A Beginner’s Guide to Stretching

Stretching.

We all know it’s important but there is so much mis-information out there about it, that’s can be really hard to know where to start.

The tips below are perfect for beginners new to stretching, and a great reminder for the rest of us too!

Stretching is an important part of any dancers' training, but it's important it's done carefully.

Stretching is an important part of any dancers’ training, but it’s important it’s done carefully.

So you want to become more flexible? Well there are few important things you need to know:

  • Improving your flexibility is a journey not a destination. While it’s easy to focus on the end result (for example middle splits), we can often end up overlooking how much progress we’ve made as we work towards our goal. One way to see how you are progressing is to take photos every week or two so you can see the change.
  • Choose one goal at a time. It’s tempting to list everything you want to improve, but it doesn’t make it any easier! Choose one thing to work on, focus on that, and when you feel like you’ve made progress on that move on to the next goal.
  • Usual visual cues to help you achieve your goal. This might be a picture of what you’d like to be able to to do, or a post it note on your mirror. Use it as a reminder of what you’re aiming for and also a reminder to stretch.
  • Celebrate your successes. When you achieve a goal, doing something small to celebrate it and be proud that you’ve managed to work hard to achieve it!
  • Be patient, change takes time. Forcing your self to do something your body isn’t ready to do puts you at risk for an injury. Injuries aren’t fun and they can set you back in progress to achieve your goal, so don’t risk it.
  • Practice safe stretching. This means warming up properly, and not overstretching. If you’re a beginner consider taking a stretch or conditioning class for dancers until you feel confident.

What are your top tips for stretching?

Watch out for part two of our stretching series coming soon – Safe Stretching.

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Students who have Injuries – the Role of the Teacher

Lately I’ve come across a fair bit of discussion in the online dance world – mostly via twitter, about the role of a dance teacher in dealing with students who have injuries, and it’s got me thinking.

As Lauren Warnecke writes in her Dance Advantage article on the topic, the diagnosis of injuries and treatment is definitely not up to me as a teacher. Grier Cooper adds that there are many places to go to when looking at treatment options. All of this is of course completely true, but it leaves us asking the question, well, what is our role as teachers when dealing with injured students?

As a dance teacher in a middle school I see my dance students often – usually several times a week, more if those students are in my class or syndicate, and I’m often present when the are taking part in other physical activity and education during the course of the day, so I have a pretty good idea of the physical demands my dancers face and in a busy middle school like ours, they’re not small. I also teach an age where students face the some of the biggest physical changes as they encounter adolescence. They’re also desperate to try new things and test out their limits (particularly their flexibility). Put all these things together and you’ve definitely upped the risk of injury.

 

So what can I do? Well, for me it’s twofold – prevention and awareness.

 

Prevention

In the dance classroom, I aim to do all that I can to prevent injuries by taking time to warm up with 5 -10 minutes of aerobic activity and 5 minutes of dynamic moving stretches – usually focused on waking up the muscles in the legs, hips and shoulders. We also talk a lot about why we warm up and the effect this on the body, so that my students understand the benefits. I try to keep the warm ups fairly easy and straight forward, starting with large gross movements and then moving to more intricate movements as they get warmer. I usually follow a fairly systematic pattern, and repeat this with the occasional change for a month or two. The benefit of this is that my students have learnt the pattern, and are now running the warm ups themselves, building not only their leadership skills but also their ownership of the warm up process. They can also take this warm up and easily warm themselves up when at performance venues when I’m not able to take them through it as a group.

The second thing that comes under prevention is reminding my students, and discussing with them why it is important to eat after physical activity to replace energy used and help maintain a healthy body – especially important when they all seem to being going through growth spurts.

 

Awareness

Awareness for me is really important and it goes both ways. I need to be aware of safe dance practice as a teacher, but also away of the physical changes my students are experiencing and the temporary limitations this can have on their bodies – there’s not much I can do about it, but I need to be aware.

Likewise I encourage my students to let me know if they have injuries, but my response is usually the same – do what you can even if it’s only watching or doing the arms ( I actually had a student audition for a hip hop crew sitting in a chair as she was on crutches – successfully too I might add). I encourage my students to take responsibility for managing their own injuries as this helps to build their self-awareness.

The second part of awareness is encouraging a dialogue where my students can talk about how their bodies are feeling. Often it is just the usual feeling a bit stiff  or tired that comes up, but sometimes my students will talk about feeling a sore muscle or ache or pain for a several days or even a couple of weeks. At this point I usually ask the question – ‘have you talked to your parent about this?’. To give them the credit they deserve, my students are great at doing this, but sometimes they haven’t and it’s then that I will gently suggest that they might like to talk to their parent about seeing a doctor or physio about it.

It’s not my place to tell them what’s wrong, or tell them what to do. But as a teacher it is my job to guide them to the necessary resources they need to solve problems, and sometimes they just need to have their awareness raised – to realise that there are easy things they can do – like seeing a qualified professional –  to help them feel better.

 

Are there specific things that you do to support students with injuries or help them build awareness?

 

Developing Leadership through Dance

Just last week I took a couple of my students – 2 year sevens and 1 year eight mentor to see Stage Challenge. (If you don’t know what Stage Challenge is check out their website here – it’s an awesome student-led design, dance and drama performance for teens). Although it was an awesome opportunity to see some fantastic dancing, the bit I loved the most was seeing young people develop their leadership through dance. Those on stage certainly, but also my own students who were watching.

At my school we have students for two years before they head off to college (high school), so our time is pretty limited. As part of our developing performing arts programme we offer Stage Challenge and a Production in alternating years. Last year we did Stage Challenge for the first time (mine, as well as the school’s). This year it’s production’s turn.

We did extremely well in Stage Challenge, especially considering we were competing against colleges and scored high marks in several distinguished categories. Now don’t get me wrong, I love that we did well, but I was much more interested in what the students took away from Stage Challenge than any awards we had won. So what was it the kids took away? Well, the biggest thing I noticed was confidence. Confidence in themselves for the participating students, and confidence in their leadership skills for the student leaders, which is what I want to focus on today. It’s also the very reason I took students to see Stage Challenge this year.

Those of us who have grown up in the traditional model of dance classes outside school hours, working towards and passing exams in a set syllabus, might find the idea of developing leadership through dance a little odd. Many of us have never really had the opportunity or occasion to do so. But I have found that the reality is dance is the perfect place to develop leadership skills, if only we broaden our understanding of what teaching dance is about. Fortunately for me, New Zealand has a fantastic dance curriculum that does just that!

Opportunities for students to develop, share and teach their own choreography enable dance students to take ownership of their dancing. This is so important and moves dance beyond the traditional transmission model of teaching. Creating a dialogue between teacher and students has let me help my dancers develop the confidence in their own ideas. I love it when my students suggest better ways of doing things, easier footwork or more creative choreography. It’s awesome that they feel they can say actually this step doesn’t flow into the next as well as if you put it the other way around or went left instead of right. This dialogue and confidence my students have that their own ideas are both valid and valued is building their leadership skills, not to mention their self-confidence.

Whether they realise it or not, I sure have. I already knew my year 8s were great choreographers and most of them pretty good leaders (I’ve got two stand-outs though who I’ve asked to co-choreograph the production dances with me) since I’ve already taught them for a year and a half. What I didn’t expect was how quickly my year 7s would be ready for a leadership challenge. Having taken the two girls to see Stage Challenge, and discussing with them and their year 8 mentor what worked and was/wasn’t effective in the performances we saw, I could see they were rapidly growing in the capacity and desire to step into those choreographic leadership roles. What I didn’t expect was that they would just totally embody that the following day at rehearsal for production, jumping on every suggestion and building on it from there. And it was contagious, once one started they all got going and half a dance built itself just like that!

These year sevens will go on to be our Stage Challenge choreographers and student leaders next year. This will see them standing alongside year 12 and 13 students at the big competition and I small though they are I know they’ll hold their own. Because being a leader in dance is not about how much dance you know, it’s about how hard you’re willing to work, how creative and critical-thinking you are, how patient you are, being willing to continue learning (all the time!) and most of all how much you believe in yourself.

By valuing my students’ contributions right from the get-go, I can see their peers start to follow my lead and value them too, and I know that this helps students see that their own ideas have value, in turn building confidence.

What is DanceWell?

I’ve blogged for a long time and I’ve danced for a long time too, so in many ways DanceWell is the inevitable collision of the two. Having come back to dance as an adult and as a teacher, my sense of dance and understanding of the powerful role it can play in creating wellness has changed the way I view dance.

Having the benefit of seeing dance as a curriculum subject within the New Zealand schooling curriculum and over a decade of traditional syllabus based dance class experience, I wanted to find a way to marry the two. So I decided to tackle my biggest dance challenge yet – getting my teaching Licentiate for Ballet, while developing my school’s co-curricular dance programme.

Both of these have been a huge source of satisfaction for me, but have challenged me immensely to develop my understanding of dance pedagogy (teaching practice), dance theory, ballet and contemporary technique, dance history and, perhaps the most interesting to me, dance wellness.

So what is DanceWell? For now, it’s a creative space – a combination and a culmination of my learning and research. A place to share our stories of what it means to be dancers, and what it means to dance well, as well as advice on how to develop dance wellness.