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Stretching Your Dancers at All Levels

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TV_LanaStretch_MAINDance teachers know the benefits of stretching for their students. But sometimes stretching exercises and descriptions can get boring for both the teacher and their dancers. Here are some new ideas that I use for imagery (stretching wording and descriptions) and exercises that may help break the stretching monotony.

Primary Level

Feet

  • Feeling Feet: Start in seating position with legs extended in front of body. Practice pointed toes (“happy” feet), flexed feet(“sad” feet), and demi pointe (“silly” feet). To increase performance and acting skills have your students do “happy”, “sad”,and “silly” faces to match their feet.
  • Pedal Pushing: Start in seating position with legs extended in front of body and extend arms in front of body, even with the shoulder. Flex and pointe feet while flexing and pointing the hands from the wrists. For coordination work, feet and wrists can alternate (right foot and right hand flex, while left foot and left hand pointe, then switch). For an added challenge make wrists and feet be opposite (right foot flex and right hand pointe while left foot pointes and left hand flexes, then switch).

Hips

  • Turtle Soup: This imagery is great to use if you are tired of the traditional butterfly stretch or if you have boys in your class. Have students start seated with soles of the feet together and knees bent out to the side. Tell students to “hide in their shells” (fold over to their feet), “stick their head out of their shell” (lengthen and extend the spine in the bent over position), and then sit up. Then yell out “oh no, they’re making turtle soup” and have the students hide quickly back into their shells.

Backs and Core

  • Under the Sea: Students start lying on their stomachs, legs extended behind them. Have them push up (aka “seal stretch” or “upward facing dog”) and have their heads look to the left and right. Tell them they are “mermaids” on the look out for sharks. Say the “coast is clear” and have them lay back down. Repeat this one or two more times. Then say “I see a shark! Swim mermaids.” Still laying on their bellies, have them lift their legs and arms off the floor and flutter them fast like they are swimming. This is great for strengthening the back side of their bodies. After doing this for 10 seconds or so have them lay down again. Have them repeat the lookout stretching once more. Then exclaim “the shark is here”. Have them sit up on their bottoms, legs extended in the air, with hands and arms beside their body for support. Then have the students kick their legs in the air (with toes pointed of course) as fast as they can to scare the shark away. This is a great core workout for you and your students!
  • Fruit Baskets: Students start laying on their stomachs. Have them bend their knees, feet up in the air and then grab their feet behind them with their hands, making little baskets with their bodies. Have them hold this pose while you go around, one by one, and tickle their backs while pretending to put different fruit in each of their baskets.

Splits

  • Trains: Students start on their knees. They place both hands on the floor in front of them to make a train tunnel. Extend one leg, train #1, through their tunnel. Make sure the tunnel and the train stay straight and intact. Repeat with train #2, or the left leg.
  • Pizza: Make a large circle in the room with your students. Have them sit down and extend their legs into middle splits. Make sure feet are flexed, toes are facing up, and if possible, the students feet are touching one another. Go around the circle and have each child choose a topping to put on their pizza. With each topping, walk a hand forward while in the straddle position. When all the students have had a turn, pretend to lift up the pizza, put it in the oven, wait for it to cook, then bring it out. Then have your students slice the pizza doing right and left splits.

Elementary Level

Feet

  • Theraband: This is a fun age to introduce simple theraband exercises with your students. Some basic exercise are: flex/point, demi-pointe, pointe, and ankle circles.
  • Partner Stretch: Have your students divide up into partners and stretch each others flexed and pointed feet positions. Stress the importance of lengthening the stretch, not just bending or crunching the feet.

Hips

  • Barre Stretching in Attitude: I like to introduce stretching with legs on the barre in attitude position to the front and side directions because the student is forced to be in proper alignment. If their hips are not square their knee and leg gets in the way of their port de bras. I introduce a la seconde first. Once students have mastered this, then I have them stretch front (devant), and then lastly arabesque.

Backs and Core

  • Seal Partners: Have students divide into partners. One dancer lies on her stomach, while the other holds her partner’s feet down to the floor. The dancer lying down lifts her body and arms up off the floor, aiming to create a 90 degree angle in her back as her partner keeps her feet and legs on the floor. Repeat 3–4 times and then have the partners switch places.
  • Partner Sit-ups: Divide dancers into partners. Have one dancer lie down on their back, knees bent, as the partner hold her friend’s feet and ankles. The dancer lying down performs a series of sit-ups while the other dancer holds her. To make it fun, I have my students make silly faces to one another or do something that ties in with the season, i.e. at Halloween the students cross their arms over their body and make vampire faces while doing sit ups or make bunny ears behind their heads when it is Easter.

Splits

  • Waltzing Splits: This stretch travels across the room and it usually works best to a slow or medium waltz piece of music. I have my dancers start at the back of the studio divided into large groups and have them work their way forward to the front of the room. Students start with right leg tendu front with their arms up in 3rd (some say high 5th) position. Have students slide down to the right splits without touching the floor with their arms (they can touch the floor to catch themselves if they can’t go all the way down into the splits). With their arms still up, have the students swing their back left leg to the front, cross it over the right leg which is now slightly bent, bend the left knee and place the left foot on the floor and push themselves up to a standing position with right leg tendu back, ALL without letting their hands touch the floor. Then repeat with the left leg.

Intermediate and Advanced Division

By this level, most dancers have been taught the majority of stretching exercises. They need to be reminded that stretching isn’t static, but ever moving. I use the words “deepen in the inhale, lengthen in the exhale” and remind my students to do this while they are doing their stretching exercises. This imagery seems to really click with the older dancers and helps them push their stretching that much more.

  • Muscle Death (so named by one of my funniest classes): I learned this stretch from a gymnast coach and find it very useful for stretching my students and increasing body and muscle awareness. Have your students divide into partners with someone equal to their height and body type. One student is the “stretcher”, one is the “stretchee”. The “stretchee” starts in first position, their back against the barre and holds the barre with two hands. The “stretcher” lifts the “stretchee’s” leg to a 90 degree angle making sure to keep proper technique. Once there, the “stretchee” pushes down on the “stretchers” hands with her leg as hard as she can for 5 seconds while the “stretcher” holds the leg in place. This is then repeated at 120 degrees and then at the “stretchee’s” maximum height, making sure proper placement and technique is kept the entire time. Repeat the stretch in a la seconde, with one hand on the barre, and then in arabesque, facing the barre. Then the partners switch roles.

I hope these stretching ideas will help you in your classes or spark some creativity for you to come up with some new imagery and exercises for your students.

Until next time, teach, inspire, and grow!

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