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Are my legs straight?

Hi, I’m 12 and I just started ballet around 1 and half years ago. I know my technique needs a lot of improvement, but I am most concerned about my knees. Whenever I pull my knees up in my exercises, the teacher says they’re not pulled up enough and I have to pull them up more, but they’re already as pulled up as they can be. She tells me to sit on the floor in pike and flex my feet to get the skin under my knee to touch the floor. She gave me some exercises to do to help me fix it but I don’t think they’re working because whenever I do the exercise it just feels like she wants me to have hyperextended knees. What other exercises can I do to get my knee to touch the floor?

Earlier this year I wrote a post on fascial plasticity that had a picture of a young man who significantly straightened his legs over the course of a semester by working on releasing fascial tightness in his upper back and neck. The body is an amazing, complex set of relationships! For that young man he needed to focus on releasing and stretching his whole back, not just the hamstrings. (Which were mighty tight when he began)

Not having a picture of your alignment and not knowing what muscles might be weak or tight, it is hard to say definitively… do this… and your legs will straighten more. I’m trying to make a point that dance is not a one size fits all program, because we all have different bodies and strengths!

I recently participated in an online discussion about this very problem, and quickly became discouraged by the misinformation and suggestions to work through the pain of stretching and/or strengthening. NO! Pain is an indicator from the body that something is not right and please please please listen to the messages that your body gives you.

Okay… ’nuff said… I’ll get back on track with your question.

Your teacher is correct that the quadriceps contract to straighten the knee. There are 4 (quad) muscles that come together to form the tendon that the kneecap is encased in. You want even pull from all of them to keep the kneecap correctly in its track on the thigh bone. It’s not unusual to find the lateral or outer quadricep pulling a little bit harder than the medial or inner one. Just focusing on ‘pulling up’ the knees won’t press the back of your knees to the ground if the boney structure of your leg won’t allow for hyperextension.

It could be that the muscles at the back of your legs are tight, and you could focus on some extra calf and hamstring stretching. Include the back and neck too just in case you are like my student with the extra tight upper back.

I have seen the shape of a dancer’s legs change as they gained strength and muscle tone. It wasn’t because their knees changed how much they could straighten, but the change in muscle shape made the whole leg look different. A overall improvement in alignment always helps.

My best advice is to go to a physical therapist who understands dancers and have an evaluation so that you can target your efforts and work smart, instead of just harder.

I appreciate your desire to understand your body and how to work with it! With commitment and hard work I have no doubt that you will see great improvements in your technique over time. Don’t get discouraged with starting dance at age 12… I’ve seen college students get bitten by the dance bug and make a career out of it – it’s never too late.

To your success,

Deborah

Bowed legs

Quick announcement: I’ll be in NYC for the Dance Teachers Summer Conference sponsored by Dance Teacher Magazine and MacFadden Performing Arts Media. I hope to see many of my loyal readers! The subject of my two classes will be, Conditioning the Body for Jumps and 10 Tips Towards Keeping Teachers in Top Shape.

Hope to see you August 9-11!

I have read lot about bow legged issues in ballet, seeing as how I have them myself. Only it seems I was not only born with bowlegs, but my feet naturally turn out at the ankle. (My mother has told me stories of being told to massage my feet and ankles so that they will eventually correct themselves) It leads to awkward moments when I am fussed at for not placing my weight into the correct spot. (I tend to lean out towards my pinky toe both in basic walking and in ballet)

I have tried the ankle circles with the theraband, the relevés on both one foot, and both feet. I am missing something?

Thank you,
Krystal

Bowlegs are a structural challenge versus a muscular one. It is not at all uncommon to have a dancer with bowlegs who also turns out at the ankle. That is a logical compensation the body creates to put the feet flat on the ground. As you noted, otherwise bowlegged dancers have a tendency to supinate, or lean out towards your pinky toe in walking.

(note that the right leg in the photo looks as if it is either slightly longer or more hyperextended than the left. Also note that the knees are not facing the same direction as the feet. The feet are in parallel, and the knees are turned in)

Having bowed legs does not mean you can’t be a dancer – but there are a few things I want to draw your attention to. The first is making sure you are not hyperextending your knees while standing. You didn’t say whether what your joint flexibility is –but as we have discussed in previous newsletters, when you allow the knees to move into hyperextension, the thigh bone rotates inward, and the knees move apart – effectively creating bowlegs. In fact I have worked with dancers who thought they had bowlegs – but when their legs were in neutral position and straight had the hip, knee and ankle in alignment. It was only when they pushed into their hyperextension they looked like they were bowlegged. I don’t think this is the case with you as your mother and docs were aware of your leg alignment from an early age.

The second is to focus your turnout as efficiently as you can at the hip rather than relying on the turnout created by the feet. This will help prevent foot, ankle and knee strain. You have more turnout at your feet, probably because of tibial torsion. This again is a structural issue where the shin bone rotates over time, while growing, in response to the foot’s desire to be flat on the ground.
Dancers who have external tibial torsion as you do, can ‘t line up their knees and feet well. If you try and pull your knees out to line up with your feet it shifts you to the outside of your foot – and creates strain at the outside of the thigh.

As always, I would encourage you to stay focused on where your weight is on your feet. Keep it as even as possible between the three points of the foot. Pad of the big toe, pad of the little toe and heel. Your feet are your connection to the ground and you need it to be stable. How do dancers sprain their ankle? By rolling on the outside of the foot.

It’s not so much that you are missing something with working with bowlegs – it is more that efficient alignment is even more important. You need to keep the weight of the body from dropping into your legs. This is done by making sure your pelvis efficiently lined up, with deep abdominal support and imagining your legs and spine lengthening away from the floor.

No matter what your age is, even if you are at the end of your growth, you can become a beautiful dancer by developing good muscle balance and range of motion along with efficient alignment. Just remember that the way you stand and move outside of class has an enormous amount to do with what happens inside of class and keep up the good posture even when those around you are all slouched and slumped over.

Until next time,

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”