by Prof. Emeritus, Peggy Willis-Aarnio, PhD
It is absolutely incredible to me to think that the dance world is still using this very dangerous stretch but, unfortunately, though the word is still going out about the danger, its going out like a herd of turtles, to dance teachers who really need to know how dangerous it is to the physical well-being of their students.
For the past 41 years, I have educated my dance students to never practice ANY superfluous stretching. All the stretching that a dance student needs is incorporated within the normal ballet exercises. For example, a “plie” is a stretch… A “third port de bras” is a stretch. Actually, all ballet exercises have a stretch, but the stretch is always opposed by a simultaneous, strength developing muscular contraction movements. The absence of this opposing movement allows the stretch to be executed with the muscles “relaxed,” thus this stretch stretches the “wrong” parts of the body, i.e., ligaments, tendons and their attachments instead of the muscles.
It was 41 years ago that I took my first real ballet teaching method course. Considering how young I was at the time, it would be very easy to presume that being a young, “whippersnapper” ballet teacher with a fresh Master of Fine Arts Degree in my pocket, that others looking inside my lesson could assume that I was just being silly and jumping on a fad to make such statements about stretching considering that no one else in western dance circles at the time was condemning superfluous stretching.
Back at the University, the fact that I began to teach my students about the dangers of superfluous stretching with an almost immediate, positive result should be enough motivation for other teachers to not only stop this stretching routine but want to learn more about WHY. My students learned what type of stretches not to do and how to stretch correctly in their ballet exercises. Honestly, there was no rebellion against stopping the stretches that were harmful. What was slow in coming was getting other teachers exposed to the benefits of these discoveries. A little additional help was on the way.
For the past twenty years, or so, scientifically based sports articles have been released to back up my teachings about stretching, but it still did not catch the attention of the dance world.
Recently, an article came out specifically about football injuries as a result of improper stretching (specifically, not keeping the spine straight while bending forward!) It emphasized that that kind of injury is very difficult to heal once damage occurs, but it is possible, just very time consuming.
It seems to me that when I brought such revolutionary ideas back from my first teacher’s course, that someone outside of my ballet class should have been curious enough to want to know “why.” In retrospect, very few teachers have asked me why or even paid attention to this detail. For example, scientific evidence is published now recommending that people NOT DO ANY stretches before warming up and that cold stretching actually weakens the body and prevents the body from working at its optimum efficiency. When I introduced this knowledge to my students in 1974, and explained why, their open and young minds were very receptive. They were very accepting of this teaching.
But, the rest of the western dance world continued and still do “warm up” before the lesson. Having learned in the real teaching method course that the warm up should only be 2 maybe 3 minutes long, my students accepted this “new” warm up. This initial warm up in ballet training is only for the joints and it is accomplished right after the Reverance, and in no event does it include extreme movements or “bouncing.” From that point on, the necessary stretching is incorporated into the syllabus derived exercises.
However, even to this day, if you go to virtually ANY ballet lesson taught in the world, you will be see students come in the classroom and the first thing they do is superfluous and extreme stretches…stretches that are not even supposed to be taught until the 7th class, if at all. They now do these stretches even for beginning-level students at the Vaganova Ballet Academy!
This is exactly what Vera Kostrovitskaya (A. Y. Vaganova’s 1st assistant for Vaganova for over three decades and the one who took over the pedagogical department when Vaganova passed) warned against. During her reign, teachers began adding “little personal touches” on their own to their lessons and were being influenced especially by teachers from France who introduced a type of stretching and floor barre that ultimately has infiltrated the entire dance teaching world. Kostrovitskaya tried warning the teachers at the Vaganova school that this is dangerous and counter-productive and had already been tried numerous times at the School in earlier years. Many years before, when Vaganova was faced with a similar challenge on the subject of additional stretching, she took the matter under study (in her own laboratory) and determined that these stretches were not only counter-productive by pointlessly weakening the body, but dangerous, by making the body much more susceptible to injury.
I took the recommendations of Vera Kostrovitskaya to heart, and after 31 years of teaching at Texas Tech University and an additional 10 years of teaching at my private Conservatory, I have had zero injuries in any of my classes! A sure way to know if you are following the principles of the true teaching method [TM] is that there are no injuries among your students regardless of what level of instruction they are working at.
The impact of the application of these principles is thoroughly documented by Vera Kostrovitskaya in her book, School of Classical Dance. As Kostrovitskaya warns, superfluous stretching produces professional injuries. And her fears appear to be warranted, as teachers all over the world have allowed these dangerous unnecessary stretches to become part of their teaching regimen. Not only are they a waste of precious time in teaching, but they actually slow down and sometimes even stop any further progress.
If injured, the student must stop, be treated and then heal before proceeding in their lesson. Sometimes, the injuries are so severe that they are unable to return to the lesson altogether. The reason that the illustrated stretch is really bad, is that it causes an asymmetric squeezing of the cartilage disks between the vertebrae of the spine, which allows them to be squeezed like a tube of toothpaste. If a rupture of the disk occurs, then the fluid in the disk which is the cushioning material in that disk, squirts out deflating the disk. The escaped material (which looks like cottage cheese) will, eventually be reabsorbed by the body, and if the rupture in the disk(s) heals, the disk(s) may re-inflate with cushioning gel, or they may not. In any case, the healing process is long and delicate and an even minor re-injury can lead to a lifetime of pain and restricted motion. For a student with a dream to train as a professional for a career in dance, this situation is a life altering, career changing tragedy!
In the eight year teaching syllabus, there are many preliminary and intermediate forms of exercises that must be mastered before practicing the final forms in advanced level. When the students attempt these final forms with weak bodies (due to superfluous stretching) or insufficient exercise (introducing items too early in the learning cycle), they are at their most vulnerable point, and injuries can and will occur. As Kostrovitskaya said in School of Classical Dance, “It is insufficient instruction that produces injuries.”
I have 41 years of implementing the true teaching method of classical Ballet combined with my education in teaching method which equals impeccable knowledge, experience and an unquestioned mastery of the material. The true method of classical ballet works beautifully… like a well oiled [biomechanical] machine and has been scientifically analyzed to work as predicted, if taught as recommended. What is NOT recommended is to add in any superfluous stretching or other embellishments to “improve” or “personalize” the true teaching method. The true method is sufficient, thoroughly vetted and complete, as is.
It is “NOT one whit arbitrary,” as John Barker clearly and cleanly states. My teacher of well over a decade, Mr. Barker, worked directly with Vera Kostrovitskaya for over two decades. It was her desire for him to become thoroughly schooled in all aspects of the method so that he would be completely prepared to pass this precious teaching method on to teachers in the West who could then be able to implement teaching method, keep the precious teaching method alive and pass it on to future generations (This was her personal survival plan). She emphasized the NO superfluous stretching on numerous occasions but it seems that we haven’t overcome that horrible habit yet. We, as teachers, will be making a giant step forward by getting rid of those sadistic stretches, which eat up so much class time and cause so much damage unnecessarily.
Knowing what not to do can also be a giant stepping stone to progress. But, given the perspective of recent history, I, for one, will be surprised if it ever happens in the case of stretching, though I will not give up hope that an epiphany can still occur.
Professor Peggy Willis-Aarnio