Ballet dancers require a high degree of leg flexibility. In slow adage movements, flexible legs, along with strong abdominal muscles and hip flexors, allow the dancer to lift her leg well above 90 degrees to the front and side. For dynamic grand battements, ballet dancers need flexibility for the same reasons. Turnout, one of the defining characteristics of ballet technique, is only possible if the dancer has enough leg flexibility to continue the rotation that starts in the hip joint. Flexible calf muscles permit a dancer to land from jumps and to work on pointe safely.
Stretching the hamstrings can increase the flexibility that a ballet dancer needs to lift her leg to the front and the side. Ballerinas stretch these muscles with the leg on the barre stretch. After placing her foot on the barre, she can lean over her leg to increase the stretch. Ballet dancers can also stretch these muscles by lying on the floor and bringing one leg toward her chest. To target all of the hamstring muscles, ballerinas often perform these stretches with external rotation and without.
Flexibility in the adductors helps a ballet dancer open her legs directly to the side without losing control of her turnout. Stretches that target the adductors include the leg on the barre stretch performed facing the barre, center splits and the pied dans la main stretch — or “foot in the hand” stretch. In this last stretch, the ballet dancer grasps her right foot in her right hand, while holding onto the barre with her left hand if desired. She extends her right leg in front of her body and then moves it to the side of her body, pulling her leg as close to her shoulder as possible. She holds the stretch for several seconds before switching sides.
Flexibility in the calf muscles — the gastrocnemius and soleus in particular — is necessary for every plié a ballet dancer performs. Because ballet dancers spend so much time pointing their ankles and working on demi-pointe, these muscles have a tendency to get overused and tight. Stretching these muscles — with straight-leg and bent-knee lunges — can protect the dancer from injury and can make the landing from jumps more fluid.
The quadriceps are another group of muscles that tend to get overused in ballet. These muscles are engaged any time a dancer straightens her knees. Also, many ballet dancers use these muscles incorrectly in adage movements. Instead of focusing the effort on the abdominal muscles and hip flexors, many ballet dancers try to lift their legs with their quadriceps. This unnecessary effort leads to tightness in the muscles. A ballet dancer can stretch these muscles by lying on her stomach and grasping her right foot in her right hand. Bringing the foot toward the buttocks will stretch out the quadriceps.
When to Stretch
Most of the leg stretches that ballerinas perform are static stretches. This type of stretch should only be performed after a thorough warm-up, to reduce the chance of injury. Because a dancer needs to be warmed up before performing the stretch, the ideal time to stretch is after ballet class.
By Kat Black : Kat Black is a professional writer currently completing her doctorate in musicology/ She has won several prestigious awards for her research, and has had extensive training in classical music and dance.