by Jan Dunn, MS
Summer is drawing to a close, and I’m guessing at least some of you have already started back to school / dance class / rehearsals….and I would guess that you’re in good shape, because you’ve been reading the Dance Wellness column over the last year and a half, and you know to not let your dancing body de-condition over the summer, yes?
So now that a new season is starting – whether that means as a student or professional dancer – let’s talk about how important warm-up is–and what exactly is this anyway, and WHY is it important?
I remember a number of years ago, when my Denver Dance Medicine Medicine colleague, Sarah Graham, PT, and I were working backstage with a well-known international dance company, and were distressed to realize that 90% of the dancers went on-stage with virtually no warm-up before the show – and the company had many injuries that came as a result. It was a grim reminder of how important warm-up is for your dancing life.
Bottom line: We warm-up to prepare our bodies safely for the dance activity to follow, and to avoid injury.
Let’s just start with the basics:
The primary goal of a warm-up is to increase your core internal body temperature by 1-2 degrees. By doing this, you accomplish a number of good things:
-increase your respiration rate (breathing)
-increase the blood flow to your muscles (to fuel your dance movement!)
-increase your joint lubrication, for easier range of motion. Think of your joints as having oil (they do – it’s called “synovial fluid”), which, when cold, moves slowly and makes movement more difficult. Warming-up that fluid makes the joint move more easily and freely. (Like your car on a cold winter morning–you want to warm it up first!)
-increase the speed of neural signal transmission from your brain to your muscles.
-focus your attention
Misc. points to realize about the warm-up:
1. The recommended length for a good warm-up is generally about 15-20 minutes, although it will vary slightly with each person – and how long you need depends on several things:
-your age: the older you get, the more time you need – when you are 20, it may only take you 15 minutes, but by age 30, you need longer.
-the weather / temperature in the studio: The warmer it is, the quicker it will go. Some dance companies have a clause in their contract which guarantees that the studio / performance space temperature can’t fall below a certain degree, so that the dancers can warm-up / keep warm more easily, and minimize the chance of injury due to cold muscles. On the other extreme, you don’t want to be warming-up in a 90 degree room–that can lead to heat exhaustion !
-if you have an injury: it can take a little longer to warm-up an injured area, like chronic Achilles tendonitis.
2. Generally speaking, you know when you’ve reached a warmed-up state (i.e, that internal body temperature has gone up) when you start sweating –
BUT: Be aware that breaking out in a sweat is very individual, and based on genetics and other factors. Some people can start sweating just moving around for 3 minutes (NOT long enough for a warm-up!), and others can take 15 minutes. I’m one of those who takes a long time (genetics –my ancesters came from cold countries), and I frequently had teachers tell me I wasn’t working hard enough simply because I didn’t sweat that much–not true!!
3. Larger muscle groups, like the quadriceps (front of the thigh) / abdominals, will warm up more quickly than smaller muscles. Walking, light jogging and large body movements will all be helpful.
4. Relying on a class alone to warm you up is not a good practice. Some of the simple movements found at the beginning of a class – like plié / tendu – will not sufficiently increase the blood flow to create a warm-up, for many people. And no teacher, no matter how good they are, can design a warm-up that meets all the needs of the individual bodies in their class. So smart dancers will have their own private warm-up that they do BEFORE the class / rehearsal starts.
5. Stopping activity, even for a few minutes, will lose much of the benefit you’ve achieved in your warm-up – after 15 minutes, most of it is gone. So if you are in a stop and start class or rehearsal, and you aren’t being asked to dance, keep moving quietly in place.
This information also applies to a pre-performance warm-up: If the company is doing a group warm-up, it should be immediately before the show starts, so that the dancers don’t go back to the dressing rooms and sit for an hour before actually dancing. Have the dancers get costumes on, make-up, and then do the warm-up, giving them maybe just 10 minutes max to takes care of last-minute needs before going on-stage.
6. In any warm-up, whether it’s your own private one or a class situation, changing the body’s relationship to gravity is very beneficial–like going down to the floor and coming back up. This is because the torso and thigh muscles have to work harder, thereby creating more blood flow to the muscles.
7. All warm-up sequences should start slow and gradually build up to the more strenuous movements you are anticipating doing in class / rehearsal / performance (remember the Specificity concept in our Conditioning article?!).
8. A good warm-up incorporates alternating contraction / release of the muscles — so heavy stretching is NOT part of a warm-up. That should come much later in your dance activity, after you’re fully warmed-up. Heavily stretching a cold muscle is like pulling on a cold rubber band –not good!!
9. Using leg (or body) warmers makes you feel good, and can help keep the muscles warm once that good warm-up has been achieved–but don’t fool yourself into thinking that a warmer will in itself help create what you’re looking for!
And last, a good Cool-Down is also important – you know how they always walk race horses AFTER the race?! Dancers’ bodies are no different–a cool down lessens stress on the heart, and decreases potential soreness that might come later. You know you’ve cooled down sufficiently when your heart rate and respiration rate have returned to normal, and you no longer feel hot or warm.
So those are a few important things every dancer should know about warm-up – I hope it has been helpful information, and comes in time for you to incorporate it into your new dance season! 🙂
Editor Jan Dunn is a dance medicine specialist currently based on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, where she is owner of Pilates Plus Kauai Wellness Center and co-founder of Kauai Dance Medicine. She is also a Pilates rehabilitation specialist and Franklin Educator. A lifelong dancer / choreographer, she spent many years as university dance faculty, most recently as Adjunct Faculty, University of Colorado Dept. of Theatre and Dance. Her 28 year background in dance medicine includes 23 years with the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) – as Board member / President / Executive Director – founding Denver Dance Medicine Associates, and establishing two university Dance Wellness Programs
Jan served as organizer and Co-Chair, International Dance Medicine Conference, Taiwan 2004, and was founding chair of the National Dance Association’s (USA) Committee on Dance Science and Medicine, 1989-1993. She originated The Dance Medicine/Science Resource Guide; and was co-founder of the Journal of Dance Medicine & Science. She has taught dance medicine, Pilates, and Franklin workshops for medical / dance and academic institutions in the USA / Europe / Middle East / and Asia, authored numerous articles in the field, and presented at many national and international conferences.