Hypermobile is how we describe the joints of people who, without any training have naturally, more (hyper) movement (mobility) in their joints than usual. Some call it being double jointed. The hypermobility comes from ligaments (the tough ban of connective tissue that links bones together across a joint) being too lax or stretchy. This means that they cannot stabilise the joints the way ligaments should. And an important point for teachers to consider is that dancers with hyper mobile joints cannot sense when they are at the end of their joint range. This results in a knee joint when straightened going beyond straight and produces what we refer to as swayback knees. With careful training a dancer can learn to avoid pushing the knees back by pulling up the quadriceps muscles on the front of the thighs and engaging the leg muscles to support and align the knees so that the legs appear straight – although they won’t feel straight to the dancer.
Hypermobile bodies are often admired for their flexibility and effortless ability to put their body into positions that many others could not do even after lengthy training. they often have the highly arched feet that are so desired by some and described in dance as ‘pretty’ feet. But the reality is that the hypermobile body is extremely challenging for both the dance student and the teacher.
Why is it?
The lax ligaments mean that the dancer struggles with control of her limbs. Her flexibility is greater than her strength. and her proprioception (sense of body awareness and movement in space) is unable to accurately sense the place of say his/her arms, legs and feet. And this reduced proprioception means that he/she doesn’t sense when joints are at the end of their ranges.
What can we do to help?
Careful teaching and paying attention to fundamental things such as alignment, stability and strength are vital. Working with the dancer to develop muscle use that assists in alignment the joint is essential to prevent over-extending joints. Also working to match flexibility with strength is vital so that the dancer is able to hold his/her leg at height as well as being able to kick or hold the leg by hand. The key is to strengthen and then strengthen a little more. This can be done with:-
Balance on one leg – feel the external rotation in upper leg and internal rotation in lower leg to make the big toe grounded into floor; gym ball exercises to enhance core stability; therapy balls and flex bands are all useful tools to use (see freebies page on decodanz website for ideas and guidance). Doing some work on an unstable surface such as a wobble board also helps with stability and helps to develop improved balance recovery. It is important to check the symmetry (both sides equal) when doing stabilisation exercises.
Strengthen everything paying careful attention to alignment – weights and flex bands are useful for this. Develop fun exercises that the dancer will enjoy to encourage him/her to do them regularly.
Stretching needs to pay very careful attention to alignment. Avoid uncontrolled stretching exercises or movements. Use dynamic stretching (slow and gentle stretching with movement) where possible – walking lunges such as, making sure that the movement is controlled and in good alignment. Do not confuse dynamic stretching with ballistic stretching which forces the body part past its normal range of movement and can cause injury.
Furthering our understanding
The field of dance medicine & science is helping us to understand more about hypermobile joints and how to safeguard them. But there is still a lot that is not understood. This article draws on a paper ‘Teaching the Hypermobile Dancer’ from the IADMS Bulletin for Teachers that you can download here Teaching Hypermobile Dancers – IADMS Bulletin for Teachers.
There is also a book written by Isobel Knight, a dancer and dance scientist who has Hypermobility Syndrome (HMS). A guide to Living with Hypermobility Syndrome: Bending without Breaking. This book offers personal insight into all aspects of HMS from diagnosis to managing the condition and enjoying a fulfilling life in a non-medical jargon way. It also offers very useful understanding and food-for-thought for dance teachers working with hypermobile dancers. Reference for this book is:-
Knight I (2011) A Guide to Living with Hypermobility Syndrome: Bending without Breaking Singing Dragon London