Posted on July 7, 2015
Debbie Malina investigates Stretchworks, an exercise programme that was developed with the aim of helping dancers to avoid injury and maintain optimum fitness; it has since evolved into an approach that is designed to be adapted for all ages and abilities, proving to be beneficial on an emotional as well as a physical level.
Some 30 years have elapsed since Alison Evans laid the groundwork for a holistic form of exercise that was to become known as Stretchworks. From the start, dancers, elite athletes and sportspeople appreciated and understood what she was setting out to achieve. The medical world, likewise, has always supported her approach.
Alison has been well placed to provide a high level of understanding and empathy for the dance community. Initially, she trained in Russian classical ballet and then jazz dance, later working with several well-known choreographers as well as teaching at the Pineapple Dance Studios for a number of years.
Towards the latter part of her performing career, Alison grew interested in helping other dancers when she became increasingly aware of the repeated injuries they were sustaining and how various exercises were exacerbating these problems. She was able to explore alternative perspectives, in collaboration with medical professionals, providing her with the opportunity to broaden the programmes she had devised, leading to the creation of Stretchworks.
These specialised programmes combine controlled stretching and strengthening exercises with beneficial breathing techniques. Postural awareness and balance play an integral part. Each exercise flows into the next, encouraging muscle groups to work in conjunction with one another, and helping the body function in a healthier, more harmonious state.
This approach has an emotional impact on the body, in addition to the physical aspect of Alison’s work. The nature of Stretchworks necessitates finding release for muscles to be able to fully relax. We all absorb stress regularly, and this has a profound effect on health and physical wellbeing. Learning how to emotionally relax enables individuals to achieve greater levels of mobility and flexibility; in turn this strengthens and provides support.
Rather than imposing rigid exercise disciplines that can wear down joints and cause unnecessary stresses, the work adapts to the needs and ability of each person. This slow, controlled approach enables the body to absorb the process, respond more efficiently and perform effectively.
“Around the age of nine, a car accident changed my life forever,” explains Alison. “My right foot was fractured and I was not walking properly. To strengthen it, our family doctor encouraged my parents to enrol me in some dancing classes. A neighbour recommended a ballet school in Cambridge run by Nina Hubbard. This inspirational Russian dance teacher had a profound effect on my life and approach to dance, as she also did for a young Kenneth Tharp.
“I remember her as a strict, elderly lady with an intuitive, forwardthinking perspective. She encouraged her dancers to listen to the music, often varying the class by asking us to improvise to pieces selected by the pianist. This developed my appreciation for music, later playing a pivotal role in understanding its relevance in my work: music’s relationship and effect on the physical, and its ability to heighten the senses and calm the soul.
“Kenneth and I were taken under Nina Hubbard’s wing. I was awarded a scholarship to continue training with her in Russian classical ballet while Kenneth moved to London to train in contemporary dance at The Place. Having attained professional level, I also qualified as a Russian classical ballet teacher. By the age of 18, while I was an expressive dancer with a strong technique, I was keen to explore other areas, jazz dance in particular. Fortunately, I was able to dance and tour with a new jazz dance company based in Cambridge, now called Bodywork Dance Company.
“A year later I moved to London. In the 1980s the Pineapple Dance Studios was a wonderful place to live and breathe jazz dance, and it was where I met Arlene Phillips. I went on to dance for her and also taught Arlene’s jazz classes at Pineapple, as well as at Pineapple West and Danceworks when they first opened.
“I performed and trained with other choreographers, including Molly Molloy and Charles Augins, and was involved in many musical theatre productions such as the original British cast of Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle and the tour of The Pajama Game. If I could have taken classes throughout the day, I would, as I simply loved to dance in such a creative, energised environment.”
“At the same time,” Alison continued, “I became increasingly aware of the injuries dancers were sustaining and that these were recurring. I quietly questioned the methods used by teachers to increase dancers’ flexibility – sometimes by force and invariably through unsafe preparation into a stretch. Over the years I had developed a clear eye for alignment and posture, and was able to predict, for example, when a dancer would not be able to find their balance or execute multiple pirouettes.
“Gradually, I began to make mental notes of individual dancers, observing their positioning and how they could redress the recurring injuries. Since I was also teaching, I began to introduce different ways for going into a stretch in a controlled and safe way, without overextending, only taking it to where it felt comfortable to the dancer.
“The body absorbs and processes changes far better when carried out in incremental stages, rather than overextending muscles and joints forcibly; the benefits of this approach were far-reaching. The dancers I worked with were making significant improvements with their flexibility and also their balance, posture and overall strength.
“Some dancers had been receiving treatment from physiotherapists and osteopaths, and these practitioners noted their clients recuperated from injury relatively quickly. They also saw that the dancers’ bodies appeared aligned, stronger and better equipped to enable the muscles and their individual skeletal structure to perform more efficiently.
“This led me to spend time developing the work further with medical practitioners, and was the start of a collaborative journey that continues 30 years on. Today, clients come to me on the recommendation of a range of practitioners. I also welcome people through GP referral for specific health issues (including Multiple Sclerosis, osteo/rheumatoid arthritis and post-operative mastectomy for breast cancer) as well as psychotherapists for patients with depression and other emotional issues.
“Demand for my work grew, and I was brought to the attention of elite athletes, working with a premiership football club for three years and also Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean as they prepared for their 1994 Olympic comeback. I was able to adapt the work around the sport and, more important, for the individual.”
“Other crucial aspects to the work were developing, such as the relationship of the emotional to the physical: how our muscles absorb and retain our daily stresses impacting on our health and wellbeing. On a deeper level, the mind can subconsciously block certain memories and trauma that is retained by the muscles. It was not uncommon to see individuals in the studio becoming tearful and emotional. While this release is cathartic and healing, I was conscious of the huge responsibility required in caring for, and supporting, each person without judgement.
“It is an area I take extremely seriously, and it is why I started working with psychotherapists in broadening this aspect of Stretchworks. I became aware of how deeply rooted issues can affect the physical. In suppressing emotion, the body works hard to overcompensate; by releasing those emotions in a safe caring environment, it is able to function in a healthier state of wellbeing. Muscles relax and lengthen more easily, enabling increased movement in the joints. Athletes and dancers experience greater agility and pace, maintaining optimum fitness for the long-term.
“In addition, I was working with younger dancers and athletes, from eight-year-olds through to teenagers. The benefits of early intervention cannot be overstated. If you are able to correct areas such as alignments, posture, balance and flexibility early on, this will have a marked effect on their career.
“Athletes and dancers will notice a degree of decreased flexibility during growth spurts, as the muscles are trying to catch up to their growing bones. This can also have an impact on balance as the brain tries to process and adjust to its new environment, and is why teenagers are often regarded as clumsy. The body is going through massive changes and it is imperative that the process is handled with care and respect. When either of these two groups pushes a stretch beyond what they are comfortable with, or become frustrated with their inability to perform as they did before their teenage years, it could lead to serious injury. These challenges are addressed by Stretchworks, which is why I feel it could be helpful for the work to be incorporated within ballet schools and athletics academies.”
Adapting the Work
“For many years, I had wanted to adapt the work so that everyone could benefit from Stretchworks. I knew it had the potential to change people’s lives and their approach to exercise. It was not until I had a young family that there was the opportunity for me to develop these programmes. While my children were younger I needed to find some structure to my work, rather than travelling all over the UK without breaks. This led me to working in health clubs in west London, which proved to be life-changing. As well as modifying the approach for all ages and abilities, I was now working with people who had health issues including strokes, cancer, MS, Parkinson’s, osteo/rheumatoid arthritis and, in some cases, those with terminal illnesses.
“Our DVD came about due to the overwhelming response to the work and the fact that I was the only one who taught it! Whenever a member left the health club, they found there was nowhere else for them to continue doing the class; until I had a team of instructors in place, they needed to have something to follow. The General Level Stretchworks DVD represented the start of expanding the work.”
Teacher Training Course
“The teacher training course is an integral part of Stretchwork’s growth – across the UK and then, I hope, further afield. While we were putting together the training manual, I felt it was important to be able to draw on medical practitioners’ expertise and vision. With regard to its approach and training methods, I wanted to set a precedent, promoting a network of medical and psychotherapy professionals to support the instructors once they have qualified. I will be running the course along with a physiotherapist and a psychotherapist.”
More recently, Alison has been working with Dance UK, seeking to raise awareness of the approach and what it has to offer within the dance community. In April, Stretchworks sponsored the opening night of Dance UK’s industry-wide conference, The Future: new ideas, new inspirations; during the course of the conference, Alison led a class demonstrating the benefits of the work. Through her sponsorship of the conference Alison is especially keen to focus on dancers, ex-dancers and dance teachers, all of whom, she believes, “would make ideal instructors for the work – with their innate understanding of alignment, balance and posture as well as sensitivity, empathy and a relationship to music”.
Kenneth Tharp, chief executive of The Place (pictured above with Alison, photographed by Peter Thomas), is supportive and enthusiastic in his views on the approach: “Alison and I have a shared dance history going back over 40 years. I have watched her develop her Stretchworks practice with huge care, commitment and rigour. She always puts the personal wellbeing of her clients before anything else. One of the most exciting things about the work is that it is as valid for the professional dancer or athlete as it is for the general public. Alison’s methodology embodies a holistic approach that recognises the interdependence between the physical, psychological and emotional.
To find out more about Stretchworks, visit stretchworks.co.uk
Stretchwork photographs by Toby Merritt.