Before I get started with this post, I want to tell everyone to check out: www.DaveTriesBallet.com
This is a new site by a new male beginner who is excited to start taking ballet soon. I think this will be really helpful for anyone considering trying ballet too. I also think seasoned dancers will enjoy being reminded why they started dancing in the first place.
Flexibility was one of my many concerns when I started to take ballet. When we think of ballet dancers, we tend to picture extremely flexible people with their leg somewhere we’ve never imagined it could reach. I thought I was too old to get the splits. I know a lot of other people worry about flexibility too, especially guys. I get asked about it a lot. Sometimes it is the first question after people find out I’m a dancer, “can you do the splits?” To which I usually answer, “not in these jeans.”
I want to talk a bit about stretching and the possibilities of flexibility, especially with older beginners, and male beginners. This will be sort of an introduction for the more scientific and strategic ideas on stretching I hope to write later.
As it is with most things in dance (and in some ways, life), stretching is very much about the mindset that you have. If you believe you will never get the splits or gain more flexibility, you won’t. You just won’t put in the effort. And I don’t mean that if you just think you’ll get flexible you will. You have to believe it enough to put in some effort.
When I started taking ballet, at 25, I didn’t know if I would gain much flexibility. I could see how girls could, they’re more flexible right? And I guess if guys take ballet from when they are six, they keep their flexibility from when they are young. I believed that people, especially guys, became less flexible as they got older.
I still worked a lot on stretching. I knew that if I didn’t do it, and didn’t try really hard, I wouldn’t get better as a dancer. Flexibility shows up a lot in dance. I started to read a lot of books on stretching, and I think that was what helped me the most. I saw that much of what I believed and heard wasn’t really true.
With a few ideas in mind, I kept working on stretching. I don’t feel like I’ve reached an ultimate point, but in dance you never really do. I feel I could always be more flexible, but I can get the splits (when in proper attire and properly warmed up), and I’m way more flexible than when I started. I started to recognize that a late 20’s male who wasn’t very flexible but worked hard could be more flexible than a 13 year old girl who took ballet her whole life but didn’t work much on stretching.
Here are some ideas to keep in mind as you work on stretching:
It isn’t about age, but use
People don’t get less flexible because they get old. They get less flexible because they get old and stop moving. This is a big difference. Sure, as you get older your body doesn’t repair as fast, but it doesn’t shut down either. You may gain your splits slower, but it is not impossible.
The splits are possible for the average person
A lot of people believe that some body types can’t be flexible. For example, when I was reading about getting the splits, I saw a lot of discussions on martial arts forums where people said that they heard African American people aren’t as flexible because their muscles are more dense. There is not drastic body difference like this. The biggest differences would be between male and female, and with flexibility, the differences are minute. It may be more easy for some people, but it is possible over time and work for everyone.
The Splits Test
Michael Kurz, author of Stretching Scientifically (2003) gives a test to see if you will physically be able to do the splits. Part one is to do a deep lunge. If you can get your thighs in a straight line, that means your hip joints and ligaments don’t prevent you from the front splits. Part two is for the side splits. Put your leg out to the side and rest it on the back of a chair or on a table, about hip height. If you can get your hip and standing leg in line, it is possible for you to get the side splits (try both sides).
Stronger muscles stretch more
The stronger you get your muscles, the more they’ll stretch. This was really helpful for me. I started using the abducter and adducter machines at the gym, and my flexibility sky rocketed. If a muscle is stronger, it will stretch further before tightening up. Weaker muscles will tighten up much earlier than a stronger muscle.
NOTE: I don’t really know any non-awkward way to workout the adducter or abducter. Those are the muscles between around your inner thighs. For some reason, whenever I work them out at the gym, I start to think people think I’m hitting on them. If you have room to do it at home, you can lie on your back and put your legs up straight. Open your legs wide and close them. Keep repeating this. Try to do 50. Try to get up to 100. Put weights on your ankles. I never have space to do this at home, so I use the machines at the gym. They are the machines where you open and close your legs to lift the weight. I used to always feel weird when I would stretch at the gym. Eventually you’ll get over it, and in a little while you’ll be so flexible it is impressive. I also realized that most people at the gym really don’t know what they are doing when it comes to stretching, so they won’t judge you that much.
There are different types of stretching
Ideas behind stretching have come so far since I was in school (wow I sound old). There has been a lot of research on stretching, and there are probably more ways to do it wrong than right.
Static stretching (holding a stretched position for a long period of time) can be tiring for your muscles and not the best to start off with. Basically, I save it until after my class or workout.
Dynamic stretching (stretching in movement) is better for warming up. These are stretches that combine movement and flexibility. Leg swings or arm swings are an example of dynamic stretching. These will warm you up for movement (before class), but can be not as good if your muscles are tired.
Stretching is a process
It takes time. Do a little every day. Stretch a little in the morning, after your workout, before bed. Fit it into your routine. Don’t push it too fast. Work but don’t strain.
These basic ideas will help you get a mindset that will help you gain flexibility. Know that you can do it. I hope to write more later, with actual research based techniques and examples.