Many ballet dancers will be familiar with the scene - dance students congregating on the studio floor before class, with their legs in froggy position or in a side split. Other dancers may be standing with one leg up on the barre. All are stretching conscientiously. You'll see the same thing backstage - dancers with their foot on a piece of scenery, stretching before they go on.
Would it surprise you to learn that they're all doing the wrong thing?
Cold Ballet Stretches Don't Work
Years ago, aerobics classes as well as dance classes would start with stretches, because it was believed stretching was important for preparing the muscles.
Now we know better. Stretching cold muscles won't warm them up or improve your flexibility one iota - cold muscles don't "give". In fact, forcing a cold muscle into a stretch only makes it to tense up - which is likely to cause it to strain, tear or even snap. And - here's the kicker -
If you sit in a stretch for more than 30 seconds, the muscles you've stretched won't be able to work at full capacity for the next 30 minutes!
So all those dancers who've spent their time before class sitting in side splits, are going to be less stable and less controlled for the entire first half of the class. And those dancers stretching in the wings are not going to perform at their best.
If you've ever felt unco-ordinated after stretching, now you know why.
"But why doesn't my teacher know this?"
Well, many ballet teachers train only in ballet, and a fair proportion of them simply pass on what they learned from their teachers, rather than going to college or other further study. Which means new developments may pass them by.
But in the interests of safety, it's time to admit that just because something is traditional, doesn't make it right!
Of course, there are many ballet schools who do the right thing - but there are too many teachers still encouraging their young students to stretch before class, as in the video on the right.
What Makes a Good Dance Warm Up?
That doesn't mean you shouldn't warm up. Just that long slow stretches aren't a warm up! You may be surprised at what the latest research says makes a good warmup - you can get a copy of the latest recommendations here.
Save your long, held stretches for the end of class, when your muscles are warm and will respond to sustained stretching. You can also do a dedicated stretch workout at home, when you're not planning to dance.
Even at the end of class, never force your stretches. Launching straight into an extreme position will only cause the target muscles to tighten up and resist the stretch. Instead, start at a point where it still feels comfortable, then think about consciously relaxing the muscles as you push gently, deeper and deeper into the stretch. You'll find you get a lot further that way, and you'll be rewarded with much greater flexibility in the long run.