Dancers' Warm up
What does ‘warm up’ bring to your mind? How do you warm up in the dance classes you take or in your own dance practice? Unfortunately, dancers often replace warm up with stretching and are found sitting on the studio floor before the class begins. There are two problems here. First, stretching does not provide any kind of warming up and does not prepare your body for dance training. Second, long lasting static stretches actually have many negative impacts on dance training followed by it. In reality, warming up should include raising the pulse, mobilising the joints, dynamic stretching, dance-style specific preparation, and mental preparation and getting focused.
The disadvantages of replacing warm up with stretching
Why so many dancers understand warm up to be stretching? Stretching before dance class is often a habit we learn in childhood or youth. I learned it by watching the older dancers and was even encouraged to stretch during the dance classes. This is no wonder as back then there wasn’t so much information of the subject. Nowadays, we don’t only have great amount of information but it’s now available online for everyone at any time. We just need to figure out ways for the information to find its way to the dance studios as well.
Unfortunately, long static stretching before dance class, rehearsal or performance leads into increased risk of injuries. If this is not good enough a reason to consider different options for warming up, here is a list of things to which static stretching before dance class can have a negative impact to:
- Jump height
- Reaction time
- Movement time
- Ankle plantar-flexion strength (Plantar-flexion = 'pointing' the ankle)
You can read more about stretching here.
Ideal way to warm up before dance class or performance
So how should warm up be done? Its purpose is to gradually prepare the body for the following activity, whether it’s a dance training, a rehearsal, a competition or a performance. A proper warm up should last approximately 15-20 minutes and include:
- Pulse raiser
- Joint mobilisation
- Dynamic stretching of the muscles
- Dance style -specific warm up
- Centring the mind, focus and psychological preparation
Pulse raiser is supposed to stimulate the cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels) that carries nutrients and oxygen within the body. As the pulse raises and breathing gets faster, more oxygen will make its way to the muscles. This will also cause changes in the nervous system, followed by a better mind-body connection during movement. The body will be prepared to receive commands faster and more accurately. A good sign of sufficient rise in heart rate is slight sweating while still being able to speak without difficulty. Always remember that feeling warm due to the outside or room temperature does not mean that your body is warm within and ready for dance training. The body warms up within with movement.
Here, joint mobilisation means calmly going through the ranges of movement within the joints (no maximum range or fast, wrenching movements). When moved, the state of the fluid within the joint changes so that the range of movement grows while the joint’s ability to receive shocks improves.
Dynamic stretching of muscles means stretching while staying in motion, not staying in a stretching position for a long period of time. The movement is controlled and continuous. Dancer can go through so-called stretching positions if avoiding one’s maximum range. In dynamic stretching, one uses gravity and momentum, e.g. leg swings. Remember to move on gradually from smaller to bigger movements. The purpose is not to force the body to extreme positions to which it’s not ready yet.
Dance style - specific warm up means preparing the body to the exact dance activity that is following. Quite understandably, the needs of a warm up are quite different whether you are preparing for ballet, hip hop, flamenco, or say cha cha cha.
Focusing before a dance class or a performance is an important part of warming up for the coming activity. The mind is a great part of moving as a human, and its readiness is directly related to one’s physical performance. Always allow yourself time to get grounded and to focus on what’s coming, and find your own ways to achieve a calm and focused state of mind.
It is also good to be aware of the intermittent nature of a dance class. Often, dance sequences are done one by one, one row or a small group at a time, where as the rest of the class is waiting for their turn. It’s important to take responsibility for your own body and maintain its readiness for dance activity. Standing still leads into the body ‘cooling down’ when a new warm up is needed. Sometimes dancers can even be found sitting around during a dance class – I would suggest to unlearn this completely (obviously sitting around will happen when practising e.g. floor techniques). It is recommended to stay in motion throughout the class. While sitting and doing nothing, you allow your body to come at a very passive state.
Can the ‘warm up culture’ in dance be changed?
I dare to say that all dancers know stretching does not equal warm up – not as a word or activity. Stretching before a dance class is something we’ve once learned, something we grow up to, specifically within the classical dance styles. As we gain more knowledge, also the approach to warming up in dance schools begin to change and the dancers themselves can easily find evidence based information of optimising their dance practice. Change is already happening.
Training without a proper warm up often leads to injuries even if the body feels always ready, which is often the case specifically when you’re young or naturally flexible. It is smart and professional to warm up before dancing, even if the dance class would begin with a guided warm up. It’s always better to have your own warm up session for your body’s specific needs. After all, it is a simple routine that can save you from a lot of harm and make your dances way more pleasant.
Let’s change the way dancers warm up together, one dancer at a time!