First year company member and San Diego native Steffi Carter shares her tips on stretching. For the dancer or the patron alike, she sheds light on what stretching is all about. Check her out along with all the amazing San Diego Ballet dancers in Don Juan next Friday and Sunday. Don’t miss the Gala in Saturday either. A full weekend with SDB, doesn’t get much better than that!
WE DO DARE.
by Steffi Carter
Flexibility! It is what we were first (and will forever be) known for. We became low-key celebrities on the school playground, famous for our then-astounding feats of flexibility. It is what separated us. “Nope,” we’d yawn for the thousandth time, our more skeptical classmates shoving our shoulders down further as we folded comfortably in half. “Doesn’t hurt.” They’d advertise us like party tricks, singing again again again. It was our indifference, the nonchalance that impressed our peers. It made us, dare I say it, cool.
To support the (sometimes literally) starving artist lifestyle, I teach. Many of us do. My youngest kids often fuss about not feeling anything in a stretch (and by fuss, I mean boast). They are still of the belief that boredom is cool, that the can’t-feel-a-thing claim is impressive.
The truth is, comfort has nothing to do with stretching. If you don’t feel anything when you stretch, it means you (are either inhuman, or) don’t know how. Someone very dear to me defined passion as willful suffering. Well, stretching is part of our passion! It calls for discomfort, rests on resistance; it means striving for more, necessitates chasing an ideal you have not reached; it requires rehearsing something you cannot yet do. Stretching is, by its very definition, ambitious. I like that.
When you set out to master something (or accomplish anything, really), the first 90% of progress is straightforward enough; it’s the last 10% that’s the toughest to figure out. How do you get through the Ninety-Percent-Done Blues? The splits have always been a crowd-pleaser for pedestrians (a teasing term of endearment for our non-dancing friends), but for us they have long since lost their razzle-dazzle. How do we – the dancers, the most flexible part of the population – get bendier?
Be honest with yourself. Stretching is extraordinarily personal, an incredibly internal affair. It’s for you! No one knows what you need better than you do. And it’s different every day. Be honest about identifying those needs, and be kind about addressing them. (Your body is your instrument, remember, and you won’t play pretty music if you’ve snapped your strings while tuning.) Be honest, but keep pushing toward even better ballet.
This isn’t what it looks like.
Do yourself a favor and don’t worry about how it looks! Pushing past the fear that you look like a moron (because you do, I promise) will give way to real progress. The trick is to resist comparing yourself to others. Don’t get me wrong: Having a competitive edge is commonplace among dancers (universal, even), and is most often desirable. When it comes to stretching, however, comparison only kills the concentration. Don’t stretch to impress! Imitation may silence a few instantaneous insecurities, but remember, it’s for you. It’s about making true, deep connections, within yourself. Forget trying to explain why you look more like a crime scene chalk outline of a corpse than the cover of Pointe Magazine. You do you. We’ll understand.
Don’t let anyone rush you.
Spend exactly as much time as you want in any given stretch – no more, no less. Your time should be dictated by your goals alone. I, for instance, refrain from stretching a ton before technique class because if I stretch too early in the day, I find I feel a bit disassembled, like a drawn and quartered doll; cranking out core work instead is, for me, far more rewarding, more productive. Because I am not a terribly turned out person (especially on Tuesday mornings, amirite?), I may only pay attention to opening my hips. You don’t have to stretch quickly or all at once. Stretch what you need when you need it. Take your time. Give gravity the chance to work in your favor. Don’t forget to breathe.
And do the Harlem Shake.
Breathing should provide a natural rise and fall to your stretching, a slow and shallow pulse. Just add a little bounce and you’ve got ballistic stretching! Chances are, you’re already doing this. You know how we all rock a little, bounce a bit at the bottom of our stretches? Turns out (pun intended) it’s one of the best ideas we’ve ever had. Ballistic stretching is the buoyant form of dynamic stretching, beneficial in the way it prepares the body for exertion. Stretching while moving (as opposed to static-stretching) increases blood and oxygen flow to soft tissues, readies our range of motion, and thus reduces the risk of injury! Keep moving.
Pics, or it didn’t happen.
Stretch! Every day in every way. But couple it with conditioning, because what’s the use in yanking your à la seconde behind your bun unceremoniously if you are unable to do the same unassisted, onstage? Loosening limbs is absolutely liberating, but remember what it’s for. Flexibility for flexibility’s sake is a noble enough quest, but we are performing artists: There is practical application of our flexibility. There must be. The extension doesn’t count if you can’t hold it; the step doesn’t exist if you don’t have the strength to stay there long enough to, say, snap a picture. Think of it as giving the audience fantastic photo op upon photo op. Stretch and strengthen – pix or it didn’t happen.
How do we, the bendiest, get bendier? We don’t get comfortable. We dare to believe that there is no upper limit. We do dare. We keep asking for more, keep moving, keeping dreaming, keep reaching. And, we keep stretching.