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Becoming Flexible as an Adult Ballet Dancer

Sure, you can start ballet at any age, but if you want to progress in ballet as an adult, you have to face the problem of flexibility and tackle it head on. This is an article about how I became more flexible learning ballet as an adult - or rather, how I had to become more flexible in order to progress. Disclaimer: This is not meant to be professional advice - I'm only sharing my experiences. Please consult your health professional.

Ahhhh, the issue of flexiblity when it comes to learning and dancing ballet, is close to my heart. The reason why I'm writing to you right now is because I'm not going to class today, neither I didn't go to class yesterday. Why? Because I'm healing from an self-inflicted injury (by my wonderful physiotherapist)....all for the sake of becoming more flexible.

Truth: You don't need to be flexible to learn ballet

It is true that you don't need to be extremely flexible to learn ballet as an adult. An average person's flexibility is sufficient. Doctors tell me that if you can bend and touch your toes, you are considered flexible. Your hamstrings are sufficiently flexible.

So if you don't think you're flexible, don't let it stop you from learning ballet. After all, you will become more flexible as you take more classes. You'll be surprised with yourself, as I was. That is why I think it is such a waste that people let their own perceived lack of flexibility prevent them from starting ballet.. One adult ballet dancer friend I know took a whole year to master her splits before taking her first ballet class. Imagine how much faster she could have progress! Nevertheless, she's doing very well now and learning a solo variation from Esmeralda.

Ballet teachers also tell you not to worry about getting your leg high in Adagio (slow lyrical movements) or in grand battements (big high kicks) if you cannot maintain a good ballet posture (because you're not flexible enough, yet). That is true and very correct. You'll need to train your body to move strictly in purposed pathways, just like you are trained to drive on the roads within the markings, you cannot move your hip out of alignment in order to get a higher leg. Otherwise, you're not progressing and wasting your time.

However, that may give the impression that flexibility is not important, or not necessary to be worked on. Well, I know this because I was once under this impression!

It is true that you needn't necessarily work on flexibility while learning ballet as an adult and it will come to you naturally. With that being said though, there is a limit to the extent of flexibility. Eventually you may reach a point where your lack of flexibility starts to annoy you because it is another road block to progress. If you have reached that point, congratulations! You must have worked hard and far to get to this point. This, brings me to my second point.

Harder truth: You need to be flexible in order to progress

If you're fortunate to be in class with some advanced dancers, you'll eventually realize why flexibility needs to be worked on and maintained constantly.

Dancing becomes easier, requires less energy, you are not fighting with yourself but focusing on controlling your movements and expression. It is easier for you to learn new moves and choreography too. Of course, you'll look nicer and closer to a ballerina with beautiful reaches and bends.

A friend who was very dedicated to ballet was told by her ballet teacher that unless she works on her flexibility, she can't progress further.

Though I wasn't very flexible, I had never bothered to focus my energies on working on it, and would rather spend my efforts trying to perfect double pirouettes and get comfortable with a triple. Why? I reasoned it like this: I am an adult ballet dancer, I'm not going to be like those young girls who have their feet above their heads in ecarte position, and my legs were already high enough for my ballet exams and syllabus work.

In an Eureka! moment, I finally understood why becoming more flexible really helped in my progress in ballet.

To cut the long story short (for the longer version, read my journal entry below), I pulled my hamstring and the pulling pain wouldn't go away for months, making sitting in my right split no longer possible, even if they weren't the full ballet split.

I decided to bite the bullet and see my friend's extremely costly but good dance physiotherapist. She fixed my hamstring, but found out my torso was kinked to one side. She fixed that too, and then then my upper back and shoulders and neck.

And as a result, I discovered why my teachers had always pulled my shoulders back and yelled at me to keep my ribs in.

My ribs were too tight in an 'open' way. I had to buy this small rubber ball and lie on it, placing my tight ribs over it, for weeks. The small rubber ball is similar to this: Sportime Physio-Roll Exercise Ball

I was too tight, and through physiotherapy, I loosened up and managed to overcome my usual corrections.

I realized it wasn't because I wasn't listening or learning right, it was my own inflexibility that I was fighting.

Well here I am!

Two General Types of Stretching for Flexibility

There are two types of stretching that you can do to become more flexibile.

The first one is static stretching: which means you sit in a stretched position and hold for 10-30 seconds.

The second one is dynamic stretching: which means you're stretching in moving motion, like the high kicks in grand battements.

When you're taking ballet class, you're really doing lots of dynamic stretching, like tendus (which means stretch of the foot), and rond de jambres, where you stretch the areas of your turn out. In high kicks, you're stretching for splits and your forward and backward bends help stretch your hamstrings and your back.

I've had some ballet friends who don't actively stretch, but find their legs getting higher as time go by. Of course, they had to take lots and lots of class to get that way.

How to become more flexible as an Adult

Possible ways you could explore increasing your flexibility

  1. Learn some ballet stretches

    You need to learn to stretch your body in a way that is the most beneficial to learning ballet. No point stretching in a way that does not help you in your dancing, as you know, ballet is very classical - not much room for modifications of technique.

  2. Do your stretches everyday

    Every time I asked flexible adults how did they achieve their splits? They told me they stretched everyday for a year and they continue to stretch.

    I couldn't imagine doing that everyday and that is why I did not achieve my splits for a long time. In the end, I gave in and started stretching everyday.

    I started stretching after each ballet class for 5-15 minutes, and then later bumped it up to stretching at home on a yoga mat. I have upgraded it to an airex mat.

    I can now do my splits, though it is not a pretty looking one or comfortable kind. But I like to tell myself that at least I can sit in my splits. My left split is a lot better than my right. If I don't maintain it, I feel I get set back a few points. I'm not yet to the point when I can go down (cold) and feel no pain at all.

  3. See a physiotherapist

    Different physiotherapists may use different strategies to work with your body. I'd say see a couple of them and find which ones work for you. There was a period of time I saw two different people because of the different things they did for me.

    My first physiotherapist used deep tissue massage or sports massage: which is really painful, but it releases years of tightness and helps you increase your flexibility. In other words, you can literally pay someone to make you more flexibile, without you doing any work. You'll just pay a hefty fee and with lots of pain to bear. It was like nothing I ever felt before! And I used to think my pain tolerance was high. She also taught me the TRE method (Trauma Releasing Exercises) to release tightness in my muscles.

    The other physiotherapist customized my stretches for me. She realized the reason why I couldn't do a perfect ballet split on my right leg is due to the quads tightness in my back leg (my left) and I also had very tight hip flexors. She gave me homework and I saw her every 2-4 weeks to check my progress. Eventually, I did master a perfect left split, with more a bit more work to do on my right splits. (Now I can do both, though I have yet to be comfortable in the side splits.)

  4. Get a foam roller, foot roller , tennis balls, golf balls, bed of nails, step on smooth stones for the feet.

    You'll need to roll our your calves, thighs, quads. Sit on golf balls, roll around on tennis balls, lie on a bed of nails to release neck and shoulder tension and step on stones.

    This is in a nutshell helping to release tension in your body, so you can gain more flexibility.

    This is the foam roller that I have. I mainly use it for the side of my thighs or my quads. See some foam rolling techniques for ballet (youtube) here.

    I've also used a "bed of nails " to release tightness of my neck and upper back. It took me a while to get used to it, but I was amazed at how much tension it must have released for me because I fell asleep on it!

    As for the golf balls - you usually sit on them to release tightness inside your glutes, and you place the tennis balls around your hip area and roll around it.

    I'm currently considering this Trigger Point Performance The Grid Revolutionary Foam Roller, Black to supplement my expensive Physio sessions (or if I stop seeing her for a period of time.)

  5. Ballet flexibility DVDs

    They range from 40 minutes to an hour long. I find them effective, but you must do them everyday for months. That is quite hard to commit. I think I made it in the first month and went back to stretching in class and rolling around with tools and visiting my physiotherapist every now and then.

    This is the one I have from much earlier. I think the prices have gone up though.

  6. Breathe

    Tell your legs and back to relax and breathe deeply. Especially when you're about to go into, say a split, and you're anticipating pain, your muscles will tense up and you're fighting your own efforts. You have to tell yourself to relax and let your body sink into your stretches. Touch your muscles and mentally command them to relax. Touching them will bring greater body awareness.

  7. Imagine

    I learned this two techniques (breathe and imagine) from a book by Eric Franklin. In order to release more tension, you have to use your imagination. This will affect your body in powerful ways. When you're feeling the pain from stretching, imagine yourself made of jelly. See your back as jelly and wobbly. Imagine what happens when a jelly woman needs to touch her toes. Feel the texture, and see the colour, press it and see it wobble in your mind.

    You may check him out yourself Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery - 2nd Edition or follow adult ballet diaries on twitter or facebook for updates on when I write more articles on this.

  8. Yoga & Pilates class

    This is effective, but for time-strapped adults, this might be a challenge! Even if you can afford time and the money for one class a week, it will make all the difference!

  9. Stretch class

    If you have them in your area, go for it!

My Flexibility Story

This is my flexibility story and perhaps a continuation of my journey to become more flexible. I will write about what helped me too.

My Flexibility in First Three Months of Ballet

When I first re-started ballet, I was really inflexible due to the years of long hours working at the computer.

Working at a desk gives you tight hip flexors and a tight lower back.

When I did a port de bras forward (bending to touch my toes), my upper body made a 90 degree angle with my legs. I mean, it was fine - the movement was correct, most teachers don't mind it, as long as your knees remain stretched. But when I looked at myself in the mirror, it wasn't how I imagined I should look.

Of course, I didn't care about flexibility then, I just wanted to learn my ballet moves. As I did more hundreds of port de bras fowards, my hamstrings became more flexibile, but still, when I looked in the mirror, it was as though I could fit an entire basketball between my head and knees, my body still looked like the 90 degrees angle.

I just assumed I would get better, but I didn't. Maybe it did, but it was too slow.

However, I found that I could do my right and left splits after a sweaty ballet class, about 3-4 months of class (three times a week). That was amazing, because I haven't done it in so long. Though, my splits weren't the ballet splits. Your pelvis has to be square in ballet splits. Mine wasn't. But still, it was better than nothing. My teacher then would come and lift me up, square my hips and let me sit in them to stretch.

This might be different for every body. Some people's bodies are harder, or softer in different areas.

My Flexibility 4-6 months

After about four months, my friend invited me along to her private stretch class. Group stretch classes weren't available in my area, except from Yoga and Pilates ones, so a few of my friends took stretch classes in the form of private lessons. We shared half the costs of the studio and the teacher.

In my first lesson, I couldn't sit and reach to touch my toes. In ballet class, when I had one leg on the barre, I couldn't bend forward to put my head to my knee. My body barely moved, and only my head and neck were forward. My teacher pushed me gently from the back. I felt my knee popping up and had to fight the stretching pain (your pain tolerance will increase as you go along). By the end of the 1 hour class, I could finally touch my toes. I remembered the teacher saying, "Somebody can touch her toes now."

By the 3-4th lesson, probably over a period of 6 weeks, I became more flexible than my friend. My friend was known to be quite 'hard'. My teacher said I was 'soft' - meaning that he could press me down further into a deeper stretch, but will stop because I was yelling in pain. My friend, on the other hand, was hard, and he said if he put a bunch of bricks on her, she would still hold up.

Don't worry too much about whether you're 'hard' or 'soft'. It really doesn't matter because we've all got our own areas to work on. So what if my German teacher told me I was soft? In the end, another teacher and my Physiotherapists say I'm really 'tight' (hard). So either way, I've got my own obstacles to overcome, and as for yourself, you have to find the areas in your body that are currently obstacles.

By the 6th month, I was fairly flexible, or so I thought - that I was sufficiently flexible. Time to do other things like learning how to do a balance en tournant! I stopped stretch classes with my friend and told her "I hate stretch, I want to focus on building strength." At that time, I had my mind to get back on pointe soon.

I couldn't do side splits, but I could do imperfect right and left splits. I could hold my leg in one hand with foot around my head on both sides. What other flexibility do I need to dance ballet? I didn't think I need to be any more flexible than now, so I left it.

How foolish I was.

My Flexibility 6th months to 18th months - A full year later

When I decided to take ballet exams, I had to find a new teacher - one that could register me for exams and who was willing to do it, teach me and let me into her class (in my country, this is not the general practice and most good studios are very snobby about it). I am so grateful for my teacher who did take me in, however, I had to take class with her advance students, who wanted to take the intermediate exams because it was a compulsory exam.

Firstly, being double their ages is humbling, but also my lack of flexibility aspirations quickly surfaced. My teacher, reminded me all the time that I had to 'kiss my knees' and 'to stretch more'. She didn't let me off or grant me any leeway just because I'm an adult. I'm actually grateful that she didn't make any excuses for me.

I pushed harder and as a result, I'm much more flexible than I ever was, though still one of the most inflexible in class.

Flexibility in the legs

I hated the pain from stretching. Actually I hate pain in general. But as you learn to dance, you'll realize that pain is part of the process.

Most websites tell you to stop if you feel pain in stretching. I believe they are bordering on being safe. All I can say is that it is hard to differentiate a stretching pain and a harmful pain in the beginning. Whatever you do, proceed with caution and see your health professional.

I wanted to rely on ballet class to improve my flexibility in the legs, but it was not fast enough. So I had to learn to stretch and reverse stretch to get by. If you're careful and do not pull your hamstrings, this area may be slow, but it is possible to get there without too much costs. Just regularly stretching and sitting on golf balls and foam rolling would suffice. It is also fun, sometimes, especially in an open adult class, when everyone else is having the same problems as you, and you're all just doing them and chatting and complaining about the pain together.

Flexibility in your torso and back

These are my problems! They are common problems of flexibility that adults have when learning ballet.

I was much too 'tight' (read: inflexible), like I was set in stone, and I had to exert more strength and waste energy to 'pull my shoulders' back and 'hold my ribs in' - which affected my breathing. I was fighting myself. I was fighting against my tight set-in-stone muscles and my body compensated with other problems.

Of course, if you do ballet leisurely, you probably can dance throughout with these issues and not let it affect you and your joy for dancing and learning ballet.

As for me, I wanted serious classical training, so that affected my learning because I was an adult, and years of computer work had taken its toll on my body.

I began 'fixing my body' to gain flexibility in my neck, shoulders and torso area, by lots of stretching, rolling with a foam roller, physiotherapy sessions, ballet classes and a more conscious effort on posture. I also tried using imagery, to sign to my body to release those muscles, use TRE and today I still all these things. Since then, it improved my dancing by leaps and bounds. I fight my body less and less, especially in my shoulders, to keep them back and down and relaxed, and my ribs in. Especially keeping my ribs in!

Now when I see other adult ballet dancers having the same problems as me, keeping their shoulders less rounded, and their ribs in, and not being able to do a pretty back bend without their ribs popping out - I think about my previous problems and wish I could tell them what I knew. What a big difference flexibility makes!

For flexibility in the upper back, you'll need several sessions of deep tissue massage. This is to reverse your accumulated posture of rounded forward shoulders. In ballet posture, we're supposed to stand tall and proud, and you can't do that if you're pretty much 'set in stone' by years of working at a desk as an adult. Beware: it is painful. There's not much else you can do to get the knots out and release the muscle tension so deeply embedded.

This also applies to flexibility in the lower back. For me, I fight an S-shaped back because all my life I've been walking with my tummy out and my upper body 'sitting' on my lower back. In ballet, I learn to 'lift' the weight off myself and not 'sit'. But I'm currently paying for the years of bad posture habits. The problem with having a stiff lower back is that I can't hold my turnout well no matter how good my turnout is. I'm always fighting my inflexibility which always naturally pulls my hips, making me stick my bottom out.

Yes, I may correct it when I'm standing at the barre. But the moment, I'm in the center, dancing, I may not have a strong enough body to hold the right position. Even if I did, I'm wasting energy. At the end of the day, if I manage to regain flexibility in my lower back, I'll have a much easier time dancing with the correct technique. Then I can move on to other fun things, like artistry and interpretation!

Flexibility in the arms

For years, I wondered why my arms look so ungraceful. I had to increase consciousness of my arms - and that came by touching, slapping, pinching my arms in class. Watching myself on video also helped.

I later realized, my right arm looks especially stiff because it was my dominant and stronger arm, and thus, held lots of tension. I consciously used my thumbs to press out my muscles during little breaks, like sitting at the traffic lights and waiting for it to turn green.

>Arch flexibility

Over the years, my ballet arches at my feet had gotten better, though I'm not gifted with a pretty arch. There are a few tools that you can use to stretch your arch, such as the ballet foot stretcher. But use them with caution! There are several theories out there and different people report different things.

Also, see your physiotherapist (preferably one who works with ballet dancers)

Flexibility in your turnout

This might be due to several things. I remembered my turnout being better when I was much younger. But I thought I had bad turnout. In the end, after seeing my Physiotherapists and through lots of pain, my turn out has improved. It may be due to tight hip flexors and quads and a host of other things I'm not medically fit to explain.

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