I work with a lot of clients who struggle with flexibility issues...or rather, what they perceive as flexibility issues. We are bombarded with images of extreme flexibility on Instagram and YouTube these days and wind up convincing ourselves that if we can't compete with that level of freakish flexibility, then we are worthless. We'll never get hired by a ballet company or get to dance principal roles.
And so, you fool yourself into thinking if you just push your body hard enough; if you rip, tear, and grind yourself into these extreme positions (that deep down you know are not healthy for you), you can achieve anything. Sorry to break this to you, but this isn’t how things work. The only thing you will most likely achieve this way is a broken body and short dance career due to injuries. You need to stop torturing yourself with this false hope and understand the reality of your flexibility.
Everyone has a natural limit to their flexibility and extensions based on genetics. Several unchangeable factors you were born with such as tendon and ligament length, your actual skeleton, and the shape and structure of your joints put parameters on your flexibility. Take the hip socket, for example. Some people are born with a deep hip socket where the head of the femur fits tightly in place. While this puts actual physical barriers in the way of flexibility (hello, bones!)...it secures a stable hip joint that is less likely to incur injuries or dislocation, especially later in life. Others are born with shallow sockets, making turnout and flexibility easier...but injuries and instability are the limiting factors here. We all have our natural limits to deal with. The real key is finding peace in your unique body and learning how to enhance what you have to work with.
First, realize that you actually don't need this extreme flexibility to dance ballet. Unless you are trying to get a job with Cirque du Soleil, the classical ballet line doesn't require extreme extensions. Sure, it’s nice to see a breath-taking extension once and a while, but it leaves no lasting impact if there isn’t any passion or artistry behind the rest of the performance. There are all kinds of companies out there. If you are not right for one because you lack extreme extensions, find another one that will notice your unique gift.
Second, the harder you push your limits, the more damage you are doing to yourself and, most likely, your flexibility. When you overstretch and force things, you create damage to your connective tissue and joint capsules. Guess what happens when your body is damaged? It creates an inflammatory response as part of it's healing process. This inflammation and swelling makes you feel tighter in that joint and can cause pain. So, all of your extreme efforts and hard work to increase your flexibility can actually be hindering you. And, let’s not forget the long-term damage you are doing to your joints, the stuff you won't start to feel until you are in your 30's, 40's, 50's. At that point, the damage will be done, and it will be too late to save your body.
Does this mean you are resigned to whatever current height your développé a la seconde is at now? Not necessarily. There are ways to improve your extensions inside your natural limits, but it's probably not with the methods you would normally think of using, like flexibility and overstretching exercises. Often, what you perceive as a lack of flexibility may actually be a lack of strength. By focusing on increasing strength and stability in the muscles surrounding a joint (and seemingly unrelated muscle groups), you can make real improvements in your extensions. This is what will allow you to take advantage of your natural range of motion.
Flexibility without strength is useless. Many dancers that are super flexible struggle with stability issues and aren’t able to utilize their full facility because they lack the muscle control to anchor their extensions. Not to mention, we often feel “tight” in certain areas because of a weakness in another area. For example, if you have chronically tight hip flexors, it could be because you have weak abdominals, causing your pelvis to be in a constant anterior tilt. As a result, your hip flexors are chronically in a shortened state and have to overwork in simple movements such as walking, let alone extensions. As an example from my own life, I used to grip with my hip flexors in an effort to get my front and side extensions higher and as a result had chronic pain in my hips. The endless repetitions and overstretching routine for my “tight” hip flexors just made matters worse. Once I started strength training, I noticed that I was actually lacking strength in my hamstrings and glutes, along with deep core strength. Once my hamstrings and glutes got stronger and I learned how to ground through my supporting leg, my chronic pain went away, and my extensions went up.
The bottom line is, life isn’t always a fairy tale with a guaranteed happy ending - where if you work hard enough and suffer through enough pain, you will be rewarded with your dreams. So, what do you do? Create your own happy ending. Own your uniqueness, and learn to work with and enhance what you have. Hoping and wishing for something impossible will only dampen your light…and that will get you nowhere. Be a Bad Girl Ballerina, and write your own path. So what if you don’t have Sylvie Guillem-like extensions? Stop apologizing for the body you were born with. Accept the natural limits of your body, and then go out and enhance the range of motion you do have with strength, Bulletproof Ballerina style. You only get one body…so you better start respecting it and treating it like it's precious.
Do you struggle with feeling inflexible? Or, perhaps you are on the other end of the spectrum and find yourself battling with instability issues? I'd love to hear your story...please share below!