Advice on Over Stretching by
a Dance Physiotherapist
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Many dance teachers, concerned parents and health professionals are struggling with the amount of extreme overstretching they see going on in the dance world today. Every day we are seeing images of stretches that we know must be unsafe, however the students who to do them are also often performing at a high level and winning competitions. Unfortunatley, that is usually where their dance career will end.
Is Over Stretching bad?
The mere fact that so many people ask this question seems to indicate that they know that it is... But why is it bad? And what can we do to still achieve amazing mobility without unnecessary risk of damage?
While contortionists have been over stretching and training in extreme ranges for years, there is still little formal research on the long term effects of this kind of training on the individuals involved.
While it is true that there are some bodies that survive training like this, the percentage of dancers who can train safely in this format is less than 10 percent.
Every day in my role as a Physiotherapist I see people suffering from old injuries sustained by over stretching, repeated extensions and excessively mobile and unstable joints from early training. Unfortunately the slow and hard rehab that so many people have to go through to just be able to live a normal, pain free life doesn't get the coverage that extreme flexibility does.
1. What are the risks of over stretching?
If joint, such as the hip, is pushed past its normal range of motion there is a risk of damaging the surrounding tissues, including the labrum of the hip, the ligaments that surround the joint or in the case of the spine, the discs that give us the capacity for shock absorption and spinal mobility.
In young students whose bones are not fully developed there is also a serious risk of damaging the shape of the hip socket, or developing spinal stress fractures or Spondylolisthesis. This x-ray image is of a 10 year old dancer's pelvis, showing the normal lack of closure of the growth plate through the hip sockety at this age. Extreme stretching can have irreversible impact on young hips.
Long term, over-stretched joints carry a higher risk of developing arthritic changes due to the wear and tear on the cartilage.
2. Are there dangers in starting extreme stretching in young students?
Yes. here is X-ray eveidence of the damage that can be done to young hips through aggressive stretching. Adolescent bones (especially in the pelvis, spine and foot) are very vulnerable and any kind of extreme mobility training in young students must be very carefully considered.
The image included here is of the same young dancer, 4 years later than the first x-ray was taken. Severe lipping at the top of the joint was now causing her considerable pain, and she needed to have resurfacing surgery to remove the pincer development.
5. She/He wants to be a professional dancer; isn't this just a part of it?
No. Being a professional dancer in most genres requires a good level of flexibility, however this must also be accompanied by a high level of strength and control of the hips and dynamic control of the spine to be able to have a long, sustainable career.
For instance, if your goal is to be a classical ballerina, modern, or contemporary dancer, then being able to do a 'needle' or 'back scorpion' when you are 12 is not part of the skill set required, and will most likely be detrimental to a professional career. Dancers who are trained to over stretch usually leave dance before they graduate high school due to injury. If you want to be an acrobatic circus performer over stretching could be more relevant but the truth is, true contortionists probably have undiagnosed Ehlers-Dalos Syndrome. This is a joint hyper mobility syndrome where connective tissue
is affected. The results are extreme flexibility.
Educators: If you are involved in training young students it is very important to be aware of the possible dangers that exist, and to understand that training young adolescents is different than training adults. It is our responsibility to learn the safest possible ways for them to achieve their goals, as well as educating them on the appropriateness of their goals to their chosen career.
Professionals are very worried about what is going on in some "master classes" and workshops where average kids are being forced into positions, with the promise that it will make them famous - when in reality it is more likely to injure them. Forceful over stretching is not the way to get more mobile.
Parents and Students: Do not subscribe to the suggestion that performing at an elite level has to result in long term damage! Dancers should have long, sustainable careers, where their body is continually honed, refined, and specifically trained to achieve the ultimate level of performance. This in turn makes them an exceptionally high functioning human being beyond their performing career.
Over stretching is different from excellent flexibility and is not a requirement for success as a dancer. Dancers should be thought of as human beings with so much potential, not just disposable performing ponies. Do not let a teacher put your child's body at such risk for the sake of someone else's entertainment. There will always be teachers willing to do this unfortuately. As parents, you should have a say in your child's dance safety. If over stretching is a practice in your child's studio, especially if the teacher is physically touching and/or forcing and pushing the dancer into splits, side splits, needles, and scorpions....it is time to find a new studio and let your child have a long and happy dance life!
Teacher should never force stretch
Not necessary and dangerous!