I recently finished taking a 6 week, 1 hour per week class on flexibility from my ballet teacher. We didn't stretch a whole ton, but what we did do is think about flexibility and stretching from a whole new perspective. We talked mostly about releasing tension in areas where tension is holding you back from being more flexible, as well as breathing and gentle stretching. We used Lisa Howell's Front Splits Fast course in this class (find her at theballetblog.com).
I wanted to talk first about massage. One of the huge things in being smart about flexibility is using massage to release tension. Whether you're using your hands, a tennis ball, a foam roller, or someone else was nice enough to give you one, massaging the right places on your body can lead to splits, a higher kick, and/or pain relief. Here are some of my favorite massages:
This is for those who want to get their front splits or grande battements (kicks) higher faster. Massage your neck and the upper part of your shoulders where your neck transitions into your shoulders/back with your fingers, making small circles and pushing gently. Work from the base of your neck up into your hairline at the base of your skull, using your thumbs to work on the hallows on either side of your spine. You can do this yourself or have a friend help. If a friend is helping, lie on your back and have the friend test your leg flexibility before and after the massage. You should notice a difference after!
Outer Calf Massage
We all know our calves work extra-hard as dancers, but what we don't realize is that it's not just the calf muscle you see bulging that's working. Sit in a double attitude position (double stag?) on the floor, and use your fingers, thumbs, elbow, or a tennis ball to rub around the outside of your calf. You might find a few sore spots - press in a little and breathe to release. A little lotion can help the rubbing sensation if your skin is sensitive (another reason to always keep some in your dance bag!). The results on this massage aren't going to show in the same way as the neck massage, but releasing tension is a necessary way to flexibility.
Or specifically the arch of the foot, since I can't massage my whole foot (the shifted bone I talked about in my first post). This is a great time to steal your dad's old golf balls, because a golf ball is the perfect size to release some extra tension in your foot. Support yourself with your arms against a wall and put the golf ball under the arch of your foot. Roll it around slowly and sit a little on sore spots. Make sure you're not pressing too hard on the ball so as to cause tear-wrenching pain. Not only is that bad for you, but it could also cause more tension instead of releasing it, thereby rendering the massage ineffective. This massage is particularly good after ballet/pointe rehearsal. If you haven't got a golf ball and you don't mind touching your feet, your hands work just as well. Make sure you wash your hands after!
Bath with epsom salts (magnesium sulfate)
When you've got time, space, and need to release all-over tension, a bath in epsom salt is amazingly relaxing. It does get kind of expensive since you've got to use a ton of salt each time, but epsom salt is great for soothing sore muscles and relaxing tension. Even if you don't feel tense, epsom salt baths are a great luxury! This bath won't replace massaging particular spots though, so don't use it as a cure all.
I might talk about more massages as we go on! These are just a few that I use the most often. Basically, don't cause yourself too much pain when you massage, or make sure you're communicating with the person performing a massage for you. Stay safe and you'll be fine.