Do not confuse the tools and the means to reach your goal and the goal itself. For example, being able to do the splits properly is a tool to be able to perform some performances that require that degree of flexibility. You may or may not need it, but it’s nice to have it handy for when that day comes.
As a dancer, you are an artist (… and an athlete)
You’ll tell a story to, or share emotions with, the audience through your bodies. Your face, hands, arms, legs, your back, everything in you must speak a language without words that talk to and move your audience.
A talented painter does not need to master all types of textures, materials and techniques. But a talented painter certainly needs to know what to use to produce the effect they are looking for. You may need strength, agility, swiftness, grace, boldness, sharpness, charm, wit, airiness. That is the goal.
Proper placement should always be part of your goal
First of all, let’s be clear that the splits is not a bad movement and working towards more mobility is not a bad thing either. The problems start when you passively stay in this position for an extended period of time (3 minutes or more for example) and worse: when you work on oversplit which is beyond the natural range of motion of your joints.
Let’s review the regular split position first of all. We see too many dancers posting incorrect splits on the social media. It is heartbreaking because they are so happy to have finally achieve a personnal challenge and what we see is a posture that is nowhere close to helping them be strong and healthy dancer.
In a split, the hips must remain as square as possible, which means that the right and left hip remain on the same horizontal line. The split is a movement happening at the hip joint: it’s your femur moving in the hip socket, it’s not about your hip shifting back or your waist twisting. If you want to have fun and experiment new movements that’s fine, but let’s not call this a ‘split’ please.
In a split, you do not let your hip open up to the back to create more range of motion. Why? Such a position, brings more stress to ligaments necessary to stabilise your pelvis so overtime you’ll weaken your ability to control and stabilise your hips. That said, not everyone has the flexibility at the hip joint to do the splits. If that’s your case, what do you do? Bend the back leg and work with a qualified coach to improve your flexibility.
Passive stretching for an extended time makes you prone to pulling your muscles
Passive stretching can be used prior to a ballet class, but not for an extended time. Yet, too many dancers still stay in the splits for 3 to 5 minutes before jumping to the barre or rehearsals.
Here’s what happens during a long passive stretch: muscles fibers are in an elongated state and we have relaxed the contractile fibers of your muscles. It feels good, but our muscles are asleep for the next twenty minutes and will not contract at full power when we need them to. We are more likely to strain or pull a muscle. If it never happened to us yet, it’s either pure luck (the class doesn’t start with the most strenuous work), or because we have built the habit of using other muscles. (source: Fascial Fitness by Robert Schleip and Divo Muller, Fascia in sport and movement, 2015).
Oversplits lead to instability and issues such as labral tears, sunchondral sessions, sublaxations…
Our muscles don’t change length: we stretch our ligaments, tendons and other connective tissue in our body (known as fascia). The purpose of your ligaments is to hold your joints safely. If you stretch, or overstretch them, they don’t recoil back to their original length, they become loose and they cannot do their job anymore. Your joints become wobbly and hard to control. As a result, stretching weaken the stability or your control over your joints. An unstable joint means that
our bones get loose in their joints and can create inflammations (welcome hip replacement before blowing our 30 candles)
either you’ll be more wobbly (bye bye Aurora’s rose adagio balance) or you’ll need more muscle strength to compensate. In any case, you’re making your training harder.
The splits won’t give you the strength to hold your leg up in the air
And this is the main reason why we advice a complete different set of exercises and stretches to dancers who want to improve their range of motion. The splits actually don’t help you build the strength to hold your leg up in the air. It is certainly a nice quick stretch to perform to see how the body feels today. But that’s about it.
The splits don’t teach your body how to reach this position either. We just lie there. A passive stretch is not an activity that increases our brain-muscle connections. An illustration would be putting a toddler upright: he/she is standing now but they don’t know how they got there and they won’t be able to replicate the movement. (source: Human movement performance by Eyal Lederman, Fascia in sport and movement, 2015).
Warm-up wisely by educating yourself. Read books or follow videos online that include science-based information, don’t follow any influencer who may happen to have always been flexible anyway. That is one very efficient way to get closer to your goal of being a strong, healthy dancer with a long career.
“Focus on the goal: developing and growing as an artist with the technique being your toolbox.