Extension is to a dancer what agility is to a basketball player - you just gotta have it to look like a dancer. I don't know about you, but I am always looking for tips to help improve my extension and flexbility, since it doesn't come naturally to me. I found this excellent article from Dance Magazine, by Kristin Lewis, that gives very practical tips and exercises to help to lengthen your muscles and get that arabesque penchée closer to 180.
Here's my skinny version, in case you'd rather not read the entire article.
The principles of mind-body awareness, such as focusing on your breath and remaining present in movement, can and should be applied to all stretching endeavors. "Many dancers think of stretching as sitting in a split while they talk to their girlfriends," says Amis. "What is required is concentrating on your breathing, thinking about the muscles lengthening and softening, in this private, active mind."
So what is the best way to lengthen muscles? Among the many theories, the most favored by dance medicine specialists is called reciprocal inhibition, says athletic trainer Megan Richardson, who works with dancers at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries in New York City. In this approach, a dancer alternates between stretching and contracting a muscle. For example, lie with your back on the floor. Bring your straightened right leg toward your face until you feel a gentle stretch in your hamstring. Hold it for 15 to 30 seconds until you feel the muscle release, then resist against your hands by pushing that leg away from your body--your leg won't actually move because you'll hold it in place. After five to eight seconds, release and gently stretch your leg toward your face again. Most often, the muscle will stretch further a few degrees. This cycle of stretch and contract can be repeated three to four times.
Static stretching is also effective, but don't let the name mislead you--it's still an active process. In a static stretch, focus on feeling the muscle gently release, which usually happens after 15 seconds, at which point you can go a little farther until you feel that gentle stretch again. There should never be pain, popping, or snapping. "Stretching should be a very progressive, slow process. If the muscle doesn't release, don't push farther," advises Richardson.
The best time to stretch is right after class, not only because it prevents muscles from tightening, but also because the body is warm from within. Bundling up in leg warmers or sitting on a heating pad doesn't count. Movement increases blood flow, which carries oxygen to the muscles and makes for more productive stretching.
Set aside 10 minutes after every class to systematically stretch your entire body. In addition to the common areas--hamstrings, the quads, and the glutes--stretch in parallel, particularly if you spent class working turned out. "A lot of times when dancers have imbalances or pain, they have forgotten to work in parallel," says Boston Ballet School teacher Kathleen Mitchell. "Several yoga stretches are terrific for that because they are parallel and really balance the sides of the body."
Most stretches should be held for 30 to 60 seconds--longer isn't necessary. Several recent studies show that holding a stretch for longer than a minute doesn't increase range of motion. In some cases, it can even be counterproductive because the muscle will start to rebel.
...As you increase your range of motion, a strong core is necessary to show it off. "Strong abdominals and back muscles provide a solid foundation for the working leg to move away from the midline of the body," says Richardson.