certifications in yoga and Pilates. 


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