When a dancer lifts her leg gracefully to the side or front of her body, she can thank her strong iliopsoas muscles. As she extends her leg into a beautiful arabesque, she relies on flexibility in the iliopsoas. In fact, the iliopsoas -- a group of three muscles that includes the iliacus, psoas major and psoas minor -- is important for virtually every movement in dance. The iliopsoas connects the back, pelvis and femur. When it contracts, it flexes the hip, bringing your thigh closer to your chest. Because it’s the only hip flexor that can lift the leg over 90 degrees, you need to strengthen it if you want to be able to increase the height of your extensions.
To strengthen your iliopsoas, sit on a chair. When you start this exercise, go ahead and slouch in the chair. The rounded back position will make it easier for you to isolate the iliopsoas. Keeping your knee bent, lift your right thigh toward your chest and then slowly lower it back to the floor. Do your desired number of repetitions before switching legs. Then, open your thighs to straddle the chair. Repeat the exercise by lifting your thigh toward the side of your body. Granted, this is not the most graceful position, but it helps strengthen the iliopsoas’s ability to lift your leg to the side. Do this version with both legs as well.
Start off doing two sets of 12 to 15 repetitions, both to the front and side of your body. As you get stronger, do one of the sets with your back straight. To increase the challenge, you can place one end of a resistance band underneath the foot that you’re not exercising. Tie the other end of the band around the thigh that you’ll be lifting. The resistance of the band will make it more difficult for your iliopsoas to lift your leg. If you do these exercises three times a week, you should see significant improvements in your iliopsoas strength within six weeks. If you do the exercises on the same days as your dance classes, do them after your class. Because these exercises will make your iliopsoas tired, your performance in class could suffer if you do them before class.
A tight iliopsoas will not only limit the height of your arabesques, it can make it impossible to stand with your pelvis properly aligned and can cause pain in the lower back. To stretch your iliopsoas, kneel on the ground with your right knee over your ankle and your left knee under your hip. Activate your abdominal muscles by pulling your belly button toward your spine, and tuck your pelvis under by squeezing your buttocks. Lift your left arm up over your head. As you bend to the right, push your hips slightly forward until you feel a stretch in the front of your left hip. Hold the stretch for about two seconds and return to an upright position. Do five or 10 repetitions of the stretch before switching legs.
When doing this stretch, you can kneel on a mat or towel to make your knees more comfortable. Because this is a dynamic stretch, you don’t need to be fully warmed up before doing it. Try doing it before your dance class so you’ll be able to achieve proper pelvic alignment throughout the class. You can also do it after class and after your strengthening exercises to help lengthen your iliopsoas.
Kat Black is a professional writer currently completing her doctorate in musicology/ She has won several prestigious awards for her research, and has had extensive training in classical music and dance.