It's Saturday night and you're sitting down in front of the TV with a takeaway and a galss 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.
Why all the stretching?
Stretch is an important part of dance in order to extend their range of movement and to keep muscles supple to avoid injuries. On top of this, kids always find tricks such as splits, scorpions and Y-stands impressive and so there's an end goal that they want to achieve NOW. Much to their dismay though, stretching needs to happen gradually and I 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 so that 1) you can encourage your budding dancer at home whilst quietly checking their safety, and 2) be confident that your dancer is being coached in a safe, progressive manner in the studio. This month's 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?
In order to "learn the splits" as youngsters put it, dancers are provided in class with a sequence of 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 vary depending on age. Intermediate to senior dancers will have full set, whilst younger dancers are slowly getting introduced to them and won't be splitting for a little while. 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 either 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 then introduce 'turnout' when learning box and Ys (that's another story for another day...)
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 sequence their stretches. Don't just dive in and out of different exercises.
- 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 stay straight and square! It's tempting and easy to drop a hip back to 'get lower' but this is dangerous and counterproductive to a good split.
- their stretches should be held still and they should remember to focus on balance and breathing. Wobbling can result in falling into a painful twisted position or inadvertently 'bouncing' the stretch which we mustn't do.
- they should hold each stretch for around 30 secs.
- pain should not be intense. There is a difference between pushing to mild discomfort and dangerous pain.
- encourage a straight back, lifted chest and shoulders back
- don't oversplit!! I will only allow over splitting (where the leg is raised at front or back) once the dancer can hold a full split, right to the floor, comfortably and with good extension and posture in leg, back and arm. 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 in the coming months- and remember, you're never too old to stretch! If you're setting yourself a challenge for 2018, why not get down on the floor and stretch with them?! Happy stretching!