Improving extensions

We have all seen the photographs in Dance Spirit and Pointe magazines where the ballerina’s leg seems to extend past anatomically safe positions- jaw-dropping, yes, but a dancer should never justify their talent based on the height of their extension. Passion, and clean technique speak volumes.

However, extensions are important to maintain and improve in every dancer’s technique. The key to achieving optimal extension is not flexibility, but strength. Oversplits and forced stretches will not only damage your joints, but will not improve the height of your leg in adagio. Sorry.

When approaching extensions, the most important thing to keep in mind is to not grip, rather, activating the deep rotator muscles and inner thigh muscles of your leg instead of the front quadriceps- gripping can result in the bulking of the upper legs.

Try this exercise to practice engaging the underneath, inner thigh muscles (á la seconde): 

*All of these exercises should be done at a low height with slow, minimal repetitions to increase body awareness and increase strength

Laying on your side, stack your pelvis and shoulders on-top of one another to prevent rolling forward or backwards. Lift the top leg to passé imaging your heel pressing forward to engage your rotators.
Once you have established engaging your rotators, still thinking of the heel pressing forward, lift the leg to an extended attitude position. The initiation should stem from underneath your leg- if you feel a gripping in your hip or quad, retreat to passé (shown above) to re-discover the heel pressing forward and sensualize the rotators and inner thighs. *this position is not about height, it is about finding these muscles and bringing awareness to them.
Stemming from the extended attitude, slowly develop the leg into a fully stretched position while maintaining a soft quad and engaged inner/rotator muscle.
Imagine: there is a ribbon spiraling around your leg from you glutei to your heel- rotating your entire leg upwards and forwards in rotation.

Try this exercise to practice engaging/strengthening the poses and glutei muscles (devant):

Begin lying on your back, low abdominals engaged and ribs in, lift to passé in your turnout range from underneath just as the previous exercise.
Lifting from underneath, raise the working leg to front attitude creasing at the hip. The psoas should be engaged but not gripped- imagine the heel spiraling forward to release the quad and fire up the deep psoas.
Once the previous two positions have been successfully achieved, extend into a fully stretched devant position. I recommend remaining at a 90 degree extension to build strength and maintain proper alignment.

Try this exercise to increase height in your arabesque:

Lay on your stomach with your head resting on your forearms to maintain alignment, while turning out the legs. Think of lengthening your tailbone and top of head away from your torso.
Engaging the left glute muscle prior to any movement, allow this activity to lift the left leg as the right arm reaches forward in opposition. From here, send the energy out of your left big toe which will translate to your left hamstring- lift your leg slightly by using your now active hamstring. Once the glute and hamstring have been engaged, allow your lower lumbar muscles (above your tailbone) to take the weight of your left leg as you activate it. Lift your arabesque another inch higher with this newly found muscle. Retreat to the starting position. You feel the engagement of (in order): the glute to first initiate any lift, then hamstring to raise the leg into position to finally finish with the lumbar muscles to maintain posture and alignment also a continuing stretch in the front of the hip to optimize length. HOWEVER, the front of the working hip should be stretching and lengthening just as much as your leg!

Keep in mind

  • Stretching is insignificant without strengthening
  • Strength is best built in lower positions- which will lead to higher positions once established!
  • Consistency is key, not high reps
  • YOU know your body, be smart, be safe, and be kind to yourself
  • Make it a habit to do these exercises before class to wake up and feel the muscles so when développés and adagio come your muscle memory will be able to differentiate right/wrong when activating your legs
  • Strengthening these muscles will help prevent injury and ultimately optimize the longevity of your dancing
  • Do not justify your worth as a dancer by the height of your extension
Having a buddy makes conditioning much more fun too!
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