So you want to be flexible...
There's always that one person in every class whose bones seem to be made of rubber (if indeed, there are any bones!) and who can lounge around in splits just as easily as they can hold a split penché; which is to say, effortlessly. Now, this person might be you, but if it isn't.. fear not! We've got some helpful pointers to get you on track to acing that arabesque! First of all, it's important to remember that just as we are born with different body types, there are different types of flexibility too. What we mean by this, is that certain people will be born with a naturally higher capacity for flexibility. Bodies vary greatly from person to person and some people will have longer muscle fibers, allowing them to stretch their muscles further, and with more ease - and some people will have shallower, less restrictive joints and sockets, giving them a greater range of movement (you know those people with hyper-extension in their knees and elbows, yep, that's them) being 'flexible' is going to come a little easier to these individuals.
Miss/Mr flexible that we were talking about above will probably fall into this category, so it's important not to get frustrated or annoyed with yourself if you've been trying for ages and you still can't touch your toes to your head whilst they can... It's okay, have a brief Lion King moment* and then get on with it. The key is to remember that how you start does not determine how you finish, just because you couldn't touch your toes in the beginning (and everyone else could) doesn't mean you won't be knocking everyone over with a perfect Grand Battement a little down the track. It's all up to you.
* Lion King Moment...
So, you've accepted the fact that you're not the most flexible.. yet, and that getting flexible is hard, but you also know that flexibility is an important physical advantage, if not a necessity, for a dancer (and that you reallllyy want to have Darcy Bussel's arabesque, and split kicks like those dancers on SYTYCD!) now what are you going to do about it? Well, these exercises for starters!
Remember: Make sure your body is adequately warm (see our warm-up guide here) before you begin these stretches to prevent muscles seizing up and causing injury to yourself. Don't push yourself too hard in one go, keep in mind that long term improved flexibility is much more rewarding than being uber flexible for one day, and then being so stiff you can't stretch all week!
1. Stretching for back flexibility.
Lower back stretches. To begin, start by laying stomach side-down on the floor, legs straight out arms bent with hands placed next to either armpit, elbows by your side. Push the upper body up of the ground and towards the ceiling, keeping the hips firmly on the floor and pushing back away from your hands to give your back a gentle stretch (See Image 1.). Return to the neutral lying position, this time with arms by your side and bend the knees so that the feet are brought up and in towards the back. Reach your hands up and take hold of your ankles and pull the legs up and over towards the head whilst simultaneously lifting the torso up off the ground towards your feet (See image 2.).
Upper Back Stretches. Next, kneel on your knees, with the feet flat to the ground (so tops of the feet will be against the floor) and keeping everything below the hips vertical, lower the upper back and head backwards over the legs, allowing the arms to remain by your side. Go back as far as you need until a stretch is felt in the upper back (see Image 3.), if this is quite easy then raise the arms above the head and repeat, allowing the the pelvis and upper legs to also tilt backwards with the aim being placing your hands (stretched up above your head, not by your side as before), and finally your head on the floor (See Image 4.). This should also gently stretch your quadriceps.
Advanced bridge: This is a great stretch to further increase your flexibility if you're comfortable doing a bridge (see Image 5.) - If this stretch is still a little difficult for you then just keep practicing bridges, and re-asses in a couple of weeks. - Once you are up in a bridge shift your body so that your weight rests primarily over the arms, and gradually try to straighten you knees. This is very effective in stretching out the upper back and shoulders (See Image 6.). Don't worry if you can't get their just yet, gentle daily repetition will lead to gradual but significant improvement. If you can easily straighten your knees then relax back to a normal bridge, walk the hands a little closer to your feet and repeat until a reasonable stretch is felt. From here the next step is to bend the knees once more and lower yourself down so that your upper body is supported on your elbows, and your hands are folded under your head (see Image 7.)
Stretch for Arabesque/attitude: Now for a stretch that will aid with increasing your splits and back flexibility, improving the line of your arabesque/attitude and lengthening the quadriceps. Using a theraband, bend one leg backwards at the knee, and with one end of the theraband grasped in each hand, loop the centre over the flat top of your foot. Sometimes it can be good to have someone supporting you as you do this (but not necessary), once you've steadied your balance, begin to extend the leg up and backwards, keeping the supporting leg straight, as well as tension in the theraband and using it to pull your leg up and over your head. Make sure you don't let the upper body collapse, but hold yourself upright with as straight a back as possible (See Image 8.). Try to hold it here for 10 to 15 seconds and then repeat with the other leg.
2. Stretching for splits / leg flexibility.
Inner thigh / Middle Splits stretches. The next few stretches will focus on improving the flexibility in your inner leg (adductors), hamstring and gluteal muscles to aid in getting a flatter side splits and higher kicks/battements. Remember to breathe and relax into the stretch, never force or 'bounce' it!
Standing Straddle Stretch: From a neutral standing position, split the legs so that the distance between the heels of the feet is approximately one and a half times the width of your shoulders, or a little wider, and you are now standing in a straddled position, with your feet facing forwards in a slight turn-out. Shift the torso to your right, so that the upper body is in line with the right leg and gradually lean forward trying to keep the spine relatively flat. At the same time use your hands to wrap around your ankle and gently pull the body closer; You should be aiming to press the entire upper body against your leg with the head reaching as close to the ground as possible (See image 9.). Return to the upright 'straddle' position and repeat to the left side. Perform the stretch again, this time keeping the upper body over the middle of the legs and leaning forwards, one hand on each ankle, until the chest is almost in between the legs, or as close as possible (See image 10.).
Frog and Butterfly Stretch: Now for some floor stretches that will greatly improve your middle splits, hip range, and also your turnout. Please keep in mind that people with a very limited range of movement in their hips sockets may find these stretches to be too uncomfortable, so make sure you modify your routine as needed, not all stretches are suited to everyone which is why it's important to listen to your body.
Start sitting on the floor with your knees bent and the soles of your feet pressed together, legs drawn in and hands resting on your ankles. Gradually press your knees down towards the ground until a stretch is felt (See image 11), if no stretch is felt and knees can be flattened easily then hold the legs down, and keeping a long spine gradually bend forwards with the aim of touching your forehead to the your toes.
Next, position the body so that you're resting on your elbows and knees, back straight, and gradually spread the knees apart, pressing the hips down towards the floor and making sure you keep the knees in line with the hips (this bit is important!). It is helpful if you can get a friend or partner to gently press down on the lower back to increase the stretch. Once you have gone as far as you can, take several deep breaths and relax into the position, holding for 20 - 30 seconds before relaxing.
Finally, lay flat on the ground, stomach to the floor and draw the legs up in a turned out position with the soles of the feet touching (Don't sickle!). Keep bending the knees until you're in the 'frog position'. Unlike the previous stretch where the hips had to be held directly over the knees, the focus of this exercise is to keep the pelvis firmly connected to the floor, aiming also to get the ankles as close to the ground as possible. Don't be worried if your feet are stuck up in the air to begin with, some people will be more limited by their hips sockets (and turn-out capabilities) than others, and some will be able to get their hips and ankles to the ground immediately (See image 13.). Practice is the key here, with repetition everyone has the potential for improvement.
Next, sit up with your legs stretched out to the sides (in a relaxed middle split position) and make sure your toes are facing up towards the ceiling with no rolling forwards. If you like, you might find it beneficial to sit with your back against a wall to ensure you're not sinking or collapsing your posture. Now reach your left arm up from the side, and over your head, and still facing forwards bend towards your right leg, trying to feel the stretch all along the leg and up your side (See image 14.). Keep going until you feel a stretch and then hold for a count of 10. Relax, and repeat on the other side. Now repeat the exercise, this time shifting the upper body towards the leg and flattening all the way from your lower spine to your head until you are folded over your leg (See image 15.). This should give you a completely different stretch, as you engage new muscles to the ones targeted in the previous exercise. Once again hold the position for a count of 10 and repeat on the other side. Finally, return to the upright, forward-facing position and placing your hands in the centre, begin to walk them forward away from your body, allowing the chest to eased forward with them. Maintaining a straight a spine as possible, lower yourself towards the ground as you continue to walk the hands out. As you do this you should find your pelvis also rotating a little and coming forwards, placing you in a deeper, flatter middle split. Make sure to pause every few beats and take a couple of deep breaths, and then creep the hands forward a little further and repeat until hopefully you look like this (See image 16.)! Once you relax from the stretch be sure to shake your legs out a little bit so your muscles aren't storing the tension.
Et Voila! There you have it; A selection of fantastic stretching exercises that will help you improve your flexibility in leaps and bounds (not without practice and dedication though)!
Article by Elly Ford