There’s no shortage of videos, articles, classes and devices that aim (and claim) to help dancers improve their flexibility. Advertising typically features dancers in extreme positions – dancers who probably didn’t need the featured protocols or devices to get into these positions. While being “born flexible” would seem a blessing, certain challenges face dancers who are naturally bendy.
Hypermobility, whether inherited or the result of training, is common among dancers. Many styles of dance require a greater than normal range of motion; being naturally flexible and having hypermobile joints can provide an advantage. However, hypermobility is associated with increased risk of injury and often correlates with posture and alignment problems, fatigue and poor proprioception (the sense of one’s body position and movement). Sometimes, hypermobility is also accompanied by symptoms such as joint and muscle pain, slow healing from wounds and injuries, and issues with lax tissues in other areas (e.g., skin, blood vessels, airways and intestinal tract) – problems that may be the result of a connective tissue disorder.
Properly managing, rather than exploiting, hypermobility can help naturally flexible dancers improve their performance, prevent injuries and increase their longevity in dance. The following strategies can help those with hypermobile joints:
- Use imagery, mental practice and mental rehearsal. Strive to develop efficient alignment and movement patterns. Use imagery to address postural problems and to refine technique. For example, imagine yourself as an elastic band; stretch up and down to vertically align the skeleton and find muscular balance, while standing still or turning around the central axis. Mentally practise particular movements and mentally rehearse choreography to prevent fatigue while recovering from injuries.
- Improve proprioception and balance. Don’t overuse the mirror. Increase sensory feedback by learning to feel (rather than see) how your body is positioned and moving. Become aware of, and attend to, tactile and kinesthetic sensations while dancing. Challenge your static (still) and dynamic (moving) balance by doing simple tasks, such as standing on one leg or pliés and rises with your eyes closed. Try these same movements on a mat or balance board. Integrate closed-eye pauses and balances on one leg into sequences that also incorporate a variety of off-centre movements.
- Avoid extreme positions and extreme stretching. Extreme positions and stretches can stress the connective tissues around joints, tissues that are likely already lax and potentially fragile in dancers with hypermobile joints. To avoid compromising joint structures, gain greater awareness and control of your positions and movements, and stay out of the end range. When stretching tight muscles, aim to stretch muscle bellies rather than joint structures. Short-hold stretches of six to ten seconds can be beneficial for releasing muscle tension and resetting muscle length after activity. Long-hold stretches at the end range of motion should be avoided.
- Increase stability, muscle endurance and strength. Aim to balance your mobility with stability. Don’t stretch where you are already very loose; focus on gaining stability there instead! Learn to recruit the deep muscles of the torso by narrowing the centre for core support. Strengthen the superficial muscles with exercises like plank and side plank for trunk stability. Train strength and endurance in the musculature surrounding the shoulders, hips, knees, ankles and feet. Resistance training with your own body weight, resistance bands and/or weight equipment can help gradually build strength and endurance and provide hypermobile joints with necessary added stability.
- Make time for rest and recovery. Dancers with hypermobile joints tend to fatigue more quickly than others because their muscle are constantly being used to fight the effects of gravity. Making time for rest and recovery is essential for optimal performance, injury prevention and healing. Lie in constructive rest position between classes and be sure to take at least one day off from dance each week. Aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night to combat fatigue, to recover from physical training and to aid in healing.
- Consider complementary training. Resistance training, somatic practices like Body-Mind Centering and conditioning programs such as C-I Training implement many of the above strategies and can help you manage your hypermobility for optimal outcomes in dance.
- See a health-care professional if hypermobility is causing you problems. You may require specific strategies, which may include being assessed for a connective tissue disorder. Find a health professional with a special interest in working with dancers at healthydancercanada.org.
Andrea Downie is the director of EnhanceDance, a founding member and immediate past president of Healthy Dancer Canada and a sessional instructor in the dance program at University of Calgary.
Suggestions from the field:
- It is important to avoid going into the end of the range of motion, especially when weight-bearing. This can be challenging, however, because proprioception is often impaired in those with joint laxity. It is possible to improve your proprioception through various strategies and techniques, which may include working with a trusted physical therapist, Pilates instructor or other knowledgeable professional. I often teach my dancer patients how to use kinesiotape to improve their proprioception. Compression garments and being in water can also help due to the contact with the skin. These strategies will also help reduce pain, which often accompanies joint laxity.
—Linda Bluestein, physician, Wisconsin Integrative Pain Specialists
- Dance training for hypermobile dancers should include an emphasis on strength, especially of weight-bearing joints such as the knees and ankles, core support work and exercises that enhance proprioception and correct alignment. The dancer will need to rely on muscles that can protect the joints from injury, since the connective tissue supports are insufficient. Using appropriate cues and imagery dancers can be encouraged to develop neuromuscular patterns that ensure optimal alignment in these joints and eventually transfer these patterns to efficient biomechanics in complex movement travelling in space.
—Donna Krasnow, dance educator, author of Conditioning with Imagery for Dancers
- Ensure that you schedule time for sufficient rest and recovery. Pace yourself to manage fatigue and endurance: plan and protect time for regular daily naps and supported supine rest periods during activity. Maximize efficiency during training and rehearsals by using rest periods to work with imagery and visualize yourself correctly executing the choreography. … Work with individuals that have experience with hypermobile bodies and who are respectful of, and able to facilitate for, the unique needs of hypermobile individuals. Be firm in your boundaries and do not tolerate pressure to work at, or beyond, your end range of motion.
—Jennifer Bezaire, dance artist, currently based in Saskatchewan
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