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Ailey Dancer Stretching Techniques, Part 1: Warming Up and Listening to Your Body

Posted by Content Manager, April 16, 2013 | Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Garth Fagan's From Before

In Part 1 of our Ailey Dancer Stretching Techniques feature, Company members Alicia Graf Mack, Rachael McLaren, Kirven James Boyd, and Vernard J. Gilmore tell us the importance of incorporating stretching into one’s daily routine. From touching your toes when you roll out of bed to trying new yoga or Pilates exercises, see how you can apply these techniques to your own practice.

Read Part 2: Injury Prevention and Avoiding Stretching Mistakes

Proper Stretching Techniques for Starting Your Day

Rachael McLaren:
Every dancer’s body is unique, and therefore the balance of flexibility and strength will differ from body to body. Experimenting with dance techniques and other forms of movement and exercise has helped me evaluate my strengths and weaknesses so that I can focus on the areas of my body that need improvement.

I've found that yoga has a great balance of physical challenge, mental meditative qualities, and a focus on breathing that works well for dance. I also make sure to give myself enough time to slowly wake my body up for the dance day. I start lying with my back on the floor, moving my body around as if I were waking up from my bed and making sure to take notice if anything in particular is stiff or sore.

I continue stretching my spine in the “cat/cow” position while inhaling and exhaling slowly. In cat/cow, I am on all fours, inhaling and scooping my head and tailbone up to the ceiling and exhaling curling my head and tailbone under while thinking of pressing my navel to the back of my spine. Once I do that a few times, I breathe about 5-10 long deep breaths in downward dog to get oxygen to my brain, slowly and gently stretch my hamstrings, feet, hands, shoulders, and back. At this point I'm still waking up!

Then I like to do a series of sun salutations, which is a moving combination of forward bends, planks, black bends, lunges, and breathing.

Rachael McLaren. Photo by Andrew Eccles

Kirven James Boyd:
I have developed quite the stretching regimen. Every body is different and stretching helps maintain joint mobility as well as muscular strength, tone, and length. I usually start by touching my toes just to see how my body is feeling that day. By doing this, I can feel both my spine and hamstrings stretch. Then, using a foam roller or a baseball, I roll out all of my leg muscles, as well as my back and psoas muscle. A lot of the muscle groups also require a lot of strengthening. By marrying stretch and exercise, you can maintain healthy muscles.

Kirven James Boyd in Robert Battle's Tadakeme. Photo by Andrew Eccles

Alicia Graf Mack:
I try to start my day with core strengthening. I typically do a short Pilates floor workout (10 minutes) before I do anything else. This helps to bring some heat to my body. Then I will start to stretch the major muscle groups, like hamstrings and glutes. I try not to strain any muscles while stretching before class, and never do such extreme positions as the standing heel-in-hand stretch until I have finished my barre work. I do my most extreme stretching right after class when I am feeling warm and ready to test my body's limits.





Alicia Graf Mack in Love Stories by Robert Battle, Rennie Harris and Judith Jamison. Photo by Gert Krautbauer

Vernard J. Gilmore:
Stretching your feet with yoga first thing in the morning is very important to get the blood flowing because your feet are the first body part you use. Yoga stretching is an excellent way to wake up the body gently. Rubbing around the joints gets the synovial fluid loose and supple. [Synovial fluid lubricates the space between articular cartilage in certain joints and reduces friction.]

I like to stretch in class particularly when I feel like I've tightened up and need to release. I also like to stretch when I come to the stage to give me that open and free feeling right before I go out and perform. It's also extremely important to stretch after the performance, as a sort of cool-down regimen.






Vernard J. Gilmore in Garth Fagan's From Before. Photo by Paul Kolnik

Continue to Part 2: Recommendations for injury prevention and how to avoid common stretching mistakes


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