How to stretch for ballet

Improve your ballet and minimize injuries with 3 of the best ballet stretches.

by Brad Walker | First Published June 5, 2010 | Updated April 30, 2019

The earliest form of ballet was performed in large chambers with audience seated on galleries, with the floor pattern visible from above, to observe the choreography.

French courts later adopted ballet, and developed its style and techniques. French ballet master Raoul Feuillet recorded most of the technique in the 1700’s. In the 18th Century, when the use of pointe shoes started, ballet started declining in France but keep developing in Russia, Italy and Denmark.

Nowadays there are many recognized ballet methods and present day ballet dancers train just like athletes do.

How to stretch for ballet

Muscles used in Ballet

Although ballet dancers use all muscles, certain major muscle groups predominate. The muscles used also depend on the form of ballet and the gender of the dancer. For example, a male classical ballet dancer who performs lifts will require more upper body strength than a female dancer.

The following muscle groups are used predominantly by all ballet dancers.

  • Muscles of the lower back and core: the lower back is held erect by a number of muscle groups, including: the abdominals; the obliques; the spinal erectors; and quadratus lumborum.
  • Hip muscles: hip muscles relate to the pelvis and affect both the lower back stability and lower extremity balance. Hip flexors (iliopsoas) in particular are extensively used by ballet dancers. This muscle must be flexible enough to achieve a neutral pelvic position. Dancers with tight hip flexors, combined with weak abdominals, cause excessive pelvic tilt and increased disk compression in the spinal column.
  • Hamstrings: one of the most important muscles in dancers, as this muscle is used in almost every movement. A lack of flexibility and strength in this muscle can cause excessive compression forces in the lower back.

Most Common Ballet Injuries

Ballet dancers suffer injuries of similar severity and frequency as other athletes. Most injuries in dancers are of the chronic (or overuse) type, due to the repetitive nature of the training, but acute injuries can also occur when a dancer uses incorrect technique or experiences lack of focus and fatigue.

Most commonly, ballet dancers experience injuries in the lower limbs, hip and back.

  • Back strain;
  • Hip injuries, including iliospoas syndrome, sacroiliac joint dysfunction, hamstring strain and iliotibial band (ITB) syndrome;
  • Knee injuries, including anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) sprain, meniscus tear, and patellofemoral pain syndrome;
  • Shin splints;
  • Achilles tendinitis;
  • Ankle sprain; and
  • Foot and toe injuries, including plantar fasciitis, trigger toe and morton’s neuroma.

How to stretch for ballet

Injury Prevention Strategies

In order to minimize the occurrence of injuries dancers must attend to various areas that impact how their body will experience the training and performance.

  • Make sure you warm up properly before any training or performance.
  • Conduct a thorough cool down after each rehearsal or performance.
  • Improved cardiovascular fitness will help to prevent fatigue and build resistance to injury.
  • Strength training: Although dancers do not commonly use weight lifting, they can benefit greatly from dance specific strength training using one’s own body weight. Many dancers also find that regular core strengthening helps create good balance and control, thus minimizing excessive work by the wrong muscle groups.
  • Practice balance, agility and proprioception drills to improve knee and ankle stability.
  • Regular stretching: It is recommended that all ballet dancers incorporate a series of ballet stretches into their training, if not daily, then at least 3-4 times per week.
  • Instruction in proper technique is critical. Dancers must pay very close attention to proper posture and alignment: “shoulders over hips, over knees, over ankles” is an important concept to remember.
  • Pacing the training: This means, new more difficult movements and combinations should only be introduced when the dancer has developed sufficient strength, flexibility and technical foundation to perform the new movement correctly and with ease.
  • Manage fatigue and stress: Fatigue and stress cause muscle tightness and lack of focus, thus greatly increasing the risk of acute injuries.
  • While wrist braces, elbow and knee pads and ankle supports (braces, taping, strapping, etc.) may not go with the rest of the outfit on the actual dance night, during practice sessions and training it helps to wear a brace or wrap on any weak area.

The 3 Best Ballet Stretches

Ballet stretches are one of the most under-utilized techniques for improving athletic performance, preventing sports injury and properly rehabilitating sprain and strain injury. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that something as simple as stretching won’t be effective.

Below are 3 of the best stretches for ballet; obviously there are a lot more, but these are a great place to start. Please make special note of the instructions with each stretch, and if you currently have any chronic or recurring muscle or joint pain please take extra care when performing the stretches below, or consult with your physician or physical therapist before performing any of the following stretches.

Instructions: Slowly move into the stretch position until you feel a tension of about 7 out of 10. If you feel pain or discomfort you’ve pushed the stretch too far; back out of the stretch immediately. Hold the stretch position for 20 to 30 seconds while relaxing and breathing deeply. Come out of the stretch carefully and perform the stretch on the opposite side if necessary. Repeat 2 or 3 times.

Ballet stretching is absolutely necessary to every ballet dancer. There are many reasons why you don’t feel as flexible as you did yesterday, so let me share why you might not be improving and how you can progress.

Not all ballet dancers are naturally loose in their muscles. Most dancer’s have a good range of flexibility, but each person has to work very hard to maintain their flexibility and improve range.

Along with flexibility, dancers need to have a good amount of strength too.

Many dancer’s are actually too supple which means they have little strength to hold their legs high and maintain muscle strength.

The balance of flexibility and strength comes gradually with practice and it’s something you always have to work hard for.

Ballet Stretching

How to stretch for ballet

How to stretch for ballet

Why do we have to stretch? It’s important to stretch the muscles out to release tight limbs. Stretching lengthens your muscles and enables you to become more flexible for the demanding positions in ballet.

Ballet stretching is something you should get into the routine of doing during or after class. It can take as little as 15 minutes to make sure the muscles are stretched out and it’s important to do it on a regular basis, rather than once every so often. 

It is true that EVERYONE has a different range of flexibility. There are many surprising factors that greatly affect your flexibility which yoy may not have realised.

Listen up and see why perhaps you don’t feel as flexible as you did yesterday.

Type of joint – Remember, flexibility is the range of movements in the joints and you won’t be equally flexible in every single joint. Just because you can do front splits, it doesn’t mean you will automatically be able to do side splits because not everyone is as flexible in every single joint.

Body Temperature – You should already know that you are DEFINITELY more flexible when you are warm.

Before ballet class, you will find the splits harder to stretch than afterwards when your muscles are warm, supple and more pliable.

That is why professional dancers often wear layers of warm up clothes during class and rehearsals, so they keep their body warm and ready for anything.

Age – Now, don’t quote me on this, but younger people are generally more flexible than adults. Of course, you watch the experienced ballerinas who are older than you extend their legs way above yours, but these dancers have trained their whole life to gain the flexibility that has now become a natural part of their body.

Gender – I have sure seen many exceptions, but you will generally find females are more flexible than males. This is partly because female dancers train more in exercises like adage and leg extensions which increases their flexibility, whilst the men focus more on jumps and impressive turns.

Time of day – It is believed that most dancers are more flexible in the afternoon than the morning. In the early morning, dancers feel any aches or pains from the previous day, so by the afternoon the body has gradually warmed up and eased out any stiffness.

Temperature – The warmer the room, the quicker your muscles will warm up and therefore the sooner you will feel more flexible. That is why dancers hate cold studios, because it makes their muscles feel like ice and not ready to dance!

Injuries – Injured muscles offer less flexibility than healthy ones. If you have strained or pulled a muscle it will feel more stiff and less easy to stretch. You must ease it out slowly and keep it supple by gentle ballet stretching.

The ideal weight for a ballerina depends on the ballet company and the individual ballerina. Ballet has attempted to move in a more modern and sensitive direction by accepting larger dancers, but there is still a certain body type that is considered most appealing on the stage.

Proportions

A classic ballerina body will ideally have very specific proportions — long, slender arms and legs with a small head, long neck and a short torso. This body shape is considered optimal for creating lovely lines and expressive movements on stage.

Height

Do You Lose Pounds or Inches First?

Your height plays a significant role in determining your ideal weight. Most ballerinas are between about 5 foot 3 inches and 5 foot 8 inches tall. With this height range, weight is ideally anywhere between about 85 and 130 lbs., and depends heavily on muscle and bone mass.

Build

Ballerinas are expected to have a rather masculine but elegant shape with broad shoulders, small hips, small breasts and buttocks. The idea is to have the body create straight lines and smooth curves while dancing. Women have more fat tissue than men because of breasts and fatty tissue around the hips and buttocks, but since ballerinas are expected to have a less feminine shape, their weight may be slightly less than that for the average woman.

Should-to-Hip Ratio

What is the Average Weight Of A 9-Year-Old?

Both male and female ballet dancers are expected to have a very high shoulder-to-hip ratio, meaning that the shoulders should be wider than the hips. This ratio affects the structure and density of the skeleton, so has a bearing on your weight. This kind of build is valued more highly than being a specific weight.

Muscle vs. Fat

Ballet is strenuous and is extremely demanding on the body. As such, a ballerina will build up a considerable amount of muscle, especially in the legs and arms. Muscle is denser than fat, so a muscular ballerina may weigh a bit more. If you have been working seriously for many years as a dancer, you may weigh more.

  • Ballet is strenuous and is extremely demanding on the body.
  • Muscle is denser than fat, so a muscular ballerina may weigh a bit more.

Considerations

The most important consideration when it comes to the ideal weight of a ballerina is whether your weight is healthy for you and your frame. The body needs certain nutrients, especially if it is expected to perform the rigorous exercise that is ballet dancing. If the body is not provided with these nutrients, it will eventually break as in the sad case of Heidi Guenther, a prima ballerina of the Boston Ballet, who died in 1997 from heart failure after being ordered to lose weight by her artistic director. Weighing only 93 lbs. at her death, Heidi used laxatives and turned to binging and purging to reach what was considered an ideal weight for a ballerina. The bottom line is that no career or hobby is worth risking your health for, so if you find that you are not the ideal weight for a ballerina, you shouldn’t go to drastic measures to change that. Work on your technique, which is far more important than weight, and keep on dancing.

It’s not your mother’s dance world anymore. The great dancers always have been great jocks, but well-rounded athletic ability is more important today than ever. So 21st century dancers of all stripes, from ballerinas to those appearing on "Dancing with the Stars," add gym workouts to their training. These workouts constitute cross-training — using cardio training, weightlifting, stretching and other forms of exercise to augment and enhance your dance training.

Aerobic Exercise

When San Francisco ballet star Elizabeth Miner found herself winded onstage, she realized it was time to hit the gym and cross-train. In addition to Pilates, she began working out on an elliptical trainer for 30 minutes three times per week. The results were substantial. "I felt more in control, able to think about other things onstage, like the music and movement," she told "Pointe" magazine. Dance and fitness experts recommend elliptical machines, stationary bikes and swimming as excellent aerobic workouts for dancers. But you might want to avoid running on a treadmill or using a stair climber. Both activities can be tough on your joints and particularly on your knees.

Strength Training

"In the ballet world today, strong is the new skinny," writes Jennifer Curry Wingrove, a former ballet star who now teaches Pilates to dancers. "Legs are raised higher, the lifts are more acrobatic and dancers are much stronger overall." Some dancers shy away from weights, fearing they will develop bulky muscles instead of the long and sleek muscles of a dancer. But those worries are unfounded. As Broadway Dance Center states, you won’t develop the physique of a bodybuilder "unless you’re deliberately trying by drinking protein shakes and taking supplements." For maximum strength workouts, use heavier weights with fewer reps. For toning, lighter weights and more reps are recommended.

Flexibility and Balance

If you’re a serious dancer, you’re probably already into Pilates and/or yoga. When Pilates was invented by Joseph Pilates, who opened a studio in New York after emigrating to America in 1925, it attracted top dancers and teachers. The lure for dancers is as strong as ever. Pilates was created to build strength and increase flexibility without increasing bulk, so it has been referred to as "the cross-training of choice" for dancers. Dance Spirit says Pilates enhances your extension and movement quality when you dance. It also helps determine which parts of your body are weak or tight and thus prone to injury. Yoga also offers complementary benefits for dancers, ranging from stress relief to increased flexibility and balance. Yoga poses often focus on the feet, which enhance your balance and make your lower legs looser and more agile.

Consideration

Lauren Warnecke, writing for Dance Advantage, recommends that you carefully consider what type of gym workout to adopt. "Ask yourself what you can get from this form of exercise that you can’t otherwise get from dance," Warnecke advises. "If the answer is ‘not much,’ try something different." A gym workout that serves as an effective cross-training activity for a dancer "is not dissimilar from eating a balanced diet." The right gym workout for you will complement your dance classes and make you a totally fit dancer.

How to stretch for ballet

Ballet is so much more than picking out a leotard, slipping into some tights, and strapping on ballet shoes. It’s about developing skills through dedication and perseverance. Although an athletic background helps, you don’t have to be a pro at dancing to enjoy the pros of ballet. Not convinced? Here are the Top 10 from Health Fitness Revolution and author of the book ReSYNC Your Life Samir Becic:

Better posture

Ballet helps you achieve postural alignment. Each movement requires alertness of how you carry yourself from one stance to the other. Elegant forms such as the Port de Bras and High Swan Arms corrects sloppy posture by pulling your shoulders back and elongating your neck.

Boosts confidence

Anyone can do ballet. It begins with the innate desire to pursue ballet and setting achievable goals along the way. A study found that ballet training increased the diversity of subjects’ foot configuration. However, an experienced and amateur met comparable levels of postural control and stance difficulty. You will be amazed at yourself when you complete a posture that used to intimidate you.

Improves flexibility

Flexibility is not a prerequisite for ballet; you gain it through practice. Since ballet involves static and dynamic stretching, doing both will contribute to your overall flexibility.

How to stretch for ballet

Builds muscle and agility

Believe it or not, ballet is a combination of pilates and endurance training. It also entails breath coordination throughout your dance sequence. Doing plié squats, ballet jumps, and spins use your own body weight to strengthen your core and lower body. As you continue to practice more, you’ll maintain the integrity of precise movements and your motor skills.

Burns calories

Your body weight affects the number of calories burned in a 90-minute session. A person weighing over 120 pounds can burn about 200 calories or more in just 30 minutes, which is approximately 600 calories per session.

How to stretch for ballet

Nutritional consciousness

Whether you’re doing ballet as a casual or serious activity, you don’t want to feel bloated in class. Therefore, being mindful of what you eat will tremendously influence your experience. A well-balanced diet nourishes your body with the right things to complement your internal and external health.

Improves sensorimotor performance

The ability to balance yourself and react to external stimuli is indicative of how tuned your sensorimotor skills are. Participating in a ballet or dance program enhances these skills by engaging both hemispheres of the brain for coordinated learning.

Sharpens cognitive function

Similar to learning a new sport, becoming proficient in ballet challenges your brain to synchronize your form with the expectations. A meta-analysis found that ballet and other dance interventions were useful measures to limit age-related mental impairment such as dementia.

How to stretch for ballet

Relieves stress

Ballet should be about having fun and training your body to achieve forms you didn’t know were possible. Get a few chuckles out of your dance mistakes and focus on improving what you can instead of worrying about external issues you can’t change.

Builds social connections

Joining a ballet class and interacting with your group promotes a healthier life. It’s a great opportunity to make friends as you learn and grow together from new experiences. Building strong relationships lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and illness associated with it.

Ballet class is pretty predictable: There are always pliés, tendus, dégagés and so forth. Usually before center, the instructor gives a quick stretch break to “do whatever you need.” Many dancers use this time to sink into their splits.
But should you be stretching directly after engaging your muscles at barre? We spoke with experts to determine the optimal time to stretch—and how you should change your approach throughout your dance day.

Before Class

It’s important to have a pre-class routine to set up the body for success and to avoid injury. However, sitting in a butterfly position or the splits is not an effective warm-up. The few minutes before barre isn’t the time to hold a static stretch; instead, it’s an opportunity to physically prepare the muscles for the class ahead with easy dynamic movements.

To properly warm up, Dr. Sue Mayes, director of artistic health at The Australian Ballet, says the focus should be on mobilizing the muscles and joints, rather than stretching. She adds that an efficient before-class routine should start to engage the muscles. “Dancers might do some exercises where they’re contracting. For example, a single-leg bridge for the hamstring,” says Mayes. This pre-class time is about gradually building up to a larger range of motion.

After Barre (Before Center)

You made it through barre, and you have a few minutes to stretch before center. In order to avoid injury, it is essential to elongate the muscles before you tackle bigger movements, like grands battements. However, there are much more effective ways of stretching the hamstrings than passively sitting in a forward fold. Mayes suggests using dynamic exercises rather than stretching to mobilize the areas that may have felt tight at the barre. For example, if you have tight hamstrings, Amber Tacy, a personal trainer and founder of Dancers Who Lift, recommends movements like a hamstring scoop, where you flex one foot and in a scooping motion bend over toward it repeatedly. To prep for adagio, Mayes suggests dancers try holding the leg in devant or in à la seconde. Once there, see if you can let go and maintain the height of the leg without the support of your hand.

Michelle Rodriguez, physical therapist and founder of Manhattan Physio Group, warns that overstretching can reduce strength in the muscle, which can lead to a lack of control in center combinations. “You want to have the balance between the ability for the muscle to have this really nice extensibility and elasticity, but then it has to have the ability to contract again and generate force and power,” she says. “When a muscle becomes too elongated, it actually loses power.”

Tacy explains that it comes down to the sarcomeres in our muscles. “If we’re engaging our muscle fibers, we’re taking the little sarcomeres, which are these tiny communicators within our muscle strands, and they’re moving close together to move as a unit effectively.” However, when you immediately stretch out after engaging the muscles at barre or in a conditioning setting before class is over, Tacy says you’ve done yourself a disservice. “You had them where you wanted them, then you stretched and gave them a completely different signal.”

If you jump into dancing again after static stretching, your body might not be able to perform to its full potential strength. The muscles will likely not be as engaged as they were before you stretched them out. Even worse, you face an increased risk of injury when you suddenly switch back and forth between extreme contracting and stretching, explains Tacy.

Mayes adds that at The Australian Ballet, company members focus more on strengthening than stretching. Its artistic-health team believes that a little bit of tension in the muscle is good: “We want them to be more like a spring than a piece of spaghetti,” she says.

After Class or a Conditioning Session

While static stretching during class can decrease muscle power directly afterwards, Tacy says stretching at the end of a conditioning session, like a core workout on your day off, will not inhibit muscle growth. If you still have class or a rehearsal later in the day, static stretching might not be the best answer. Mayes explains that this is because the muscles still need to be prepared to work.

If you have a chunk of downtime between class and rehearsal, use the break to reenergize and refuel your body, says Mayes. Just make sure you leave enough time before your next class or rehearsal to reactivate those muscles with another dynamic warm-up.

At the End of the Day

Finally, the day’s end is the best time to take advantage of static stretching. According to Tacy, this is a great way to allow the muscles to relax after a day of work. If you’ve spent a lot of time engaging your muscles, she explains, the fibers have been tightly knit. “When we gradually relax, we’re saying, ‘Okay, now you guys can separate.’ ”

Moreover, deep stretching to gain flexibility should be reserved until all dancing and conditioning is done—but when the body is still completely warm. Before you pack up your bag and leave the studio, take the time to cool down and stretch. This is also the most effective time to roll out your muscles and home in on tight areas.

No matter the time of day, says Tacy, stretching and mobilizing the body is all about choosing what is optimal over what is adequate. With a smart approach to stretching, you’ll be both limber and strong.

How to stretch for ballet

Ballet dancing is not easy. It takes hard work and effort. Stretching correctly can help you avoid injury and is useful to do before and after class. You can also do stretches on non-class days in order to improve flexibility.

1. Prepare yourself and your stretching area. A designated stretching area and appropriate clothing will help you get the most out of the exercises.

  • Wear comfortable clothes (such as a tracksuit or bike shorts over a leotard or tight-fitting crossover).
  • Pull long hair back into a ponytail or a bun so it isn’t distracting.
  • If you have hard floors you may want to use a mat for floor stretches.
  • If you’d like to practice your pirouette, keep Zenmarkt® Pirouette Board handy.

2. Stretch your hamstrings. Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Touch your toes. If this hurts, then bend your legs slightly. Hold this position for 20 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times.

  • Stretch your hamstrings in a standing position by crossing your ankles and bending forward as far as possible. Keep your feet together during the stretch. Hold for 20 seconds and then repeat, crossing your legs in the other direction.
  • Stretch your hamstrings by bending forward and placing your hands on the floor with your knees bent. Slowly straighten your knees without taking your hands off the floor.

3. Stretch your feet. In a sitting position, place the foot you want to stretch over your thigh. With the hand closest to your heel, push into your heel. With your hand closest to your toes, place it over your toes and pull back so that your foot arches.

  • Allowing another person to stretch your feet may result in over-stretching and injury.
  • Jamming your feet under a door or standing on top of your bent toes may cause injury.
  • Use caution if using a foot stretcher. Augment your stretch with Zenmarkt® Stretch Band.

4. Use a ballet barre to do a bar stretch. Start in first position, with your left hand on the barre. Lift your right leg onto the barre with your ankle resting on it and your foot pointed. Lift your right hand to high fifth position and lean forward onto the right leg. Hold for 20-30 seconds then repeat on the other side.

  • Keep your back flat.
  • Keep both legs turned out.

5. Sit on your feet while in a kneeling position. Straighten one leg out in front of you (still sitting on the other foot) and point your toes. Touch your toes with both hands. Hold for 20-30 seconds. Repeat with the other leg.

How to stretch for ballet

Ballet dancers have to demonstrate incredible amounts of flexibility during their performances. They must look as if they’re moving effortlessly to the audience. When you’re just starting out in ballet ease slowly into the stretches, but don’t skip them — it’s one of the most important aspects of your training.

1. Do jazz splits and bend forward so that your face touches your front leg. Start with the left leg in front and outstretched with your right leg bent behind you. Bend forward as far as possible. Slowly unbend your back leg (right leg). Hold for 20-30 seconds. Repeat with your right leg in front and left leg bent behind you.

  • Practice to be able to do regular splits with both legs extended.

2. Do right, left and center splits. Make sure you have perfect turn-out and point your toes. Hold each split for 20-30 seconds. Use Zenmarkt® Stretch Band for improved results.

  • Do rights splits by putting your right leg in front of you and your left leg behind you.
  • Do left splits by putting your left leg in front of you and your right leg behind you.
  • Do center splits by extending each leg at a right angle to your body.

3. Push your legs against a wall while in a straddle split. With your legs extended in a V in front of you, press your inside ankles against the wall, forcing your legs to stretch wider. Hold the stretch for 10-15 seconds.

  • Do not over-stretch. Stop if this exercise is painful.

4. Do splits while lying on your back. Lie on your back and put your feet up in the air. Cross your ankles then widen your legs into a split. Repeat 10 times, alternating the ankle cross.

5. Do lunges for both legs. There are several kinds of lunges which can be done to stretch. Two of the most popular are Standard and Side lunges. Do 8-10 repetitions for each leg.

  • Standard lunges: Stand with legs hip-width apart. Maintain a straight posture. Step forward with one leg and lower your body until your front thigh is parallel to the floor. Your rear knee should touch or nearly touch the floor. Repeat with other leg.
  • Side lunges: Stand with legs hip-width apart. Maintain a straight posture. Take a big step to your right side, bending your right knee and lowering your body until your right thigh is parallel to the floor. Your left leg should remain straight with your foot in contact with the floor. Repeat with the other side.

6. Pirouette to improve your balance. Complete a full turn while balanced on one foot. Think about “pulling up”: imagine there is a string coming from the top of your head attached to the ceiling.