There is a difference between flexibility and hypermobility.
Dancers often have a certain amount of flexibility. At times, some dancers feel they are required to have extreme flexibility to be a “good” dancer. Flexibility comes in a large range. In the same person, there may be increased amounts of flexibility in one area of the body (like the hips) and then less flexibility in other area (like the back). Like many aspects of life, when it comes to flexibility you can have too much of a good thing.
There is a difference between flexibility and hypermobility. Flexibility is the ability to work at the far ranges of movement. Hypermobility means that the joints go beyond their normal end point. While some level of flexibility may be helpful for dance, too much laxity with hypermobility can put the joints and body at risk for injury. For example, dancers are often told to keep their knees straight for many movements. However, some dancers’ knees “go backward” or extend beyond a straight knee. This can place the knee joint at risk for injury and can make a dancer less stable in balance and turning positions.
As is true for much of life, flexibility and hypermobility are about working in balance. If hypermobility is present, often times more cross training is required for the body to strengthen. When a dancer has hypermobility, sometimes they do not even stretch as part of their routine and only strengthen to control their mobility. On the other hand, if a dancer has less flexibility, then increased time stretching may be recommended. It is important to focus on individual needs since flexibility and hypermobility differ between dancers.
Some dancers have specific types of hypermobility and can have flexibility in other areas with their tissues, such as their heart and skin. Dancers with “too much of a good thing” may need to speak with a professional to ensure no other areas of the body are affected. Additionally, dancers with some types of hypermobility can have slower recovery from injuries. Because the body is more elastic, it can take longer for a “simple” injury like an ankle sprain to recover. It is important to be aware of hypermobility so you are proactive about preventative strengthening, and aggressive injury recovery. This knowledge can also assist conversations with dance teachers and choreographers to know you may take longer to heal from a “simple” injury so they can plan accordingly for performances and competitions.
On the other end of the spectrum, dancers who are naturally less flexible can benefit from gentle, regular stretching. It is important to not “overstretch” and to not force flexibility. Generally, flexibility is most efficiently gained when a dancer is already warm and then participates in “static” stretching where a position is held for 30 seconds or more, such as holding a split. Bouncing in positions can lead to injury. Dynamic stretching, such an active lunge can be excellent to warm up, but is not as efficient as static stretching after you are already warm.
Flexibility and Hypermobility come in a wide spectrum of mobility. It is important to recognize and accept where a dancer may land on the spectrum of motion. Each dancer, wherever he or she is on the motion spectrum, has unique challenges and gifts within the dance field. Therefore, it is important to individualize dancers’ cross training based on their specific needs. This will help everyone to dance healthy and happy!
Dr. Kathleen L. Davenport
Board certified Physiatrist who specializes in Sports, Dance and Performing Arts Medicine.