Still, after having been at it for some twenty years - you´d think there would have been more impressive results already! Eight years ago (before my three-year ballet break), my best assisted extension to the side was probably toes level with chin. Don´t ask me about degrees, I suck at math. That gorgeous picture (ballerinaproject.com) to the left: add a long arm holding the leg and you´d get my picture (which is a pretty good picture). Since then, more progress has been made. Today, on a good day, my stretchier left leg goes foot-in-hand all the way up. We are talking about 10 minutes before 6 o'clock here. Seriously, I never looked at my ankle from that angle before. And I gotta tell you, it´s a whole new world!
Sadly, we all know that feet-in-hand do not neccessarily stay up without manual help. Usually gravity kicks ass as soon as we let go. However.. I´ve been building muscle for a long time. In fact, a bit too much - I bulk up very quickly. But, now it seems that strength and flexibilty are finally coming together! When I let go off my foot, the left leg stays up at the same heigt as the picture above. It´s a short but sweet moment, much better than my usual crashing down in the blink of an eye! On Friday, when we did our developpés devant into plié, my left leg rose and rose - and look mom, no hands! Of course it was no way near pro-heights, but I´m still very happy about my progress. My teacher noticed too. Now if I only could get my much tighter and lower right leg to follow suit..
Quite a few have asked me to share the stretching & extension magic. But what can I tell you? There really are no tricks and short-cuts. Also, I can only speak for my instrument - and we are all unique in our own little idiosyncrasies.. But what I can give away is this:
Be consistent. If you´re a tight bod like me (talking muscles and ligaments, not over-all firmness), you need to stretch on a daily basis. It does not have to be the same routine and intensity every day, but make a habit of stretching anyway.
Relax. Muscle tightness is often accompanied by tension. Do not force / bounce / jerk / push your stretches. Listen to your body, breath. Be calm and focused. Think long.
Warm up and loosen up. You don´t have to drip with sweat, but don´t stretch when you´re all cold and stiff. Go for a walk or a jog, do push-ups and abs. Loosen all your joints, from head to toe. Use a pinky or tennis ball on tight spots. Even massage the soles of your feet.
Try out yoga. You don´t have to get into the philosophy if it´s not your thing, but you learn many ways to stretch your body. Yoga also helps to get calm and centered.
Be patient. If you want to get into splits (still my holy grail with right leg in front), loosen and stretch everything else first. Be patient. Be consistent.
Check out these links and video for further help:
Improving Extension. Dance Magazine, 2008.
Ballet Shoes Pointe Shoes.. And Adult Ballet Class: How to Start Stretching..
Dance Advantage.net: Stretching Safely for Splits
Photograph: Ballerina Project, dancer: Irina. Photo: Dane Shitagi.