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Flexibility for adult dancers: There’s more to flexibility than stretching your muscles

Updated: Aug 28, 2023


A dancer sitting in second position doing a side stretch.
Dragonfly Dance teacher Jo McDonald. Photo by Kevin Taylor.

In this article, you'll discover:

  • a word of caution

  • Bones - how they affect flexibility in adult dancers

  • Nerves - how they affect flexibility, diagnosing nerve limits, stretching nerves

  • Fascia - significance for flexibility in adult dancers, how it can restrict movement, identifying fascial limitations, and tips to increase fascial flexibility

  • Muscles - strength and flexibility, impact of muscle imbalances on flexibility, evaluting and addressing muscular imbalances, and tips to increase muscular flexibility in adult dancers.

 

When I was a child, we had the Desiderata hanging on the toilet wall. So you can imagine, I have internalised a lot of the ideas outlined in that document. In the second stanza it states:


If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.


As an adult dancer, this is a super important concept to remember. As you strive to increase or maintain your flexibility, don’t compare yourself to other dancers, who have different physiology to you. Don’t compare yourself to your younger self, who also had a different physiology to you. Instead, focus on what you can achieve, what you can change, and let go of the things that you cannot change.


In this article, I am going to outline four factors that impact your flexibility – bones, nerves, fascia, and muscles.


A word of caution


Before embarking on a journey to improve flexibility through stretching at home, it is crucial to understand the importance of proper technique. Stretching incorrectly or without proper guidance can lead to potential injuries and setbacks. Therefore, a great place to start is by attending a weekly dance stretch and conditioning class. These classes not only provide valuable instruction on how to stretch safely and effectively but also help dancers develop a comprehensive understanding of their bodies, enhancing their overall performance while keeping their bodies safe. By learning the fundamentals of stretching in a controlled environment, dancers can establish a solid foundation for their flexibility goals, ensuring a balanced and injury-free approach to their practice.


Bones


Bone structure and its impact on flexibility for adult dancers



Bones provide the framework and support for your body, and their shape, size, and range of motion affect your individual ability to achieve certain positions and movements. Some of these factors include:


A dancer performing a high kick.
Dragonfly Dance teacher Camila Saraiva. Photo by Kevin Taylor
  • Shape of your bones: Individuals with longer and thinner bones tend to have greater flexibility compared to those with shorter and thicker bones.

  • Joints: Joints are where bones articulate with each other. Some joints, such as the ball-and-socket joints like the hip joint, allow for a wide range of motion, while others, like hinge joints such as the elbow joint, have more limited range. There are also differences in the range of motion in a particular join (such as the hip joint) between individuals.

  • Bone density and mineral content: Conditions such as osteoporosis or osteoarthritis, which weaken the bones, may limit the range of motion and flexibility


Skeletal limitations


Identifying skeletal limitations can help dancers understand their individual flexibility boundaries. Here are some ways to recognise skeletal limitations:

  • Structure: Pay attention to the shape and structure of your joints. Observe if certain joints naturally have limited mobility or if you experience discomfort or resistance during specific movements.

  • Range of motion: Assess your range of motion in various joints by performing specific exercises or movements that target those areas. Note any limitations or difficulties in achieving the desired range.

  • X-rays and medical evaluation: If you suspect skeletal limitations, consult with a healthcare professional. X-rays and medical evaluations can provide insights into any structural abnormalities or conditions that may impact your flexibility.


It's essential to remember that bone structure is largely predetermined and cannot be changed significantly. However, understanding your skeletal limitations can help you work within your body's natural range of motion and find strategies to maximise your flexibility potential.


Nerves

Image of a human body and the nervous system

The nervous systems role in flexibility


The nervous system plays a crucial role in controlling and influencing flexibility. It consists of a complex network of nerves that transmit signals between the brain and various parts of the body, including muscles and connective tissues. These signals coordinate muscle contractions and relaxations, thereby affecting the range of motion and flexibility of the body.


Pinched nerves and their effect on range of motion


Pinched nerves, also known as nerve impingements or compressions, can significantly impact an individual's range of motion and flexibility. When a nerve becomes compressed or irritated due to factors such as poor posture, repetitive movements, or injury, it can cause pain, weakness, numbness, or tingling sensations. This can directly affect the ability to perform certain movements or achieve full flexibility potential.


Diagnosing nerve-related limitations


Identifying nerve-related limitations requires careful observation and professional assessment. Some common signs of nerve-related issues affecting flexibility include:


  • Localised pain or discomfort: Nerve compression may cause pain that radiates along the pathway of the affected nerve, which can limit flexibility in specific areas of the body.

  • Sensory changes: Nerve impingements can lead to sensations of numbness, tingling, or a "pins and needles" feeling in the affected area. These sensory changes may affect movement and flexibility.

  • Muscle weakness: Nerve compression can result in muscle weakness or a loss of control in certain muscles, impacting the ability to engage in full range of motion.


To diagnose nerve-related limitations, it is recommended to consult with healthcare professionals such as physiotherapists, sports medicine specialists, or orthopedic doctors. They may perform various assessments, including physical examinations, neurological tests, and imaging studies (such as MRI or nerve conduction studies) to determine the source and extent of nerve impingement.


Treatment options for nerve-related limitations may include physical therapy, manual therapy techniques, nerve gliding exercises, postural corrections, and, in severe cases, surgical interventions. Seeking professional guidance and following an appropriate treatment plan can help manage and improve flexibility limitations associated with nerve impingements.


Stretching Nerves


While stretching is commonly associated with muscles and connective tissues, it is also possible to stretch nerves to improve flexibility. Nerves have an inherent elasticity that allows them to adapt and lengthen to a certain extent. Stretching nerves can help alleviate tension, improve nerve glide, and enhance overall flexibility. However, it is essential to approach nerve stretching with caution and under the guidance of a trained professional, as excessive or aggressive stretching can cause further damage or exacerbate existing nerve issues.


Nerve stretching techniques, often referred to as neural mobilization or nerve gliding exercises, involve gentle and controlled movements that aim to elongate and release tension in the nerves. These exercises typically focus on progressively increasing the range of motion of the affected nerves while avoiding any pain or discomfort. Some common nerve stretching techniques include:


  • Sliding glides: Slowly and smoothly sliding the nerve along its path, typically in multiple planes of motion, to promote improved mobility and flexibility.

  • Tensioning manoeuvre: Applying gentle tension to the nerve while performing controlled movements to stretch and mobilise the nerve.

  • Flossing exercises: Sequentially moving the nerve back and forth through surrounding tissues to promote better nerve mobility and reduce entrapment.


It is crucial to remember that nerve stretching exercises should be performed with proper guidance and supervision to ensure they are performed correctly and safely. Inappropriate stretching or excessive force can potentially aggravate nerve impingements or cause new issues.


Additionally, nerve stretching should be combined with other approaches, such as addressing underlying muscle imbalances or fascial restrictions, to achieve comprehensive improvements in flexibility. A holistic approach that considers the interplay between nerves, muscles, fascia, and other structures is vital for optimizing flexibility and preventing injuries.


Fascia


Fascia's significance in dance and flexibility for adult dancers


Fascia is a connective tissue that surrounds muscles, bones, and organs, providing support and structure to the body. In dance, fascia plays a crucial role in facilitating movement and enhancing flexibility. It acts as a continuous web that connects different parts of the body, allowing for efficient transfer of forces and promoting fluidity of motion. Fascia also contributes to proprioception, the body's awareness of its position and movement in space, which is essential for dancers to maintain balance and control.


Fascial restrictions and their impact on movement


Fascial restrictions can limit a dancer's flexibility and range of motion. These restrictions may result from factors such as injury, overuse, poor posture, or repetitive movements. When fascia becomes tight or adhered, it can impede the smooth gliding and sliding of muscles, restricting their ability to lengthen and contract fully. This can lead to a decrease in flexibility, reduced joint mobility, and an increased risk of injury. Fascial restrictions may also affect the body's overall alignment and stability, impacting a dancer's technique and performance quality.


Techniques for identifying fascial limitations


Identifying fascial limitations requires a keen awareness of the body and its sensations. Here are some techniques to help dancers identify fascial restrictions:


  • Self-exploration and observation: Pay attention to areas of tension or discomfort during movement or stretching exercises. Notice any areas that feel restricted or hindered in their range of motion.

  • Body scan: Perform a systematic scan of the body, starting from the head and progressing downwards. Focus on detecting areas of tightness, knots, or reduced elasticity in the muscles and connective tissues.

  • Myofascial release: Myofascial release techniques, such as foam rolling or using massage balls, can help identify areas of fascial tightness. By applying pressure and rolling along the muscles and fascia, dancers can sense any tender or restricted areas that require attention.

  • Professional assessment: Seeking guidance from a physiotherapist, dance teacher, , or a qualified bodywork professional who specialises in fascial release techniques can provide a more in-depth assessment. They can evaluate your movement patterns, identify fascial restrictions, and recommend specific interventions to address them.


By understanding the significance of fascia in dance, recognizing the impact of fascial restrictions on movement, and employing techniques for identifying fascial limitations, dancers can take proactive steps towards improving their flexibility and optimising their performance.


Tips for increasing fascial flexibility

  • Incorporate dynamic movements: Engage in dynamic movements that involve a variety of planes and directions. This helps to stimulate the fascia and encourages elasticity. Examples include fluid and controlled movements like spirals, undulations, and swings.

  • Explore fascial stretching techniques: Fascial stretching techniques focus on slow, sustained, and gentle movements that target the fascia. These techniques involve stretching and releasing the fascia through specific movement patterns, such as oscillations and gentle bouncing movements.

  • Utilise elastic resistance bands: Incorporate elastic resistance bands into your stretching routine. By adding resistance to your stretches, you can create tension in the fascia, promoting its release and allowing for greater flexibility. Explore various stretching exercises using resistance bands that target different muscle groups and fascial lines.

  • Foam rolling and self-myofascial release: Foam rolling is a popular technique for releasing tension in the fascia. Roll slowly and mindfully over specific areas of the body, applying pressure to release adhesions and restrictions. Experiment with different foam rolling techniques and tools to target different muscle groups and fascial lines effectively. Be aware though, that too much foam rolling can have adverse effects on the body, such as tissue and nerve damage

  • Hydrate and maintain proper nutrition: Staying hydrated ensures that the fascia remains supple and well-hydrated, enhancing its flexibility. Additionally, consuming a balanced diet rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals supports optimal tissue health and elasticity.

  • Consistency and gradual progression: Increasing fascial flexibility takes time and consistency. Aim for regular stretching sessions, focusing on releasing tension in the fascia and gradually increasing the intensity and duration of your stretches. Avoid pushing too hard or forcing movements, as this can lead to injury. Listen to your body and progress gradually over time.

  • Seek professional guidance: If you're unsure about the best techniques or exercises for increasing fascial flexibility, seek professional guidance (as outlined in the section above on nerves).


Remember, everyone's fascial flexibility is unique, so it's important to embrace and work within your individual limits. By incorporating these tips into your training regimen, you can gradually improve fascial flexibility, enhance your range of motion, and optimise your dance performance.


Muscles


Now the to muscles, which may be the only thing you’d previously thought about when it comes to flexibility.


A dancer doing a forward lunge with her elbows on the floor.
Dragonfly Dance teacher Diana Scalzi. Photo by Kevin Taylor

Muscular strength versus flexibility


Flexibility and muscular strength are two interconnected components that play a crucial role in dance performance. While flexibility refers to the range of motion around a joint, muscular strength refers to the ability of muscles to generate force. It is important to understand that simply having strong muscles does not guarantee optimal flexibility, as these two qualities are not mutually exclusive.


Muscle imbalances and their impact on range of motion


Muscle imbalances occur when certain muscles are overly tight or weak compared to their opposing muscles. These imbalances can significantly affect an individual's range of motion and overall flexibility. For example, tight hip flexors and weak gluteal muscles can restrict the extension of the leg, limiting the height of kicks or extensions. Similarly, tight hamstrings can limit the ability to achieve a deep forward bend or extension of the leg to the front.


Muscle imbalances can arise from various factors, including repetitive movement patterns, improper technique, or previous injuries. They can lead to compensatory movement patterns, increased risk of injury, and decreased overall performance. Identifying and addressing these imbalances is crucial for improving flexibility.


Evaluating and addressing muscular limitations

  • Self-assessment: self-awareness is key to identifying muscular limitations. Pay attention to areas of tightness, discomfort, or limited range of motion during dance movements. This self-assessment can help pinpoint specific muscles or muscle groups that may be contributing to flexibility limitations.

  • Professional assessment: seeking guidance from a dance teacher, coach, or physiotherapist can provide valuable insight into muscular limitations. They can assess your movement patterns, identify muscle imbalances, and suggest appropriate exercises or stretches to address those limitations.

  • Stretching and flexibility exercises: targeted stretching is essential for improving muscular flexibility. Focus on stretches that target specific muscle groups contributing to limitations. For example, if tight calf muscles restrict ankle dorsiflexion, incorporate calf stretches into your routine. Additionally, dynamic stretching and mobility exercises can help prepare the muscles for dance movements and enhance overall flexibility.

  • Strength training: building strength in the muscles surrounding a joint can enhance flexibility. Incorporate exercises that specifically target weak muscle groups to improve their strength and stability. Strengthening the core muscles can also provide a solid foundation for improved overall flexibility.

  • Gradual progression: it is important to approach muscle flexibility training with patience and consistency. Gradually increase the intensity and duration of stretching and strength training exercises over time. Avoid pushing beyond your limits or overstretching, as it can lead to injury.


By evaluating and addressing muscular limitations, dancers can improve their range of motion and overall flexibility. A balanced approach that combines stretching, strength training, and gradual progression is key to achieving optimal muscular flexibility for dance.


Tips on how to increase muscular flexibility for adult dancers


  • Warm-Up: Before engaging in any stretching or flexibility exercises, ensure that your muscles are adequately warmed up. Perform dynamic movements such as arm circles, leg swings, or light cardio exercises to increase blood flow and prepare the muscles for stretching.

  • Targeted stretching: Focus on stretches that specifically target the muscles or muscle groups that are limiting your flexibility. For example, if you have tight hamstrings, incorporate hamstring stretches like forward bends or seated hamstring stretches into your routine. Hold each stretch for 15-30 seconds and repeat multiple times.

  • Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): PNF stretching techniques involve a combination of stretching and contracting muscles. One popular PNF method is the "contract-relax" technique, where you stretch a muscle, contract it isometrically for a few seconds, then relax and deepen the stretch. This technique can help increase the range of motion and improve flexibility.

  • Active stretching: Engage the muscles opposite to the ones you are trying to stretch. For example, if you are stretching your quadriceps, actively contract your hamstrings to help relax and lengthen the quadriceps. Active stretching promotes flexibility gains by incorporating muscle activation and relaxation.

  • Gradual progression: Flexibility improvements take time and consistency. Gradually increase the intensity and duration of your stretches over time, but avoid pushing too hard or forcing the stretch beyond your comfort level. Be patient and listen to your body to prevent overstretching and potential injury.

  • Incorporate strength training: Strengthening the muscles around the target area can contribute to improved flexibility. Include exercises that focus on strengthening the muscles opposing the tight ones. For example, if you have tight hip flexors, incorporate exercises like glute bridges or lunges to strengthen the gluteal muscles.

  • Stay consistent: Consistency is key when it comes to increasing muscular flexibility. Aim to stretch and perform flexibility exercises regularly, ideally incorporating them into your warm-up or cool-down routine after dance practices or workouts. Even short daily stretching sessions can yield significant improvements over time.

  • Listen to your body: Pay attention to your body's signals and avoid pushing through sharp pain or discomfort. Stretching should feel like a gentle pull or tension, but never cause pain. Respect your body's limits and work within a comfortable range.


How to sign up to a Dance Stretch and Conditioning class at Dragonfly Dance


Dragonfly Dance is offering an initial 6-week program of Dance Stretch and Conditioning at 6pm Wednesday evenings, starting from Progressing Ballet Technique at 11am on Saturday mornings, starting from Saturday 19 July at our beautiful studio in Adelaide.


Bookings open soon. Sign up to our mailing list to make sure you're notified when bookings open.



References


References

Clark, NC and Manocha, R (2019). Dance Medicine in Practice: Anatomy, Injury Prevention, Training. Routledge. Gremion, G, and Blanchard, Y (2018). Dance and Flexibility. In EB. White (Ed), Dance Medicine in Practice: Anatomy, Injury Prevention, Training (2nd ed., pp. 42-56). Routledge. Jeffery, S (2018). The Dance Technique of Doris Humphrey and Its Potential for Promoting Flexibility in Contemporary Dance. Research in Dance Education, 19(3), 246-262. Laws, A, & Hough, P (2010). Fit to Dance 2: Report of the Second National Inquiry into Dancers' Health and Injury in the UK. Dance UK. Smith, J (2019). The Role of Fascia in Movement and Dance. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 23(2), 55-63. Solomon, R (2015). Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology (2nd ed.). Human Kinetics. Tse, AC (2018). Neural Mobilization in Dance: A Preliminary Study of Neural Tension in Professional Ballet Dancers. Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 33(4), 244-248.


 

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