Hyperextension and ballet

I’ve noticed that this blog is getting a lot of hits from people looking for information about hyperextension and ballet, or hyperextended legs. While I’m not at all an expert (this is a very poor substitute for a teacher or physical therapist), here’s a little bit of information on it that I’ve gleaned from class and other sources. Because much of this is based on personal experience and observation, much of it could be wrong. Just a disclaimer.

Hyperextension and line

As I wrote in my older post, hyperextension–and hyperextended legs, in particular–is key to giving ballet its distinctive “look.” The aesthetics of a dancer’s body are all about lines. Even ballet training itself is very much about geometry and structure. Think of how methodical barre is, and how fixed positions are–croisé devant, en face, effacé devant, ecarté devant, derriere, and so on. So when a teacher, critic, or balletomane exclaims that a dancer has a “beautiful line,” they are referring to the lines that radiate from the center of the chest through the arms and legs (and the rest of the body as well, although it is most obvious in the arms and legs…best expressed by an arabesque!). They may also be referring to the outline of the body more generally, but I think that’s slightly different. I always visualized the curves of the arms and legs as flourishes on stick figures; the stick lines supply precision and structure, while the curves are beautiful.

For example:

The slight tilt of her head shows how deviations from the straight and exact line of the body can be very lovely.

Part of the charm of a tutu, of course, is that it enhances and frames these lines (a long floofy skirt, of course, would tend to hide a dancer’s line a little bit more). The tutu above serves in part as a horizontal line, to contrast with the dancer’s vertical ones.

When a dancer is said to have a “beautiful line,” she has an ideal balance of these various curvy, straight elements. Part of this also has to do with body proportions, height and weight as well, but that’s another post. I suppose one could imagine the “line” as solely straight or curvy, as you prefer, but I imagine the line as both.

It looks like an S. Or in my imagination, an S with an invisible vertical line through it: $.

Hyperextension in the legs (but also the arms) is therefore a key element of the curvier side of the equation, to endow the legs with that much-desired “S” shape.

Hyperextension & physical considerations

When someone claims to be “double jointed,” they are actually referring to very flexible joints that stretch very easily. Similarly, hyperextension is also due to flexibility in the joints of the body, which are of course especially noticeable in the elbows and knees. Hyperextended, flexible knees can make a dancer’s legs look gorgeous, by enhancing the curve of the leg.

Almost all professional dancers are hyperextended to some degree. Some people are simply born with hyperextension, but it can be developed somewhat through dancing and stretching, especially during childhood and the teen years. Encouraging hyperextension, however, is not always a good idea.

Two examples below. The first picture shows a straighter leg, and the second looks hyperextended. (I say show/look because part of this has to do with the posing and angle of the photograph; the dancers in reality may be more or less hyperextended)

straightleg

Straighter!

~

curvyleg

Curvier!

While hyperextension can look beautiful, there is a definite trade-off. Dancers desire both strength and flexibility, but flexible dancers are sometimes weaker, and stronger dancers tend to have less flexibility. Having flexible joints means that your knees will be more prone to injury. Like having flexible feet with high insteps, a lot of strength is necessary to brace the knee when dancing to avoid injuries.

Hyperextension: what it feels like, what to do

In beginning ballet classes, teachers constantly lecture students about keeping the leg straight, and not bending the knee (while standing or turning). I tried to follow their directions, but straightening my legs to what my body felt was straightest sometimes caused a little painful pinch in my knees.

Last year, one of my teachers told me not to stand absolutely straight; she explained that to look straight, hyperextended knees should actually feel ever-so-slightly bent. She told me that she also has hyperextended legs, and that she had to be especially careful when stretching at the barre so as not to overstress the knee.

To avoid damaging my joints, I try to imagine holding weight and stretch in the glutes and leg muscles… I visualize the knee as a sort of a no-fly zone: a blank, happy, safe area where no stress is permitted.

When I am doing this, because I am hyperextended, it rarely looks like my knee is incorrectly bent. So ultimately, although you may feel that you are not keeping your legs straight, it probably has a somewhat better look than someone who has non-hyperextended legs

It’s also good to be aware that getting a perfect fifth position will be very very difficult. Although you may be tempted by push into it with the natural flexibility of your joints, this is putting your knees and ligaments at risk. Turnout should never, ever, come from manipulating the knee.

As always, I am not an authority of any kind on ballet. So if this is a big issue for anyone out there, you should probably go talk to a real teacher or doctor. Nonetheless, I hope this is useful in laying out a few of the why’s and how’s regarding hyperextension; I have been dancing for quite a while, but I never could find a summary of the subject.

If you are not hyperextended, you may not have that exact look, but you’ll be less likely to injure yourself. There are pros and cons to both sides of the coin. Good dancing does not come from hyperextension or the lack thereof; I would say effort and energy trumps all else in producing beautiful dancing.

Future post: high and low insteps

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25 thoughts on “Hyperextension and ballet

  1. lisa

    I enjoyed this, and promptly went to a full-length mirror to stare at my legs. For years I hated my legs because they’re stocky and funny-looking, like my dad’s, not like my mom’s and sisters’ elegant stems. Then, in college, a yoga teacher told me I had hyperextended knees — as did she — and would therefore have to be careful never to completely straighten my legs in standing poses like Trikonasana (Triangle). Aha! Now I had a name for my funny-looking knees.

    Unfortunately, I never connected my yoga teacher’s advice with dance, so I spent my year of modern trying to wrest my legs into greater and greater turnout. I knew I wasn’t supposed to turn out from the knees but I’m pretty sure I did it anyway, because now my knees complain a lot in yoga — not during standing poses, so I guess I learned those right, but in bent-knee poses like Bridge. Until recently I couldn’t even attempt Ustrasana because my tight shoulders meant I pressed down too hard on my knees trying to get into the pose.

    I hope this post will help other dancers be good to their knees. As they say in that “Wear Sunscreen” song: “Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.”

    My legs!

    Reply
  2. apricot Post author

    Aw, you were an adorable ballerina!

    Knee-care is essential for all people of all ages. It’s definitely easy to take them for granted as a young person. I think teenage dancers are especially reckless with their bodies, sometimes; bodies are willing to put up with a lot when you’re in your teens and 20s, but irresponsible wear and tear will definitely take their toll.

    On the other hand, one of my ballet teachers is well into her 80s and can still stand on one leg, and turn, remember combinations, and move very well. She had danced for many many years, and she is in amazing shape. Not all dancers have to wear orthopedic shoes by their 30s. Shows you what good technique and care for the body can do for you in your old age!!

    To help the knee handle all that ballet demands, I avoid wearing heels and flip flops like the plague. I also do not do any running or jogging anymore. In the gym, elliptical machines are fine, from what I’ve heard, as are treadmills (walking, not running). Stairmasters are bad for the knees; I’m not sure about stationary bikes.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: hyperextension, and notes on ballet « wandering apricot

  4. Pingback: Bookmarks about Stretching

  5. Marlena

    While Im not a ballerina, this did explain why my legs look freaky and “dislocated” in pics. Cool, its normal.

    Reply
  6. Will

    You have some great thoughts and comments on ballet and hyperextension. I just started taking ballet last semester (I’m now 20) and absolutely love it. It’s interesting to read the thoughts of other late starters (which I gather you are from your other posts). Ballet is so incredibly beautiful and so much fun, and hyperextension is an interesting part of the ballet “look.”

    Male dancers are rarely hyperextended, at least not so that you would notice, so I don’t have much to worry about either way. For my dancing, the splits are key – my hamstrings aren’t yet flexible enough to allow full splits, which are important for extensions, jetes, you name it. Congratulations on so much success with your dancing!

    Reply
  7. apricot Post author

    Thanks, Will! It’s always wonderful to encounter late starters in person or online; I wish you all the best in your dancing. Also, being that you’re a guy, you’ll probably get to perform at some point in your life–how exciting.

    Reply
  8. Pingback: High insteps, high arches: ballet feet « wandering apricot

  9. anala

    i have danced for 11 years and i am very flexible compared to all of my non dancing friends. my feet have very high arches and they are always getting strained and pulled. is there anything that i could do for that?

    Reply
    1. Bianca

      People with high arches struggle with the tendency to “fall over” or “past” the healthy line of the foot when in releve. If you dance on pointe you are probably also “sitting” in your shoes and need to remedy this by “pulling up” more but it is not something that is well described without diagrams or assistance from an expert in person. You might be able to find an expert who can help you in your area by contacting the International Associate of Dance Medicine and Science. http://www.iadms.org/

      Reply
  10. apricot Post author

    Hi Anala, I discuss arches in this post: https://apricot.wordpress.com/2009/03/31/high-insteps-high-arches-ballet-feet/

    But mainly, talk to your teacher about exercises you can do in and/or out of class that focus on strength building in your feet. From what I understand doing lots of eleves and releves can help, and work with a theraband. But your teacher or a good physical therapist can give you more specific help. Unfortunately, easily strained feet are a consequence of having those beautiful high arches!

    Reply
  11. Paige

    Thank you so much! You’re awesome! I have naturally + unaturally hyperextended legs…So I’ve had so many questions, but I was always afraid to ask my teachers. Believe it or not, my mom thought hyperextended knees was an injury, and when I told her that I had them she started yelling at me! But anyways… I’ve had constant knee pain this past year (I’m 13) and I now I know that its from over use/over stretching/etc.
    Well thanks again! (Keep posting!) 🙂

    Reply
  12. Avalapis

    Thank you so much for this article! I have really hyper-extended knees, and I’ve always thought they looked kind-of awkward. I’m a ballet dancer ( for 12 years now, I’m 15 ) and I never knew hyper-extended knees were a beautiful thing in ballet, I’m feeling much more confident about it now 🙂

    Kind-of off topic, but I have a question. It never happens to me in ballet ( it’s mostly when I’m barefoot or in light socks ), but sometimes I get this some sort of a cramp ( kind of like a violent pull and stretch sensation ) in the inner part of the bottom of my arch ( towards the body on my left foot ). I don’t think it’s a diet problem, it’s shows up randomly and usually abruptly. Is there anything I can do about trying to prevent it? :/

    Reply
    1. apricot Post author

      Hi Avalapis, thanks for coming by!

      As for your cramp, I would consult with a teacher or doctor/physical therapist. Generally people say come from a dearth of potassium (bananas!), but if your diet is fine, then it might be something else. I used to get cramps in my feet as well a few years back–I think it had something to do with me wearing flip flops all day long. But it’s probably not related to your condition, which you should check out with a real expert. 🙂

      Reply
  13. Odile

    Hello, I have hyperextensions and for a long time I didn´t even know that. My (hobby) teacher was a bit ignorant, she said nothing to me. But now I´m professional and I know that I have hyperextensions. In hobby class I was very frustrated because I weren´t able to get into te 5th position. I thought I had a bad turnout! Have you any exercises where I can train my 5th position? I want to get it better! It´s just frustrating. Somehow I´´m afraid of having a bad turn out. Please reply 🙂

    Reply
  14. Fiona

    Im in high school and started ballet a couple years ago but i had danced several years of jazz before. My arms and legs are hiperextended. My ballet teacher always tells me to bend my arms more, i did but i thought it looked funny. Looking back at a lyrical number i did a while ago i noticed how bad my arms looked. I struggle keeping everything bent. It seems like my arms are always wrong, and they look weird. I have heard alot about using weights.
    Thank you for writing this, it really helped. Great pictures!

    Reply
  15. Bianca

    As a ballet instructor I was, at first, horrified to read what seemed to be an endorsement of hyperextension and knee-locking and I was very relieved to get further in your post and find a dance instructor had been teaching how NOT to lock your knees.
    There are many different schools of thought in ballet and plenty of bad instructors, but a good instructor should be teaching his or her students how to dance in a way that preserves the student’s health and helps them with things like hyperextended joints. The BEST ballet dancers out there are dancers for life because they dance in a fashion that is GOOD for their body (Baryshnikov, Fonteyn, and Makarova are all great examples of this.) The photo you published of the girl in the black leotard is an example of how to dance correctly with a safe knee. The girl in the swan tutu below that photo is a recipe for a dancer who struggles with chronic injury and is in for a short career. Thank you for calling attention to this issue and hopefully more teachers will get the education/training required to give their students the tools they need to be life-long dancers and healthy people.

    Reply
    1. Christine

      I would be interested to hear more of anyone who is rehabilitating from years of hyperextension and knee locking. I am now in my thirties and feel like all my bad habits and misguidance has caught up with me. It is not pain that I feel, but supreme instability. My knees and ankles feel they want to go all over the place. I am looking into Rolfing and perhaps some physical therapy to try and strengthen and shorten my tendons and ligaments.

      Reply
  16. Laura

    Some good comments, thank you for the thoughtful post.

    Concerning “line” – I have some comments and clarification. Line refers to classical line – primarily based on visual art, sculpture, design and balance. In dance this becomes a 3 dimensional, moving balance of shape and
    energy.

    It isn’t about curved and straight lines of the limbs but how the limbs relate to and move from the energetic center if the body. Often in today’s ballet the classical line has become distorted as dancers push for a degree of flexibility that moves the body beyond the classical and aesthetically pleasing line.

    Sometimes the shapes can be so extreme that they are more like contortion than dance. Depending on the choreographic idea this may be desired, however, it shouldn’t become part of the training norm.

    Reply
  17. Sacheen rICHARDS

    Hyperextensive knees finished my career in ballet before it even started. I was up for scholarship and loved to dance, I would always have to show my point to other teachers and they would always compliment me on my line. at 15 my knees would discloate very easy and drop me to the floor in pain, luckily as my family were medical trained they taught me how to put my knee back in, it became so regular that I stopped dancing. A few years ago a consultant was looking at my knees as they were still painful and told me that my kness go backwards, that I was double jointed, very hyper extensive. I am now 38 Years old and it has taken this long for me to work out what caused my very curved knees, I will now look out for this with my 4 year old Niece who has just been highly commended on her first ballet exam. Thank you for everyones very useful and enlighting views.

    Reply
  18. hannahpaige

    I loved reading your blog! I dont know why anyone with hyperextended knees would ever think they are unnatural looking! I think they are gorgeous. I have knees that dont hyperextend, and pretty muscular thighs. Many times, if my legs are straight it looks as if they are bent… Is there anything i can do to stretch my knees? I just want them to look straight in my leaps and dancing. Thanks 🙂

    Reply
  19. Gaby Itzel

    Thank you so much for this! I was born with hyperextension, and I’ve noticed in class that my knees will start to shake immensely after 20 mins or so on the barre. I naturally stand with my legs hyperextended, so when I push my knees to bend, I fear that I am bending them too much. So during rond de jambes, and anything en croix (tendus, glisses, degages) I worry. Ill talk to my professor about it, but thank you so much for taking the weight off my shoulders 🙂

    Reply

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