Ballet stretches are an essential part of training in this form of dance. Not only stretching, but stretching correctly, can improve your performance now and extend your dancing life for years.
"Bend down and push into the stretch! Now bounce it, three-two-one release!" That's what you might have heard during a stretching warm-up at a ballet studio a decade or two ago. Misunderstandings about how the muscles work, about how they develop, and about what is the best way to do ballet stretches before you dance have caused many injuries and problems.
Here are a few of the concepts behind good ballet stretches, as understood by contemporary medical professionals like Dr. Steven Stark, author of The Stark Reality of Stretching.
- Warm Up before Stretching. Too many dancers (whether ballet or some other form) seem to feel that stretching is a warm up by itself. The fact is, a warm up is exactly that - getting the blood flowing more strongly in your muscles, increasing your heart rate and respiration, basically informing your body that activity is about to take place. This can be massaging the muscles, walking/jogging briskly, jumping (not leaping, just hopping up and down), anything that just takes you to a slightly more active physical state than walking or standing.
- Pushing Into or Bouncing a Stretch. - A ballet stretch is designed to encourage your muscles, tendons, and ligaments to be comfortable in a more extended state. Unlike strength training, where the muscle fibers are actually broken and then heal, you do not want to cause any damage when stretching. Forcing your body to go further, or worse bouncing into a stretch (which gives you even less control) can lead to soreness that is not the temporary kind from a good rehearsal - it is the kind that stays, day after day, because you have injured yourself.
- Holding a Stretch Too Long - In their quest for the perfect arabesque, a deeper plié, or the ultimate split, many ballet dancers will try to hold their stretches past the point of comfort. Often combined with #2 above, this error compounds the potential for injury. The fact is that stretching is an individual thing, and should be held as long as it takes for the muscles to relax into the stretch. This varies from dancer to dancer, and from day to day.
It can be seen from this that stretching is a very individual and very essential part of a dancer's rehearsal. But what kinds of stretches work well for ballet?
Five Essential Ballet Stretches
- Splits - Sitting on the floor, with your spine vertical and centered, extend your legs our to either side as widespread as you can. Rotate your torso to the left, and slowly, breathing out, move your torso over the leg, leading with the sternum. Extend until you feel the stretch, stop and hold until muscles relax. Repeat to center and over the other leg.
- Hamstring Stretch - Extend your legs directly in front of you (toes either pointed or feet flexed) as your are seated on the ground. Holding your arms in first or fifth position, extend them over your legs, letting your torso follow. Relax into the stretch, then release, repeating with your feet in the other position.
- Relevé Extension - Standing in second, lift your body vertically by extending the feet until you are on your flexed toes. This is not so much a stretch as a balance and strength exercise; you won't "relax" into it, but you should hold it until your body feels stable.
- Calf Stretch - Many dancers like to do this after the relevé extension. Stand facing a wall, placing your hands against it, and extend one foot as far behind you as you can while still keeping your sole on the floor. Lean into the wall, increasing the angle of your foot, letting the calf muscle gently stretch. Repeat with the other foot, and then with both feet together in parallel.
- Quadricep Stretch - The quads are one of the most essential and most commonly injured muscle groups for dancers. There are many stretches for it, but the easiest is simply to reach behind you and grab your ankle while standing and just hold it. This may not feel like much of a stretch, but resist the urge to arch your back or "push" into it.
Stretching is not a "no pain, no gain" activity - it should be gentle and persuasive to your muscles. Doing ballet stretches correctly will make both your rehearsals and performances more beautiful and safe.