Willowy dancers melting over their legs, their noses to their knees, or sitting improbably in the splits to darn their pointe shoes: these are quintessential ballet images. So it may come as a surprise that Sue Mayes, the company’s principal physiotherapist, winces at the thought.
In the early 2000s, Mayes and her team started focusing on the ankles and calves, common injury sites for dancers. They found that dancers prone to these injuries usually had poor calf endurance, so they introduced a program of calf rises (standing on one leg and moving between demi-pointe and a flat foot) into daily class. Strengthening the calf proved stunningly effective in reducing ankle injuries and calf tears; but that was only part of the picture.
“The other part of the program was educating the dancers not to stretch their calves,” says Mayes. “There used to be stretching boards in every studio, and the dancers would stretch their calves before, after and even during class and rehearsal. We took those boards out of the studios and encouraged the dancers to use the muscles’ strength to lengthen out.”
Conventional ballet wisdom has it that stretching produces long, elegant muscles, whereas strengthening makes them bulky. For the dancers, Mayes’ message – stretch less, strengthen more, don’t hang out in stretched positions – was a hard sell. It wasn’t until they saw a core group of dancers working over long periods with the team’s strengthening program, and saw they retained their balletic lines, that they were able to accept it wouldn’t make them bulge.
It’s all in the way you strengthen. To build the Popeye muscle beloved of a certain kind of gym bunny, you need high load and lots of repetitions. The dancers work with both a strength model (high load, low repetitions) and an endurance model (low load, lots of repetitions). The combination gives them muscles that can support and protect their joints as they move through the extreme ranges of motion required by ballet.
Fear of bulking up wasn’t the only reason for the dancers’ resistance to the stretch-reduction message. Stretching feels good, particularly to a body battered by the demands of a professional dance career. However, Mayes says, that’s no reason to do it. “Just because it feels good, doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Take eating sugar: it feels great! When you stretch out a pinched-up, angry bit of tissue, it feels nice, but you’re just perpetuating the problem, because you’re stretching and weakening something that is already loose and needs to be strengthened. You’re scratching the itch, but not fixing the cause, like scratching a mosquito bite – you’re just making it worse.”