You know the familiar sequence: Side bend, flat back, hamstring stretch, lunge, quad stretch, squat in second position, and then repeat on the other side until it’s time to sit in your splits... The tried and true classic dance warm up sequence has many variations, but often looks the same as we've all been doing since we were five years old, despite the fact that our bodies, and movement science, have learned a few things since then.
taking just a few moments at the beginning of class to connect to your body will reduce your risk for injury
According to Dr. Traci Ferguson, a physical therapist who works with the Sugarfoot Therapy conditioning program for dancers, the most common dance injuries she sees can often be traced back to not warming up correctly, including muscle strains in the quads, hamstrings, or calves, and lower back or hip pain. Sitting in a stretch for longer than 30 seconds, or “static stretching,” is what most dancers have been taught is an effective warm up, but research has actually proven that this kind of stretching inhibits a muscle’s power reflex for the next hour, which can decrease your jump height and lead to muscle strains or even labral tears, Dr. Ferguson says. A more dynamic warm up is needed to truly prepare the body for dancing.
So what should a dance warm up include to reduce injury and improve your performance? Consider these five elements to craft a more effective dance warm up:
1. Breath and Mindfulness
One of the most overlooked essentials to movement is breath, and specifically for dancers, making sure they are utilizing the diaphragm as they breathe. The diaphragm is actually a major part of what we generally call the “core,” which stabilizes the spine and pelvis and controls your limbs. Strengthening the “core” actually begins with connecting your breath to movement, which will also improve your mental state as you prepare to dance.
Dr. David Odom, a physical therapist that has toured with Pink, Lady Gaga, and numerous Broadway shows including Come Fly Away and The Lion King, begins his sessions with dancers by focusing on breath. He infuses elements of Qigong and breathing techniques, “to calm the nervous system before launching into the engagement section of the warm up.” Odom emphasizes that taking just a few moments at the beginning of class to connect to your body will reduce your risk for injury by helping you notice any tension or pain, and indicate what you should focus on in your warm up to prepare your body best for movement.
2. Cardiovascular Exercises
One of the keys to an effective dance warm up is actually in the name – warming up, or raising the temperature, of the body. Light exercises that start to heat the body and raise your pulse “warm up your tissues and body temperature, which in turn makes your body more malleable, or flexible,” Dr. Ferguson explains.
Starting out the movement section of your warm up with simple exercises like prancing in place, then building up to a light jog in the first few minutes of class will help your body “to meet the higher demand for energy when you begin dancing,” according to the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS).
the key to an effective dance warm up is that it should “be specific to the type of movement that will be done in the class or performance”
3. Dynamic Stretching
According to IADMS, “The role of stretching during a warm-up is to mobilize muscles and prepare them safely to carry out the range of motion required of dance activities, not to increase flexibility.” Therefore, we don’t have to ban all types of stretching from our dance warm ups – only the stretches we hold for longer than 30 seconds. Dynamic stretching for dancers is the answer to this, which is controlled movement that actively takes the joints through their full ranges of motion.
Dr. Natalie Imrisek, a physical therapist who has worked with dancers from companies such as Alvin Ailey, American Ballet Theatre, LA Opera, and the Los Angeles Ballet School, suggests that dance teachers include elements in the warm up that mimic what dancers will be doing in class, only with a smaller range of motion to start, such as a developpé. As the warm up progresses, dancers can build up to their end range by activating muscles around the joints to help control the movement. Functional Range Conditioning exercises such as CARS (controlled articular rotations) at each joint are excellent ways to teach dancers control at the end range of their joints safely.
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4. Core Strengthening
After you’ve connected to your breath through the suggested techniques above, you can more specifically strengthen the core for better balance and control of your movement. While “the core” is not a very specific term, as previously mentioned, we generalize it to include the diaphragm, pelvic floor, and three layers of abdominals that wrap around your torso like a corset: the transverse abdominus, internal and external obliques, and rectus abdominus (what we call a six pack). Strengthening these and other muscles that stabilize your spine and pelvis will significantly decrease your chances of injury.
Strengthening the core doesn’t just come from crunches, though. In fact, what most dancers do in a crunch usually only affects the most superficial layer of their abdominals, because they tend to tilt their pelvis posteriorly, pressing their lower back into the floor as they lift their head up, says Dr. Ferguson. Teachers should work on cueing abdominal work in a “neutral spine”, a term often used in Pilates, that emphasizes keeping the natural curve of the spine in a stable position during abdominal exercises to better involve the entire “corset” of core muscles working together. Dr. Odom suggests working on these muscles in varying planes of motion to teach spinal stability and core strength in multiple planes of motion. This planking and side planking series by Sugarfoot Therapy is a good place to start.
5. Genre-specific Exercises
It goes without saying that different genres of dance place different requirements on your body. According to Dr. Ferguson, the key to an effective dance warm up is that it should “be specific to the type of movement that will be done in the class or performance” in order to better prepare dancers’ bodies for what they will be doing.
Here are a few genre-specific examples of what you should involve in a dance warm up:
Dr. Imrisek recommends ballet dancers focus on activating the deep stabilizers in their hips and pelvis in their warm up, including their glutes and external rotators (turnout muscles). Lying down and bridging the hips up or doing side-lying clamshells or hydrants will help activate those muscles to be prepared for the demands of class or a performance. Focusing on alignment and posture in these positions is key, starting with a smaller range of motion at the beginning of class. She also suggests incorporating a calf strengthening exercise after barre that the Australian Ballet found dramatically decreased injury in their dancers: 24 single-leg parallel relevés on each leg.
Contemporary and jazz:
Focus on finding stability within movement, says Dr. Odom, who sees many contemporary and jazz dancers with neck and upper shoulder pain due to the demands of their genres. Prepare for this in your jazz warm up with neck and shoulder CARS, sun salutations, and twisted lunges that require stabilizing your hips and torso. Yoga is a great warm up for these styles because you can focus on stability and strength throughout a flow that mimics dance movement.
Due to a generally higher impact genre of dance, jumping around, and quick rotational movement, be sure to have a cardiovascular section in the warm up and focus on strengthening work in your hips, arms, and core, says Dr. Odom.
The lower body focus in tap requires a warm up for the coordination of everything from your ankles up to your hips. Dr. Ferguson suggests warming up with hip and ankle CARS, standing clamshells or fire hydrants, squats, and lunges to focus on activating your quads, glutes, and hamstrings for better stability from the foot up to the hip.
Dancing in heels:
When warming up to dance in a heel, dancers should train ankle and foot stability through basic foot intrinsic exercises, like lifting one toe at a time, and ankle CARS, says Dr. Ferguson. Other focuses in the warm up should be pelvic stability and glute activation, like lunges on a flat foot and on relevé.
A more dynamic warm up is needed to truly prepare the body for dancing.
After years of forcing myself into the splits during a dance warm up and feeling like my hamstrings might rip apart (and in fact having multiple hamstring strains to prove it), I’m grateful to know science backs up my fears that this antiquated idea of warming up is not fully preparing dancers to perform their best. As Dr. Ferguson puts it, the best part of designing a more dynamic warm up with these suggested elements is that “it will benefit both the tight dancer and the hypermobile dancer.” Revamping your dance warm up to include at least a few of these suggestions will ultimately help each dancer in the class to perform better and prevent injury.