How to Get Higher Leg Extensions in Dancing

Girl practicing ballet by window
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It is common for dancers to get frustrated with poor leg extensions. Perhaps several dancers in their class are able to get their legs so high that it almost reaches their ears. Some dancers can even feel ashamed to be in the same room with their competition due to their extensions being so low. One example of this is when a dancer is able to hold their leg up by their head but is unable to keep it high without holding it.

Whether a dancer stretches or is flexible, this problem can still occur, making dancers long to have higher leg extensions.

Solutions and Types of Leg Extensions

High extensions create beautiful lines and are pleasing to an audience. However, high extensions take a lot of work and patience along the way. Contrary to popular belief, high extensions are not dependent on flexibility alone. Dancers need to be flexible, but the real secret lies in the muscles of their legs. Learning how to develop muscle strength, along with flexibility, will help dancers have higher leg extensions.

In dance, a leg extension refers to lifting one leg to either the front, side or back. Leg extensions can be performed in the ballet, jazz, contemporary, and other styles of dance. In ballet, a slow and controlled leg extension is called a developpe. In jazz, a high kick is a type of leg extension. Of course, the goal of a dancer performing these moves would be to get their leg as high as possible.

Improving Leg Extensions

Achieving a higher leg extension requires two things: strength and flexibility. A dancer needs to have very flexible hips and legs as well as strong hip and leg muscles. As every dancer knows, flexibility is extremely important for all types of dance. Every dance move can be improved by increasing their body's overall flexibility.

Stretching is the only way to improve flexibility, however, so dancers need to be doing it every day.

Dancers need flexible hamstrings in order to straighten their leg when they lift it to the front or to the side. They also need flexible abductors, or upper thighs, in order lift their leg high to the side. Slow, easy stretching seems to be most effective. Dancers can concentrate on relaxing into the stretch of the area they are stretching. Stretches for splits are great for increasing flexibility in their legs and hips. A perfect time to stretch is after class, while dancers are warmed up. Their muscles are most receptive to stretching while they are warm.

Strong quadriceps, the muscles of the front of the thighs, are needed to be able to get one's leg up to about 90 degrees. The muscles of a dancer's back are used to get legs to go higher. In particular, dancers need to have a strong iliopsoas, a muscle that connects the spine to the thigh. The iliopsoas is located behind the abdominal muscles and controls the movements of the hip joint.

If dancers can't seem to get their extension above the 90-degree mark, they most likely need to strengthen their iliopsoas. When performing an extension, dancers should pay attention to the muscles of their leg as it begins to extend beyond 90 degrees.

Instead of using quadriceps to continue lifting their leg, dancers can try to focus on using the muscles underneath. Hip flexors will be responsible for any higher movement.

What Dancers Can Do

A good exercise to help improve leg extensions is to place one's foot onto a high barre. Using the muscles underneath one's leg, or hip flexor, dancers can raise their leg off the barre. Then, dancers should make sure to keep their leg turned out and their supporting leg straight. Dancers can visualize the muscles under their hip and spine engaging to lift their leg even higher. Dancers can hold their leg for a few seconds, then relax.

Increasing the height of leg extensions takes time and hard work. Dancers can try to push themselves beyond their normal comfort zone to strengthen the muscles that will help them achieve their goals.