It's Saturday night and you're sitting down in front of the TV with a takeaway and a glass of wine when before you know it the coffee table has been moved and you've been transported to the dance studio! Stretch practice! I'm sure it's a common occurrence for lots of you but when your little dancer hits the floor and announces "Mum! I'm doing the splits!" can you be sure that that's really what she was doing in class? The reason for this article is to offer you parents some help in being able to support your dancer when their practice shifts from the studio to your home. With us all taking online Zoom classes or following YouTube tutorials to keep our young stars busy during lockdowns, it is more likely than ever that your dancers may need your help and support in keeping their training safe and smart.
So firstly you may ask, why? Why all the stretching?
Stretch is an important part of dance training in order for dancers to be able to extend their range of movement and to keep muscles supple to avoid injuries. As dancers strive to achieve the next technique on their agenda or push themselves to perform more complex combinations, understanding the way their bodies move is important and training them to gradually increase in flexibility, mobility and strength is vital to keep them safe. It is also important for our posture and poise. back and upper body stretch practice helps to release tension allowing us to present ourselves with smart posture and avoid back and neck pain (sound familiar? Yes non dancers should do some stretch practice too ;-))
On top of the important stuff, kids always find tricks such as splits, scorpions and Y-stands impressive and so where there's an end goal they want to achieve it NOW. Much to their dismay though, stretching needs to happen gradually and I, like every other dance teacher in the land, am a huge advocate of safe stretching- being patient, training regularly and not rushing into tricks. Here I'd like to impart some of my mantras and knowledge onto you, the home eyes, so that 1) you can encourage your budding dancer at home whilst quietly checking their safety, and 2) be confident that while your dancer is being coached in a safe, progressive manner in the studio, they can be reminded of the 'golden rules', so to speak, when they bring their stretching home. This guide will focus specifically on front splits (pictured below) as these are the skill asked for most often by a huge range of dancers and the easiest set of stretches for them to practice at home.
So, what do they learn in class? (hint: it's not 'jumping into splits') This article will focus this time on stretching for the front splits- one leg in front, one leg behind, both straight and aiming for flat to the floor.
In order to "learn the splits" as youngsters put it, dancers are provided in class with a sequence of static stretches initially, which with time and dedication to stretching will improve their flexibility and in turn eventually lead to a safe split. This set of stretches given will target groups of muscles separately, to in the end lead us to split position and when sequenced correctly and smoothly, leads to a dynamic stretch sequence. It is important to maintain good training of a wide range of stretches as they each play their part in achieving the end goal and also lend themselves well to serve as a mobility warm up
The set of stretches that your dancer trains in will vary depending on age. This is important. If you have an age 5 dancer and an age 12 dancer the eldest will likely have stretches in their repertoire that your age 5 won't be taught in class. This is to silently train and encourage the strength element required to keep our flexibility safe and avoid over stretching muscles and joints that aren't quite ready. Additionally it means that the kids progress gradually, adding stretches as and when they understand what I mean by 'body alignment' and squareness.
We speak at all ages about alignment and how it is important to keep our hips straight, knees and ankles in line, shoulders back and straight and arms on eithe side of our lunge, and later, our split. This instills good practice from an early age and an awareness of how our bodies work in order to take care of our joints and how they move. When learning to split we keep everything parallel and square.
Back to the living room... So, when watching your children run through this set of stretches it is important that...
- they are warm! Get them to run about, do star jumps, go out and play! Anything that warms their muscles before they stretch them. they may have just completed a choreography based class on Zoom, post class is perfect time for them to get the mat out and take a set of stretches.
- they sequence their stretches. Don't just dive in and out of different exercises. Bouncing is a no no. Slamming into a stretch for a second then jumping onto the other leg should be discouraged. In class we try to establish a calm atmosphere when we stretch to focus on breathing into and holding stretches. We eed to listen to our bodies. Understand when our stretch feels too easy, how much further can we push it, sloooowly, in order to notice gain. We can only get this focus if we remember to always stretch slowly, breath deeply while we hold the stretches and repeat, repeat, repeat.
- The static stretches that they choose to practice should be held still and they should remember to focus on balance and breathing. Core should be tight and engaged. If they look wobbly, remind them of this as wobbling can result in falling into a painful twisted position or inadvertently 'bouncing' the stretch which we mustn't do.
- In terms of their technique we need to check that their knee stays directly above their ankle in a lunge. We never push knee forward, we always work on extending the back leg. Their hips should stay straight and square! Lining up with a mat or wall can act as an aid to understand the correct alignment and they should avoid chatting or watching a telly that's behind them. It's tempting and easy to drop a hip back to 'get lower' but this is dangerous and counterproductive to a good split. Finally we should encourage a tall long back, good posture in the shoulders (I ask them to imagine that their shoulder blades are being tied together with a little ribbon), an engaged core and a smile on the face.
- They can hold each stretch for around 30 secs after running through a flow sequence, making sure their muscles are warm and ready for the static holds.
- Pain should not be intense. There is a difference between pushing to mild discomfort and dangerous pain. This comes back to the point above about listening to our bodies and avoiding frantic stretch sessions.
- Don't force or over stretch. I do not believe forced over splitting to be a safe way to achieve splits as it puts far too much pressure on both muscle and joint.
I hope that this little guide is of use to lots of you and that it serves as a little bit of valuable information for supporting your dancer. Look out for more guides for both parents and dancers coming soon. There are many more stretch sequences that you'll be subject to witnessing in your home studio over the coming weeks so we'll let you know some more hints and tips.
And remember, you're never too old to stretch! If you're setting yourself a challenge for 2020 why not get down on the floor and stretch with them?! It's guaranteed to make you feel less stiff after sitting at your make shift WFH desk and help to regain good posture as well as strength and tone.