If there’s one exercise that every dancer needs to make sure they do daily, it’s stretching. Not only is stretching important for flexibility, but it keeps your muscles loose and healthy. It’s very easy to succumb to an injury from lack of stretching; I myself, have pulled my hamstring before because of rushed and improper stretching. A number of dancers have torn ligaments that have ended their careers, either temporarily or permanently. So basically, why not stretch?
Stretching might seem time consuming, painful, and inconvenient. However it’s very easy, and very beneficial. Stretching is good not only for dancers but for non-dancers as well. Many athletes stretch before practice to enable their muscles and joints to reach their full range of motion. It’s important for the average person, athletic or not, to wake their muscles up with a good stretch. You probably don’t realize how often you stretch daily; when you wake up in the morning, one of the first things you do is probably stretch all of your muscles out to wake them up, right? Giving your muscles a good stretch after a long period of sitting still helps the stiffness and tightness of your muscles go away. It’s a wake up call to your muscles to get ready to move and it feels nice to have a good stretch, doesn’t it? I know every time I stretch out my muscles I give out a giant sigh of relief. It’s a nice and quick way to feel more awake.
But even non-athletes can benefit from the more intense and prolonged stretching. You see, stretching increases blood flow to the muscles. It also increases flexibility, and the more you stretch the more flexible you become. I know you might be thinking, well if I don’t dance, why should flexibility matter to me? An understandable question that has an understandable answer; a lack of flexibility can cause movement to become slower and less fluid, making an individual more susceptible to muscle strains or other soft tissue injuries. This can hinder both active lifestyles, and the day-to-day, normal motions we all go through. Stretching your lower back can lead to improved posture, not to mention that an increase in flexibility leads to an increase in balance and coordination.
So know that you know why you should stretch, here’s some tips on how to go about stretching and some stretches that will benefit dancers and non-dancers alike.
1. When you stretch, put on music. Music helps you keep pace and count of how long you’ve been doing a certain stretch and it will encourage you to keep going. The type of music depends on the type of stretching. For a faster-paced set of stretching, you may want to go with hip-hop or pop. This type of stretching may be more beneficial for hip-hop and jazz dancers. If you’re going for a slower-paced stretch, such as a ballet dancer might prefer, you may want to choose slower, classical music. You may want to choose an upbeat song to get you going and motivated. It all depends on what your preference and style is, do what is best for you.
2. Make sure to engage all parts of the body, including the neck and the feet. It’s easier than you think to pull a muscle in your neck or to get pains in your ankles and feet from twisting your foot the wrong way without proper stretching. Roll your head in circular motions to stretch your neck, even something as simple as turning your head to the right, and left will help. Also, try rolling your foot on your ankle to avoid ankle injury, and point and unpoint your feet to stretch them out (this means to push your toes and arch down to the ground and then to release them to their usual position).
3. This is my own personal tip that I’ve made for myself that has helped me through the years. There are times when you may be stretching where it’s painful to hold the position so you release after holding it for 3-5 seconds. To avoid doing this, and to make sure I am properly stretching in full, I will sometimes bite on my lower lip with pressure, and focus my thoughts on the pain in my lip rather than the pain in my legs or hamstrings. In doing this, it is important to be careful not to bite too hard as you don’t want to actually cause any harm to yourself. If you find that you can you change your thought process without doing this, all the better! Also, be sure not to push yourself too hard, because you can damage your muscles even by just stretching. Don’t do anything you know your body isn’t ready for; for example, don’t go for a fully split your first time stretching. It’s important to pace yourself.
As for actual stretches, here are links to different stretches you can do. The titles of these links may say “Stretches for dancers” but I recommend them to dancers and non-dancers alike.
In attempting these stretches, my final and possibly most important statement in this: don’t overdo it. It’s important to gain flexibility, and you may think that after two or three stretching sessions, you’ll be ready for a split. Absolutely not. And that’s okay. However, you will see improvement in your general “bounciness” and your muscles will feel more fluid. Pushing yourself to do an incredibly painful stretch will not make you “stretchier” in a day. A lot of stretching has to do with relaxing your muscles. Take it at a pace that’s right for you, and remember that time and consistency will give you the results.
It’s important before attempting any exercise that you give your body a good stretch. You’ll find you perform better as well as feel better, and what more could you ask for? So whether you want to be able to pull your straddle jump higher, or you want to less tight and tense, stretching has lasting benefits as well as positive inputs in your dance, or day-to-day, performances.