Dance Advice

Why The Australian Ballet dancers quit stretching

Dimity Azoury of The Australian Ballet demonstrating an exercise for strengthening the iliopsoas muscle that is important for high gesture leg elevation, as well as hip stability when the leg is in arabesque. Photo by Kate Longley.
Dimity Azoury of The Australian Ballet demonstrating an exercise for strengthening the iliopsoas muscle that is important for high gesture leg elevation, as well as hip stability when the leg is in arabesque. Photo by Kate Longley.

Dancers love to sit in an impressive stretch and yank their legs into all sorts of positions in order to ‘increase’ their flexibility; but a decade long study at The Australian Ballet has delivered some surprising results as to what works in stretching and what is actually damaging to the body and increasing the risk of injury. This statement to ‘not stretch’ is proving highly controversial to what has been seen as ‘common practice’ in dance studios globally for generations.  

We have recently spoken to two leading dance specialist physiotherapists about stretching for dancers: Sue Mayes, head physiotherapist at The Australian Ballet; and Andrew Pilcher, West End, London physiotherapist and now at Performance Medicine, Melbourne. They both had a lot to share on this matter and explained that static stretching is not always helping dancers, and it’s sometimes causing harm. 

There is quite straightforward and extensive research undertaken by Sue Mayes, behind this move to change what dancers in The Australian Ballet do in dance warm-up and training. Warm-up is still essential to prepare the body for optimal dance training and performance and cool down to manage the post-dance physiological processes. The turning point, she shares, is about changing dancers’ approach and mindset about stretching. The research has been about injury, strength and assessing what traditional ‘stretching’ is actually doing.

Sue Mayes. Photo courtesy of The Australian Ballet.

“Muscles shouldn’t be passively stretched,” Mayes reveals, “and many of our dancers were doing calf stretching on wooden boxes with a decline on them. They were in every studio for the dancers to stretch out their calves, so we removed all the calf stretching blocks from the studios and educated the dancers on the importance of not stretching their calves out, and now it’s very rare; I don’t ever see a dancer stretching their calves.”

She continues, “Over time, we have seen significant reduction in calf tears. We have since been trying to change the dialogue because when you say the word ‘stretch’ or ‘flexibility’, people assume that it’s a passive stretch and that you’re stretching out the tissues and elongating them in a really passive way, like a dancer sitting in side splits, but is that functional?”

Mayes goes on to say that “when a dancer is on stage, they never stay in passive positions; they’re dancing dynamically and moving in and out of these extreme ranges of movement. Dancers need to have optimal range of movement, they need to be able to move their limbs through extreme ranges of movement, but it should be in a really active controlled way that they do that. You can’t get good, dynamic, explosive, powerful extreme range without strength”.

Mayes explains that The Australian Ballet’s approach now is to “really stop using the word ‘stretching’ and ‘flexibility’ and to really try to think about it more as optimising your capacity, strength and power at those end ranges. We have found that by strengthening, you can increase your range of movement much more effectively and safely obviously.” 

So if dancers want to, for example, get their side développé (à la seconde) higher, they will need to strengthen, in this position, the key muscles that lift their leg. The advice of Mayes is to “elongate eccentrically the hamstrings, hip extensors and the adductors, but it shouldn’t be a passive thing. Eccentric loading is where the muscle is working but as it’s elongating, so you will need to use body weight or add weights to the leg to use the muscle at this extreme range of movement.”

Take, for example, a single leg heel raise up and down in parallel, how many can you do? In Mayes’ study with The Australian Ballet, she looked at calf endurance and shared that in 2003, “We screened all the dancers in the company, and we found that in the single leg heel raise test (in which you rise up and down in parallel on one leg), the number of repetitions the dancers could do was surprising as to how low they were. One of the dancers was only eight rises (other dancers ranging to 24), and they’re professional dancers. But we had at a lot of foot and ankle injuries and calf injuries.”

Mayes looked at the company’s injury statistics that it gathers every year. “We found that the dancers who had an injury in the previous six months had a single leg heel raise endurance of less than 25 repetitions,” she reveals. The Australian Ballet dancers now do 24 parallel single leg heel raises at the end of ballet barre daily, and the company has seen significant decrease in injury to the ankles and calves. The last decade has shown the company that they can prevent injury, a great risk reduction strategy. 

Andrew Pilcher from Performance Medicine reports using a similar approach with his patients and has seen huge improvements in his dance patients by asking them to not hold long stretches. When we asked him how then, does a dancer safely increase flexibility, Pilcher shares, “Firstly, stretching does increase blood flow to muscles, tendons and the fascia that the stretch is involving. It usually reduces tension, if it’s done in a way that allows a ‘let go’ in the muscle group. However, if you hold a stretch for more than one minute, there is evidence showing inhibition (a switching off) in the muscles targeted. If you then take these inhibited muscles into dance class or routines, you will be compensating in other muscles for the lack of activity and responsiveness, and overloading usually follows. If the muscle is in an inhibited state, the muscle is in a vulnerable state to injury.”

Andrew Pilcher. Photo courtesy of Performance Medicine.
Andrew Pilcher. Photo courtesy of Performance Medicine.

Pilcher continues, “The process I take is to look at the most restricted movements, and I encourage dancers to work out (with my help) what is restricting their flexibility. The pelvis position, abdominal and gluteal weakness, hip flexor tightness and or weakness, and other issues are all factors that can affect how easy the leg can move freely to its extreme ranges of movement. We then deal with imbalances in tension, weakness and make sure that the muscles are not ‘fighting’ internal imbalances and the body can move much more freely. This is very individual for a dancer, but is a much more complete and meaningful process than going through every stretch you think you might need and wondering why you’re still so tight and it’s not working!” he says.

So we asked him how do dancers safely warm up then? Pilcher says, “Warm-ups should have some gentle activation of deep stabiliser muscles like the deep gluteals, release of tight muscle groups with a spikey ball or roller, ‘switching on’ or ‘firing up’ exercises targeting key power muscle groups like gluteus maximus, medial gastrocnemius, adductors, and of course some active dance-specific movement to allow limbering (ballet class includes this, other genres may need you to pre-warm up), sometimes warming up a cardiovascular component.”

Pilcher continues, “Active stretching, PNF stretching, dynamic stretching ensuring its active and not held more than 40 seconds, is okay, but the principle of using the warm-up time, to find the deeper reason muscles are tight (and addressing the reasons) is so meaningful and empowering for the dancer.” This self discovery will set a dancer up for class much better than the old display of sitting in an impressive stretch. 

To read more about Andrew Pilcher at Performance Medicine, click here. To read more about Sue Mayes’s research with The Australian Ballet, click here.

By Lara Bianca Pilcher of Dance Informa.

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