In my book and in several articles like this one, I have said you don’t need flexibility to start learning ballet and that you will become more flexible over time. At some point however, you would probably want to be more flexible. You’ll then increase your efforts to stretch in order to be more flexible quickly.
So when do you stretch? For almost everyone, it just makes sense to stretch after class because you’re warm.
However, I do believe, for intermediate and advanced dancers, that it is vital to stretch BEFORE class.
This topic might be controversial…but I believe that dancers should stretch before class so as to be able to achieve maximum flexibility and range of rotation and height during class.
The stretching that is done after class fulfills a different purpose – that is to increase your flexibility – such as working towards a full split. The stretching before class is to ensure that you are fully able to work with what you have. To dance with the maximum height of leg you can ever do and turn out to the maximum rotation. If you don’t stretch before class…you probably would not be able to do that.
Let me explain.
If you’re like me, always trying to find express or ‘cheat’ ways to obtain the greatest amount of flexibility in the shortest amount of time (and probably least amount of effort) FOR AN ADULT nonetheless, you’ll come across many contradicting theories about stretching.
This is the main consensus.
It is generally believed that you shouldn’t stretch when your muscles are cold. You should warm up first before stretching. Thus, you shouldn’t stretch before class.
When your “muscles are cold” – it means either literally cold, or that you haven’t been doing anything that gets your heart rate up, even if you’ve been walking all day and landed in the studio just before ballet class.
Thus, many teachers would simply “warm” the students up by plies and tendus.
Many recreational dancers themselves wouldn’t really stretch too because they believe that they can warm up using the barre and then stretch before proceeding to the center exercises.
So bottom line, what is happening is that dancers are not warmed up or stretched to their maximum flexibility during barre and probably this carries on to center.
Maybe this is fine for an adult beginner, who may not have much range of flexibility yet. The teacher for beginner adults may not be as strict about a tight fifth position or maximizing your turn out as your plie or tendu.
However, as you become an Intermediate and Advanced dancer, you would want to maximize what you have. This means your flexibility, your turn out range, your inner thigh muscles’ strength ….and you can only do so if you stretch and gain maximum range BEFORE ballet class.
Always Work with Maximum Range
Why is it important to ensure you’re fully stretched to the point where you can use your maximum range?
- Making the best of what you have
First of all, you want to maximize what you have, with whatever body God gave you. We may not all have perfect ballet bodies, but we make the best of what we have.
- Setting the correct muscle memory
When you’re working using your maximum range, you’re training your body to work in one way, with one point of reference, instead of many different points of reference. This sets in a strong muscle memory. Working with your full limit is an easier reference point than anything in between..
- Training your body to increase range
By working at maximum range, you’re also unconsciously stretching and pushing yourself to reach maximum potential. You don’t know how far you can go if you limit yourself by working with 70% of your turn out, or leg strength,
- Safe practice
By stretching out, you’re also making it safe for your body to work. If you don’t “open your hips”, stretch your foot, or your hamstrings, you might be working them in a state of tension. If you apply more force to tension by forcing your hips open in a wide turnout before “loosening your hips and getting them warm”, you’re setting yourself up for potential injury.
Unless you have a gifted body with a loose, 180 degree turn out, you can come to class and stand in a nice tight fifth position. If you don’t, what you’re doing is simply turning out from your ankle. You might be overstretching its ligaments, and worse, your knees are not over your toes during plie…now as adult dancers, we don’t want to create less opportunity to dance, right?
Thus, it is important to stretch and open the hips, warm up the knees, ankle and foot…even your waist, torso, back and shoulders!
Professionals Stretch Before Class
Some people frown on stretching before class (because you are supposedly ‘cold’)…with good reason, I believe. Usually they had not been professional ballet dancers themselves.
It is true from science that there is more potential for injury if we do any high-energy activity (or stretching) when we are not warm.
Contradictory to what these recreational dance teachers advocate for are dance teachers who were professionals themselves …and who believe just the opposite. They often start their classes by commanding everyone to stretch and warm up into their splits.
My friends who graduated from vocational ballet school share the same sentiments. They complain to me when teachers tell them not to stretch before class (but stretch after barre). They say, “then how can I close in fifth or develop my legs really high? I will feel so tight in the hips that I will use more energy than usual!”
To them… to stretch = warm up
That is how they warmed up. They stretched.
These vocational school students, and professionals literally get on the floor in all sorts of positions (usually not into full splits right away) to release tightness in their glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, feet, arches, toes etc. Eventually they get into splits and over-splits.
Everyone has their own stretch routine to prepare their body for class.
To Stretch or Not To Stretch?
My take on this is….
Yes, stretch. Stretch and get your maximum range before class.
This is especially if you’re dancing at an intermediate or advanced level, and have achieved a relatively good amount of flexibility.
But to be safe, especially, if you’re not really used to this or you don’t quite know your maximum range…do a slight jog on the spot or jumping jacks to get the body warm.
Then slowly prepare your body for maximum stretching…do small stretches first leading up to big stretches such as splits or over-splits. Do not shock your body. Shocking your body by diving into the big stretches first will just create a state of tension in your body and make stretching even harder.
From personal experience, I feel it is more dangerous for me not to stretch before class. I’m firstly expending wasteful energy to try to get my legs higher and hold my stiff turn out wider. I’m also potentially injuring myself, twisting the ligaments in my knee or ankle when trying to work in a tight 5th position. I feel I’m fighting my own body and I do not feel as “free” in my movement. My body is also ‘asleep’ before class, and if I stretch it before class, it is more ‘awake and alert’ and thus more responsive to do whatever I mentally command it to do.
Also, in trying to become a better dancer, I realize the need for more hard-core stretching!
But Isn’t Stretching Before You’re Warm Dangerous?
So why do some dance teachers or science studies show that it is dangerous to stretch if you’re not warm?
First of all, if you’re a beginner at stretching or at exercise, you might not yet have developed the sensitivity of your body. You won’t be able to pinpoint exactly which part of your body feels tight, or stiff. You may not know where is your true range, or your maximum. By going doing some hard core stretching, you might over-exert and end up straining your body.
As a beginner, you’ll also won’t have full command of your body (yet). Your control of how deep to go is clunky and clumsy. You might lose a grip, slip and fall into a stretch position far deeper than you intended. That’s how many adult beginners injure themselves stretching. Thus, the risks of getting injured are far less when you are warm.
Thus, I believe these are the reasons why it is generally discouraged not to stretch before class…simply because you are not “warm” enough.
I can’t tell you whether it is absolutely right for you to stretch before class. This is because every body is different. That’s why it is absolutely crucial to be sensitive to what your body is telling you.
As for more advanced dancers, I feel it is vital to stretch before class. If you feel you need to warm your body up, by all means do so…do that jog and jumping jacks. But yes, you do have to make the effort to stretch out everything before class!