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OVERSTRETCHING

Helpful or Harmful to your Dance Career?

I'm about to say some stuff that isn't going to make me too popular, at least based on the current trends on social media and in the dance world at large. But hey, my whole M.O. is about breaking the rules and going against the grain...so here we go! Plus, if this can save you from a career-threatening injury, or make you feel less threatened & worthless in your art...I'm willing to take this unpopular stance.

Overstretching

It's the new fad. Everybody's doing it. There are popular hashtags and entire social media accounts dedicated to this subject. Not only is everybody doing it, but businesses are making money off of products invented for this specific purpose. It's cool to walk into the studio with your giant rubber bands, pulley systems, and other stretching devices. (Disclaimer: I have nothing against these devices if they are used to help you achieve more with your body in a healthy way - but I fear that is not the way they are used most of the time.)

Every third post on my Instagram feed is of some dancer in a pose that showcases her extreme flexibility. These not-so-anatomical positions have a huge "wow" factor and a tendency to spur other dancers to want to "play," too. So, they then contort themselves into even more extreme poses in their efforts to compete for validation and likes. So many young dancers have come to me with debilitating back and hip pain that won't go away because they are being forced to overstretch and crank their arabesques up.

We can't escape it...the overstretch craze is all around us. It's not enough to be "dancer-flexible," achieving a level of flexibility that allows us to hit our classical lines and positions. There is no denying that we need a certain level of flexibility to accompany our artistry and technique. But, for some reason, we now feel pressure to achieve the extreme flexibility of a contortionist. In fact, this almost seems to be more important than artistry and technique these days. Before you jump on the overstretching bandwagon, ask yourself these simple questions:​

  1. Is it actually helpful to your dance career? 
  2. Is it healthy for your body?

Let's explore each of these a little further, shall we?

1. Is overstretching actually helpful to your dance career?

Other than the competition dance circuit, do you really see instances where the penché line is past 180 degrees or an à la seconde développé is behind the head in respectable ballet performances? Even with the ever-increasing demands and physicality of the evolving art of ballet, I doubt this extreme flexibility will ever have a place in the classical line or artistic nuance of an emotion.

If you want to explore extreme flexibility and contortionism, you could always seek out rhythmic gymnastics, Cirque du Soleil, or other circus acts as a career path. Don't get me wrong, this stuff is AWESOME to watch in the right environment with bodies that are genetically capable of extreme range of motion and coached to it in a healthy way. It honestly fascinates me! But, extreme flexibility is certainly not going to make or break a ballet career. There is so much more nuance and artistry that goes into your dancing than just these snapshots of "look at me!" poses. If you do happen to be gifted with extreme natural flexibility, that is an asset you can certainly use to accompany your unique art. But, if you weren't born with these gifts, I want to make sure you don't despair and destroy yourself thinking you must rip your body apart or risk failing in your art.

Someone in the dance world whom I respect very much recently said, "Flexibility is not talent." Sure, it carries a huge "wow" factor...but, you want your dancing to stand for more than that. You want it to express a piece of yourself, to leave a lasting impression on the audience, to move them emotionally with your story. You want to leave them with more than, "Wow, she's flexible."

2. Is overstretching healthy for your body?

Is tugging, tearing and ripping the head of the femur out of the hip socket to force splits past 180 degrees healthy? Is forcing your back to arch to the point where you can barely breathe and feel your vertebrae crunching and grinding together good for your body? Take a wild guess.

While it is true that some bodies are more equipped to handle overstretching movements, the majority of us are not. Much of our flexibility as well as our flexibility potential is determined by genetics. We are all coded with a varying degree of joint capsule depth, tendon and ligament length, attachment point locations, all of which have a huge impact on your flexibility.

We do have a certain capacity to alter our flexibility, but that relies on other factors such as hormones, lifestyle, diet, along with genetics. So, everyone who engages in these overstretching exercises are not going to get the same results. It's not a plug-n-play system. In other words, if you do the same overstretching routine that Suzie Splits does, you are not guaranteed the same scorpion or 270-degree tilt she can do.

What does tend to happen when you attempt to alter your flexibility with overstetching techniques? Well, your actual muscles themselves have elastic-like properties similar to a rubber band, which means they pretty much return to their normal length a few hours after a stretching session. (That's not to mean that you can't increase the flexibility of your muscles at all through stretching in a healthy way, but more on that in a separate post.) Your ligaments and tendons, however, can incur some lasting changes, lengthening and loosening over a period of time as your joints get pried apart. Think of these connective tissues as really old rubber bands that have lost their elastic properties. Once you stretch them out and trigger enough damage and stress, they won't necessarily snap back to their normal size. They remain stretched out, brittle, and breakable.

You might think this joint laxity is a good thing for your flexibility, but it's not. As the connective tissues lose their integrity as a result of overstretching, the joint becomes unstable and more susceptible to injuries like dislocation, sprains, and strains. In addition to those risks, your muscles are forced to expend excess energy to stabilize a loose joint. This means that when you actually try to dance in class and rehearsals, you will end up feeling "flaggy" and out of control in your movements as your muscles struggle to keep your joints working properly. Translation: You sacrifice stability and power in your body and dancing when you force excess flexibility. Ask anyone born with hypermobile joints - their biggest nemesis is gaining control over their movements.

Other issues arise with the joint capsules themselves as they become irritated from excessive tearing and grinding when the proper anatomical alignment is neglected. Arthritis, ruptured discs, pinched nerves, bursitis, hip labral tears all become real threats to your body and dance career. Here's the other ironic issue. Overstretching and forcing unnatural positions can cause general inflammation at the joint. Despite all your intense efforts to feel more flexible, this inflammation can actually make you feel tighter and "thicker" than ever due to the fluid build-up in the joint capsule.

The insidious nature of overstretching is that the harmful effects may not show up until it's too late and the damage has already long been done (unless you tear, rupture, or dislocate something...then the effects will be immediate). Sure, you feel fine at 16, 21, 25 years old. In fact, the overstretching might even make you feel good, loose, flexible. But, when you are forty and can barely get out of bed because the arthritis in your hip is so painful, or you need a cane to walk because of the herniated discs in your spine, or you gingerly have to walk down stairs to prevent your knee from dislocating due to lose ligaments...you'll regret the overstretching. Unfortunately by then, it will be too late to undo the damage.

Now, there are dancers out there born with bodies that can handle extreme range of motion without damaging connective tissue and the joints themselves due to their genetic makeup. But, this is certainly not the majority of the population of dancers out there, both on the professional and recreational level. While flexibility may not be a struggle for them, they have their own battles to deal with. The problem occurs when the rest of us see these extreme cases and think that is the norm...the new level of achievement you must reach - If I don't achieve that extreme range of motion, I'll be worthless. And so, fearing you'll fall behind the rest, you start forcing and grinding and literally ripping your body apart to compete with the rest of the dance world.

The bottom line is that A) you don't even need extreme range of motion to be a professional ballet dancer and B) unless you were born Cirque du Soleil material, it's most likely physically harming your body.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying that stretching is bad. And, I'm definitely not denying that you need a certain level of flexibility to be a dancer. But, extreme flexibility brought about by overstretching - not so much.

I know it can be hard to resist this stuff when everyone around you is doing it, and you feel like you have to compete with them to stay ahead in the game. But, if you choose to engage in overstretching activities that cause you pain and damage your body, you won't be in the game long anyway because you'll most likely end up with an injury or be in so much pain that you'll be forced to quite dancing all together. Don't sabotage your most precious tool as a dancer just to compete for the "wow" factor. Work with your body instead of fighting against it. Find what makes your own art unique.

If you want to read more on this topic, there is a great blog post by physiotherapist Lisa Howell here. She goes into some more details about the science-y stuff behind the dangers of overstretching.

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