Are You Really Ready to Dance?: Why, What, and How of Warming Up Your Body!
by Brittany Cohen
I love to pose this question to my dancers when we discuss muscles and warm-ups… "Imagine you placed a rubber band in a freezer. A few minutes later you tried to stretch it and wrap it around a handful of pencils. What would happen to the rubber band?"
Often I will get an immediate response that the rubber band would break or it wouldn’t be able to hold the pencils together. I like to relate the elasticity and function of the rubber band to that of our muscles in the body. This simple image helps dancers to understand that their bodies need a good warm up before activity occurs. When we try to lengthen or engage our "cold" muscles prior to warming up, we are setting our body up to be less effective in movement. By doing so, we increase the likelihood of bringing injury to our body and decrease our ability to perform at our best. No dancer wants that!
The purpose of a warm-up is to prepare a dancer's body for movement, involving both the engagement and lengthening of muscles. When a dancer experiences a warm-up, they are bringing the body to a safe place for movement. The more experience your body gets in warming up, the better it will dance! Muscles that are warm are more efficient, responsive, adaptive, and will be better able to manage the various types of movement that occur while dancing. You can learn a bit more about what happens inside your body during a warm up and how to address your personal needs with this resource from the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS).
Dancers are also able to wake up their brains through a warm-up process as it encourages faster reaction time in learning and recalling movement sequences. When the brain and body are working more efficiently, dancers are able to better manage their physical energy and mental focus throughout class. We know dance requires our brains just as much (if not more!) than our bodies. Helping the mind and body stay connected will increase our ability to perform and help us stay safe while we do it.
You know how a proper warm-up can help you to dance well and stay safe, so how can you do it?
I did not learn what it meant to be prepared for dance classes until I was in conservatory. It took almost 20 years of involvement in the dance world before I ever heard about how to properly warm-up! I would head straight into the class and the first exercise or movement of the class was what I understood to be the warm-up. This is NOT how our body sees it, or more importantly how it feels. This is what would lead me to many injuries and lack of development. I want better for your dance experience!
Start by asking yourself:
- Do I warm-up before each class, rehearsal or performance?
- Do I warm up properly?
- What does MY body need?
- Have I involved my mind & body in my preparations?
Let's dive into best practices for each of the questions above. Remember, our goal is to raise your awareness and start to build up your best practices. No one expects you to ALREADY KNOW this information. Unfortunately, proper preparation for performing is not a topic we commonly discuss with dancers. We are going to change that so you can help yourself dance better!
It is important for dancers to understand that any time we are actively working through our technique that we are, in a sense, in performance mode. This means - the first plie sequence you do at the barre is NOT a warm-up. Your body needs to be doing so much to support a plie alone! What can we do to help it be prepared for the demands of our technique and movements in dance?
First and foremost, warm-ups will come in all variations depending on the needs of your body and the situation where dancing occurs. A warm-up is considered effective when the duration and components appropriately meet the demands of the class, rehearsal, or performance that follows as well as the needs of the dancers (Quin, Rafferty and Tomlinson, 2015). Each of these factors needs to be appropriately considered for a warm-up to be helpful in your preparation for dancing.
In dance research, there are currently three major components that should be considered in all dance warm-ups, raising the pulse, mobilizing joints, and lengthening of muscles (Quin, Rafferty and Tomlinson, 2015). The first to occur should be a gradual increase in heart rate and body temperature. A simple and effective way to include this component could involve locomotor movements. I like to start with walking and progress to gallops, skips, and jogging. Additional movements utilizing level changes can be utilized for more advanced dancers. The key is that codified dance technique and specific choreography need not be included, allowing you to connect to your body, mind, and the space they are moving in.
Once the heart rate is increased, dancers can turn their attention to their joints and encourage a range of motion and stability through them. I like to work on the floor for this section, utilizing actions like ankle and hip circles, upside down plies, roll downs and twisting actions of the spine, and other somatic movements that can help the body move without any added pressure or resistance. Moving through joints before working technique will help you to find your full range in motions like leg extensions, arm movements, or movements of the spine. This is a great place to incorporate breath awareness as well. You can learn some breathing practices to include in your warm-up here.
Finally, dancers are able to lengthen their muscles through static or dynamic stretches. I utilize Pilates and Yoga practices that encourage both joint movement, lengthening, and breathing techniques for full-body warm-up. The focus of lengthening during warm-up is to help muscles better function during movement. Remember, a tight and cold rubber band will not be able to do a good job of wrapping around or holding together the group of pencils. Muscles need a similar ability to lengthen and release for proper engagement. Stretching for increased flexibility would follow after class.
The purpose of this article is to empower you to take ownership of your preparation and development for all your dance experiences. Just 10-15 minutes of warm-up activity with strength training as well as the right dancer footwear choice can help you reduce your risk of injury and increase your performance abilities! You can get more ideas on movements and a structure to use for your individual warm up by checking out this Dance Class Prep Checklist I created for dancers.
Quin, E., Rafferty, S., Tomlinson, C. (2015) Safe Dance Practice. Human Kinetics. Champaign, IL.
Want to learn more about how you can take ownership of your dance success with proper preparation? Drop in to the Driven by Dance Podcast with Brittany Episode #9 - Performance Preparation.
Brittany helps you, the passionate young dancer, develop performance abilities and limit injuries so that you can reach your goals on and beyond the stage! She received her Masters in Dance Education from Rutgers University, graduated from Mason Gross School of the Arts with her B.F.A. in Dance Performance, and is a Yoga Therapeutics Instructor. She is currently working on certifications as a wellness and movement specialist. Brittany is a knowledgeable dance educator, seasoned performer, yoga practitioner, and researcher in dance.movement science. She has inspired and supported young dancers through her work with BC Artistry LLC, offering personalized and comprehensive education, training, and consultation. You can learn more about Brittany and her work by visiting www.bcartisry.dance, and share in her passion for dance on Facebook and Instagram.