Increasing flexibility without limits may predispose dancers to injuries so extreme flexibility is not the goal to have in mind when stretching. Instead, the intention should be to acquire enough range of motion to perform dance movements without undue restriction.
Stretching: Stretching maintains and/or increases the flexibility of the muscles and improves joint mobility.
Flexibility: Flexibility refers to an individual’s ability to move parts of their body safely and with control through a full range of motion.
Range of motion: Range of motion refers to the degree of movement that occurs at a given joint.
Flexibility in dance
Flexibility works in tandem with strength in dance. This is demonstrated when a dancer unfolds their leg into a développé that sees their knee placed level with their ear or balances in an arabesque penchée that is a vertical split from the floor to the ceiling.
Scientifically, flexibility is the ability of soft tissue structures (muscles, tendons and connective tissue) to elongate smoothly and easily through the available range of motion.
“Range of motion” refers to the degree of movement that occurs at a given joint. Each joint has a unique anatomical structure that allows for everyday movement by providing stability to the body. A variety of anatomical, biomechanical and physiological factors (including the shape of the bones involved, the connective tissues that stabilise and restrict joint movement to a safe range, muscle mass and neurological tissues) determine the range of motion at each joint. This means that, even with endless stretching, there will be a limit to how much movement is available.
Joint structures also vary between individuals so the degree of achievable flexibility will be unique to every dancer.
Dancers must stretch safely
Experts agree that the healthiest approach to improving flexibility is to increase range of motion around a joint, without compromising stability at the joint.
Although range of motion can be improved (as far as the joint structure will allow) and then maintained through stretching, there are potential dangers if carrying out a stretch incorrectly. A dancer who stretches through pain or fails to consider proper stretching technique risks suffering torn muscles, unstable joints or damage to nerves.
Tips for safe stretching
Stretch when muscles are warm
Stretch after class when muscles are warm. If a dancer is stretching at home, they should complete a thorough warm-up and some dance activity before stretching. The heat generated by exercise makes muscles more pliable and more willing to stretch.
Avoid pushing into a stretch too hard
If a muscle is stretched too far too quickly a protective “stretch reflex” occurs. This is where the muscle contracts to prevent further stretching and possible damage. To increase flexibility, it is important to stretch past this point in a controlled manner.
To improve flexibility, the intensity of the stretch should be low and the body’s stability muscles should not have to get involved in maintaining the stretch position. For example, a dancer who uses the barre or a wall to provide stability while stretching out their quadriceps will achieve a better stretch than a dancer who completes the same stretch in the centre.
Don’t get too settled but do stay in alignment
Relax into a stretch for 30 seconds, release and then repeat. Avoid simply “sitting” in a stretch as there is no benefit in terms of flexibility gains and doing so could risk reducing joint stability.
Adjusting position slightly and repeatedly while stretching can help dancers to find a position that encourages the release of tension and lengthens the target muscle(s). Making slight adjustments while stretching means that a dancer can refine the stretch to fit their body and the way it feels in the moment. This will allow the dancer to develop a heightened sensitivity to how their body feels and where tension needs to be released.
Always ensure that alignment is correct while stretching in order to maintain stability and avoid straining areas adjacent to those being stretched.
Remember to breathe
Breathing is another important strategy for encouraging the release of muscular tension so that the targeted muscles can lengthen. When stretching, breathe slowly and evenly with an emphasis on the exhale.
Stretching and growth
Young dancers will experience a time of minimum flexibility at around the age of 10 to 12 years as a result of their skeletal growth spurt.
During this period of rapid growth, muscle tissues do not grow at the same rate as bones lengthen and there is an increased chance of injury to muscle. Understandably, flexibility gains will be very difficult to achieve during this stage of growth. Nonetheless, efforts can still be made to maintain flexibility as much as possible so that progress can continue after the growth spurt.
This approach to stretching is the safest and it is the best choice when recovering from injury.
Static stretching involves elongating the muscle to its tolerance. The stretching force is often created by gravity acting on the body, but it may also be generated by another external force such as a wall, the floor, the barre or a partner. Flexibility gains made through the dynamic stretching used when dancing can be maintained and improved upon through regular static stretching.
As with any form of stretching, the muscles should be warm before starting.
Guidance for static stretching
- Choose the target muscles and position for stretching.
- Gently move to the point of feeling the stretch (not pain) and allow gravity to gently pull the targeted muscles longer.
- Breathe slowly and evenly (emphasising the exhale) and continue the stretch for 30 seconds.
- Release and return to the starting position.
- Each stretch should be repeated three or four times.
Static stretching is best used when the muscles are warm and not as part of a warm-up. However, static stretching may be used in a warm-up to relieve stiffness in muscles that were overused in a previous exercise session. If static stretching is included as part of a warm-up, each stretch should last for no longer than 10 seconds.
Remember that relaxing into a stretch involves continual motion, no matter how small. Do not simply sit in a stretch.
Static stretching may be better suited to maintenance of flexibility rather than increasing flexibility as the recommended 30-second duration is probably not enough to produce permanent connective tissue lengthening. Nonetheless, if static stretching is used consistently there will be scope for long-term flexibility gains.
This type of stretch is used to improve flexibility and should only be carried out when fully warmed up. Care should be taken to ensure that the technique is fully understood and applied safely.
PNF stands for “proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation”. This means that the small sensors that identify muscle tension (proprioceptors) are stimulated to achieve maximum elongation of the muscle without initiating the stretch reflex. Essentially, the muscle to be stretched is first contracted isometrically, which means the muscle length remains the same.
PNF stretching is not recommended for vulnerable bodies, such as adolescents experiencing growth spurts.
Guidance for PNF stretching
The muscle group that the dancer wants to stretch is contracted against an immovable resistance (in an isometric contraction) for 10 seconds and then the muscle is relaxed and allowed to lengthen as the dancer moves deeper into the stretch.
- Choose the target muscles and position for stretching.
- Gently move to the point of feeling the stretch (not pain).
- Apply resistance to the chosen muscle for 10 seconds.
- Slowly relax and gently increase the stretch to the point of feeling it again; continue this for 30 seconds.
- Think of easing into the stretch and allowing the muscles to get longer.
As the targeted muscle group is both passively stretched and isometrically contracted against resistance while in the stretched position, PNF technique can help a dancer achieve maximum static flexibility.
PNF technique can be progressed to include contraction of the opposite muscle during the stretch phase in order to move the limb into a greater range of motion. A contraction of the muscles on one side of a joint encourages relaxation of the muscles on the opposite side.
PNF technique for the hamstrings
- The dancer starts supine (lying on their back) with their right leg bent (right foot planted on the floor) and their left leg straight up in the air.
- To apply resistance, the dancer places their hands on the back of their lower left leg to prevent it from moving.
- Then the dancer contracts the hamstrings to try to pull their left leg away from their face.
- After 10 seconds of pulling with their hamstrings, and holding with their hands, the dancer relaxes their hamstrings and uses their hands to gently pull the same leg towards their face for 30 seconds.
Progressing PNF technique for the hamstrings
- The dancer starts by contracting the hamstrings for 10 seconds as in basic PNF technique.
- They then relax the hamstrings as they contract the muscles on the opposite side of the joint (the quadriceps and hip flexors) to deepen the stretch.
- This means the dancer pulls their leg towards their face by using the muscles at the front of the hip and thigh. The dancer can use their hands to add a gentle pull in the same direction but the pull should only be used to assist the stretch, not to force it.
- Perfect alignment should be maintained throughout the stretch, both to intensify the stretch and to teach the body to use neutral alignment when working at extreme ranges of motion.
Dynamic stretching refers to moving a muscle or joint through its full range of motion in a slow, controlled manner as part of a continuous movement. It is stretching performed while moving, which is ideal for a warm-up.
Guidance for dynamic stretching
Dynamic stretching plays an important role in an effective warm-up. The dynamic stretches used should be simpler versions of the movement that will be incorporated into the dance activity that follows the warm-up.
- For hamstrings, inner thigh muscles and hip flexors use a controlled grand battement (a high straight leg kick), carefully extending the leg to the front, side and back.
- For calves, inner thigh muscles and hip flexors use knee bends and lunges.
Dynamic stretching should be performed towards the end of a warm-up, once the core body temperature has been elevated (indicated by a light sweat). Dynamic stretching is not as effective as static stretching for producing long-term improvement in flexibility, but it serves a purpose in preparing the body for activity.
Advantages of dynamic stretching
- promotes dynamic flexibility
- involves multiple joints
- replicates movement patterns that are necessary when dancing
- provides neuromuscular training to improve coordination
- strengthens the contracting muscle
- keeps the core body temperature elevated so that muscles and surrounding tissues remain pliable.
Ballistic stretching consists of repetitive bouncing – or using the swinging momentum of the trunk or limb – to provide a stretch force. This type of stretching is potentially harmful so approach it with caution.
Ballistic movements cause a reflexive contraction of the muscle being stretched, which can increase the risk of injuries such as muscle pulls. Consequently, it is generally agreed that ballistic stretching is not the safest way to make a muscle longer.
However, ballistic movements are frequently used in choreography so dancers cannot avoid using them entirely.
Guidance for ballistic stretching
Ballistic stretches should only be used at the end of a thorough warm-up and the more vigorous the movement, the warmer the body should be. For example, the ballistic action of grand battement comes at the end of the ballet barre, just as the grand jeté is incorporated into explosive sequences near the end of class when the body should be warm after prolonged activity.
- As with any form of stretching, the muscles should be warm before starting ballistic stretching.
- Choose the target muscles and position for stretching.
- Move the muscle through its full range of movement as fast as necessary (e.g. swinging an extended leg up and forwards).
Frequently asked questions
When is the best time to stretch?
After class when muscles are warm. Do not stretch before a performance or a major rehearsal as this has been shown to have detrimental effects on jumping.
What order should stretches be performed in?
Start with spinal stretches (upper and lower back) and torso stretches (sides) before progressing to the limbs.
After the barre in a ballet class, stretch out the quads and calves before indulging in other stretching exercises.
If only a short amount of time is available for a cool-down after class, work on stretching out tight muscles before more flexible muscles to gain maximum benefit.
How long should a stretch be?
Relaxing into a static stretch for 30 seconds is enough to maintain joint range of motion and current flexibility.
Dancers should ensure that they stretch after a dance class (or any other physical activity), when muscles and connective tissues are warm. Three to five repetitions of a 30-second static stretch is enough to stretch muscle tissue in these conditions for flexibility gains.
How often should a dancer stretch?
Stretching just once a week is enough to maintain current flexibility and stretching three to five times a week will increase range.
There appears to be little benefit in doing more than four repetitions within a bout of stretching so take care not to become too obsessed with stretching. Time should also be spent investing in other elements of your dance training (strength, musicality, technique).
Do all dancers need to do the same amount of stretching?
Every dancer’s body is different so it is important to avoid generalisation and comparison.
A dancer who is already very loose will not need to stretch as much as a less flexible dancer and should focus on strengthening exercises instead. Increasing any hypermobility can have the negative consequence of reducing the stability of joints and putting a dancer at risk of injury. Dancers should therefore work on mastering strength to ensure their flexibility does not get the better of them.
A dancer who is very tight should work to make small gains in flexibility. Stretches should always be executed with caution and continued to a point of mild discomfort, not pain.
Stretching and movement quality
Even small restrictions and minor muscle imbalances can gradually alter movement patterns and potentially cause injury. Rectifying tightness will help a dancer move more easily, not just achieve higher leg extensions. By performing stretches correctly and consistently, a dancer should be able to gradually increase their range of movement and the overall quality of their movement.
If a stretch is painful, stop!
Stretching to improve flexibility may be slightly uncomfortable but it should never be painful.
This resource is intended as a helpful guide.
It was compiled using the following sources:
Ausdance (2012) ‘Stretching Rules For Dancers‘, Ausdance National. Available at: https://ausdance.org.au/articles/details/stretching-rules-for-dancers (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
Welsh, Tom (2009) Conditioning For Dancers. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Wyon, Matthew (2010) ‘Stretching For Dance‘, International Association for Dance Medicine and Science Bulletin For Teachers, 2(1), pp. 9–12. Available at: https://iadms.org/resources/publications/iadms-bulletin/ (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.