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.
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)
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