November 1, 2012

Human Pretzel in Training

Did my best impression of a human pretzel in ballet class. Another set of those insane stretches our über-flexible primaballerina teacher likes to give us. She calls them "possible", since you can always lower your leg and hold the stretch at your own height. Sure you can, if your arms are long enough to reach.. The exercise goes like this: stand facing the barre, lift right leg into passé retiré, then into a small attitude devant, enough that you take hold of your right heel with your left hand. Now straighten leg to the front and pull as close to your body as possible. It's really nothing more than a standing split. Which is not nothing, as I can barely stretch into a split on the floor. But I did manage it with my more flexible left leg in front. Right leg - not a chance in hell. I was pleased I could get the limb over the higher barre and then rest it there. Er, I meant strech. Not rest. By the way, this was still the easy part.

We then repeated the first part, passé and attitude, grab right heel with left hand and extend - but to a la seconde! Again, with my right leg up not even remotely possible. I switched hands (right hand for right heel) and did my stretch the regular way. You could of course have lifted the leg onto the barre, or held the leg lower. Our teacher never asks anyone to push beyond their own maximum stretching ability, and she makes sure we are being careful. It's no shame to have lower extension or less in the way of rubber ligaments. Still, it would be so nice.. No wonder then I keep having these dreams where I can lift my back leg in an attitude high enough to touch my bun. Or where I suddenly have six o' clock extensions, totally effortless. It's like my inner ballerina is having a stretch-fest in my dreams. Shame she has to wake up each time to a considerably tighter reality.

But this time I almost had my bendy Barbie moment. I took hold of my left heel with my right hand and maneuvered the extended leg to the side, not unlike operating heavy machinery. Found the angle very akward with my right shoulder coming so much forward. Then had the brilliant idea to move my right arm behind my head, all the while holding the left leg in the air. And it was so close to a full side-split, my eyes almost popped out along with my right shoulder. I could have made it, if I just had a little bit more length in my arms. That or looser hip joints.

Seriously, I need to keep perspective. Not so long ago I was happy to stretch my leg to shoulder height (talon a la main), and getting this far is a huge improvement for me. I also need to be careful. I'm really not sure it's the best idea to push too much against body type. I happen to have tight ligaments and muscles, but on the up side, I have a strong jump. Wouldn't want to loose my bounce to over-stretching. Can that even happen? Does anybody know?

Anyway, don't you get any crazy ideas from my barre maneuver. Always practice safe stretching!

I dunno why she doesn't look any happier. I would grin big time in this position!
The photo is from Wear Moi's gallery, click here for more.


  1. Are you in the advanced level or what? I better start from the beginners class... ;)

    1. Hahahaa, thanks a lot! Seriously, I'm sadly one-sided with my stretching abilities. The left side may have a bit of an advanced level going on, but the right side is still in beginners' bootcamp. It has been a very slow progress overall. But I'm happy to say that I've never been this flexible before. :)

  2. Happily human pretzel-esque stretches are rare in the classes I take, but every time they come up a little part of me wishes to run to the hills and never look back. Whilst my joints love them, my muscles and ligaments just crumple further in the face of them. Even barre stretch sometimes is beyond me - if the barre's above ninety degrees, I can rest my foot on it but that's about it... *sadface*

    Why is it that the dreams of uber-flexibility never translate to reality?! Boo ;)

    1. Nellie, I get that run-to-the-hills feeling with my right leg every time. It's still a mystery why that one won't comply. Apparently, resistance is not futile. I also cannot do high attitudes (holding leg with hand), or reach my bun with my back foot. Not that it's really necessary. But the dreams, they keep coming back!

      Is your studio barre very high? I just realised how unfair it is that the taller girls in my class get to hoist their long legs up to the same barre as short me. If you stand 10 cm higher, that's a lot! Just saying ;)

    2. As an average height person, I suspect the barres would be perfectly set to me if only my muscles and ligaments weren't all so snarled up. Most the studios I dance in have barres at about my 95 degrees which is perfect (and I can unmangle enough of my spine to get a nice stretch) but there's one that has - well I think anyway ;) - ludicrously high barres at about my 105-110 and that little bit extra is a killer to the point that when I take my foot off the bar my leg drops about 30 degrees. Ho hum, never mind. I'll just keep stretching in the vain hope that one day I'll get a semi decent extension ;)

  3. If you could do a post about the ballet class levels in your dance school (Footlight in Helsinki, I assume) that would be great. The website and their customer service said that even after 10+ break I could skip the beginners class, but I just tried to do some plies and lift my legs at home and seriously I was shaking. Even my under arms are so weak that it's difficult to hold them in a proper position! :D

    I thought that I was in great shape! I've been running and going to gym all these years but damnit, I've got no static strength!

    1. I would love to help you out, but that's a tricky one. Footlight has more than one ballet teacher, and the levels (plus teaching styles and methods) vary accordingly. For example, I would say that GS' 90 minutes J1-level is technically a lot more challenging than SV's 60 min J1. Somtimes it also depends on the students attending..

      It really depends on your dance background. How many years did you dance before your 10+ break? How many classes per week did you take? What level where you back then?

      Unless you quit dancing before your teens, I would not recommend a beginners class. It's really for absolute beginners without any prior experience in ballet. I would suggest a basic level class (perustaso) just to get your feet back under. If that seems familiar enough, skip to the next level. You might surprise yourself! :)

      Arms will feel the strain, but you get used to it quickly. And no need to lift legs any higher than what you are currently capable of. My stretch post might have given the wrong impression: high extensions and ballerina flexibility are not pre-required skills/talents.

      After your first class you can always ask the teacher for an assesment.. It's also a good idea to let her (or him) know that it's been over ten years. :)

      Let me know how it turned out, okay? And congrats on your comeback!

  4. Hi Joanna, my teacher does this same stretch too! I have always wondered if it was a Vaganova thing, my teacher trained there. Is your teacher Russian-trained as well?

    This is an unbelievably great stretch, however I always feel nauseous doing it! As for the side stretch, I can only do it successfully if I wrap my hand around the top of my foot (around the outside, then grabbing my heel). Otherwise, if I hold my foot like in the Wear Moi photo, my heel slips out of my hand.

    We also do the stretch to the back as well, where we grab our foot and pull it towards our head. Ouch.

    As for the jumping ability, I have pretty strong jumps, which my teacher's told me comes from my strong thigh muscles. As I increase my flexibility, my jumping skills haven't been affected. I wouldn't let that deter you from stretching.

    Happy Gumby poses Joanna and everyone! :)

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      I don't think it's a specific Vaganova thing.. I have taken class with teachers who trained at the Vaganova Academy, and this particular stretching sequence was never featured. Which doesn't mean that it isn't taught at there or at other Russian ballet schools. Teachers tend to go with their own preferences, while keeping in mind their students' abilities and facilities.

      By the way, our "über flexible primaballerina teacher" was trained at the Conservatoire in Avignon, France. So her teaching method is primarily French. Of course the training and learning never stops, and I imagine that she's been influenced by a variety of ballet masters.

      To the back? Ouch! That's way too HC for me.. I just don't have that kind of lower back flexibility, and at my age it's best to pace yourself ;)

      Good to know that your strong jumps haven't been compromised. But I have on occasion been advised not to do too much lengthening stretches right before class (the kind where you want to increase your range). It's all about the proper muscle tone, I suppose.

      Happy stretchy dancing! :)

  5. Very good stretches, very well explained


To That Special Ballet Teacher

To that special ballet teacher, who not only teaches you about technique, but helps build your confidence, nurtures your inner artist, ...