Ballet Stretches and Flexibility Exercises
Ballet stretching exercises to improve your performance and do away with ballet injuries for good.
Humans have probably always danced in one form or another since the beginning of time. One form of dance is ballet: Part sport, part performing art, its beginnings can be traced back to the Italian Renaissance courts. Performances took place in large halls and included other arts such as painting or poetry and even followed the dining menu theme.
If you’re looking to improve your ballet or just seeking to prevent ballet injuries it is important to follow the information in this article. In addition, adding a few simple stretches to your fitness program will also help. To get started on a safe and effective stretching routine that’s just right for you, check out the Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility.
The word ballet is considered to be French but it actually originates from ballo, meaning dance in Italian. Ballo in turn is based on the Latin word ballare.
The earliest forms of ballet were performed in large chambers, with the audience seated on tiers or galleries on three sides of the dancing floor. Thus, an important component of performance is a choreography that emphasizes floor patterns that can be visible from above. This requires dancers to cover a fairly extensive floor area, which in turn determines how a dancer’s body moves and uses various muscle groups.
Within a very short time, the French courts adopted ballet, further developing its style and technique. Many steps and positions known today come from France, where French ballet master Raoul Feuillet recorded much of the dance technique in the 1700’s. For at least two hundred years, ballet was dominated by female dancers, but later, male dancers entered the scene, adding more acrobatic aspects to the art.
The use of pointe shoes appeared in the 18th century to give female dancers an appearance of weightlessness. Around that time, however, ballet began to decline in France but continued to develop in Russia, Italy and Denmark.
Today there are many recognized ballet methods being taught worldwide, the main ones still being French ballet, Italian ballet and Russian ballet. Modern day ballet also includes neoclassical ballet and contemporary ballet, forms of dance that are more intense than older, more lyrical forms.
Present day ballet dancers train as much as athletes in various sports, working on strength, technique, proper form and stamina. Elite dancers in particular are at risk of various overuse and acute injuries.
Although ballet is not commonly considered to be a sport, when one considers the demands of the technical training and performances, whether socially or professionally, it is wise to consider the demands on the body and the kinds of injuries that can occur. There are steps that can be taken in order to minimize injuries. Having a good knowledge of anatomy and developing a few prevention strategies, including a stretching routine, will help keep a dancer healthy.
Ballet dancers are surprisingly strong, yet slim and supple. Which muscles are used in a more predominant fashion depends on the form of ballet and the gender of the dancer. For example, a male classical ballet dancer who performs lifts will require more upper body strength than a female dancer.
Although ballet dancers use all muscle groups, certain major muscle groups predominate. A ballet dancer not only spends a great deal of time developing form and technique, but also must dedicate a portion of training time to a strengthening and stretching program. Like gymnasts, ballet dancers, must be able to achieve an extensive range of motion. Ballet dancers in particular work to achieve flexibility in their back, hips, and ankles. This flexibility is what allows for certain movements and body shapes to be created and for the grace and ease of movement that is so characteristic of the best dancers. The following muscle groups are used predominantly by ballet dancers.
- Muscles of the lower back: the lower back is held erect by a number of muscle groups, including: the abdominals; the obliques; the erector muscles of the spine; and quadratus lumborum.
- Hip muscles: hip muscles relate to the pelvis and affect both the lower back stability and lower extremity balance. Hip flexors (iliopsoas) in particular are extensively used by ballet dancers. This muscle must be flexible enough to achieve a neutral pelvic position. Dancers with tight hip flexors, combined with weak abdominals, cause excessive pelvic tilt and increased disk compression in the spinal column.
- Hamstrings: one of the most important muscles in dancers, as this muscle is used in almost every movement. A lack of flexibility and strength in this muscle can cause excessive compression forces in the lower back.
- Core muscles: obliques, rectus abdominus and the spinal erectors.
Most Common Ballet Injuries
Ballet dancers suffer injuries of similar severity and frequency as other athletes. Most injuries in dancers are of the over-use type, due to the repetitive nature of the training, but acute injuries can also occur when a dancer uses incorrect technique or experiences lack of focus and fatigue.
Most commonly, ballet dancers experience injuries in the lower limbs, hip and back.
- Ankle and Foot Sprains: dancers experience problems in this part of their body quite often. Those who dance in pointes can develop posterior impingement syndrome. Others can develop Achilles tendinitis and stress fracture of the foot. One of the most common injuries is a lateral ligament injury of the ankle due to inversion. Some ankle problem stem from muscular and anatomical problems in the hips.
- Back Strain: dancers need a strong, flexible back. They can experience muscle spasm and disc compression problems if they try a high level dance without proper technical and anatomical preparation.
- Pulled Hamstring: this muscle can develop excessive tightness and eventual small tears and scarring.
- Shin Splints: often due to tight calf muscles and a tight Achilles tendon.
- Ligament Sprains and Meniscal Tears of the Knee: these injuries often stem from limited hip rotation. Dancers with “tight” hips tend to compensate with their knees and ankles, thus placing abnormal forces on these joints, leading to injury.
Injury Prevention Strategies
In order to minimize the occurrence of injuries dancers must attend to various areas that impact how their body will experience the training and performance.
- Instruction in proper technique is critical. Dancers must pay very close attention to proper posture and alignment: “shoulders over hips, over knees, over ankles” is an important concept to remember.
- Pacing the training: This means, new more difficult movements and combinations should only be introduced when the dancer has developed sufficient strength, flexibility and technical foundation to perform the new movement correctly and with ease. “Pushing” a dancer can be counter productive.
- Regular stretching: it is recommended that all ballet dancers incorporate a thorough stretching program into their training, if not daily, then at least 3-4 times per week. The areas that require particular attention are the hip flexors, hamstrings and calves as well as working to develop a good hip turnout.
- Strength training: Although dancers do not commonly use weight lifting, they can benefit greatly from dance specific strength training using one’s own body weight. Aside from a good overall program, special attention should be given to balancing the hamstring and quadriceps strength, as imbalances in that area are at the root of many back and lower body overuse problems. Many dancers also find that regular core strengthening helps create good balance and control, thus minimizing excessive work by the wrong muscle groups.
- Manage fatigue and stress: it is a known fact that most athletes and dancers perform best when rested and relaxed. Fatigue and stress cause muscle tightness and lack of focus, thus greatly increasing the risk of acute injuries.
- Special attention to the needs of growing dancers: during the growth spurts of adolescence dancers lose a great deal of flexibility, strength and balance. During this critical time of increased injury risk, a thorough strength and stretching regimen is even more crucial.
The Top 3 Ballet Stretches
Stretching is one of the most under-utilized techniques for improving athletic performance, preventing sports injury and properly rehabilitating sprain and strain injury. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that something as simple as stretching won’t be effective. Below are 3 very beneficial stretches for ballet; obviously there are a lot more, but these are a great place to start. Please make special note of the instructions beside each stretch.
Standing Reach-up Quad Stretch: Stand upright and take one small step forwards. Reach up with both hands, push your hips forwards, lean back and then lean away from your back leg.
Single Heel-drop Achilles Stretch: Stand on a raised object or step and place the ball of one foot on the edge of the step. Bend your knee slightly and let your heel drop towards the ground.
Kneeling Heel-down Achilles Stretch: Kneel on one foot and place your body weight over your knee. Keep your heel on the ground and lean forward.
Looking at photos and watching videos on your computer is fine, but to really take advantage of all the stretching exercises on offer, grab a free copy of my Stretching DVD & CD-ROM.
The exercises and recommendations on this page are just a small sample of the many stretching exercises presented on my free Stretching DVD. In total, you'll get 44 video demonstrations of unique stretching exercises for every major muscle group in your body. Plus, over 80 printable stretching routines for 22 sports and 19 different muscle groups.
The DVD includes 3 customized stretching routines (8 minutes each) for the Upper Body; the Lower Body; and the Neck, Back & Core, plus a bonus CD-ROM that allows you to print out over 80 stretching routines that you can take with you where ever you go.
The Stretching DVD will show you, step-by-step, how to perform each stretch correctly. Plus, you'll also learn the 7 critical rules for safe stretching; the benefits of flexibility; and how to stretch properly. Check out my free Stretching DVD & CD-ROM for yourself.
About the Author: Brad is often referred to as the Stretch Coach and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 100's of testimonials. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.