An effective warm-up physically and mentally prepares an individual for a specific physical activity. The intention of a dance warm-up is to enable dancers to safely and successfully carry out dance movements in a class, rehearsal or performance.
- increases blood flow to provide the fuel that muscles need to initiate and control movement
- lubricates the joints so that they glide freely and smoothly during movement
- activates muscles and nerves so that they work together to produce coordinated movement
- focuses an individual’s attention on the activity ahead
Warming up before dancing will contribute to:
- a reduced risk of injury
- improved coordination
- improved technique
- enhanced psychological focus
Most of the benefits gained from warming up disappear 15 to 45 minutes after the body has finished warming up. Consequently, it is important to keep moving and remember the importance of completing a thorough warm-up after a break in between classes, stage appearances or performances.
The physiology behind warming up
During a warm-up, blood flow increases to the muscles (where it is needed to provide oxygen) and decreases to the digestive organs. Continuous movement (walking, running and working the larger muscle groups with control through a full range of motion) rapidly increases blood flow, which raises the body’s core temperature quickly. This prepares the muscles, nerves and joints for the demands that will be placed on them during the dance activity.
As blood flow increases, warmth transfers to the skin. An indication that the body is getting warm is perspiration, the body’s mechanism for cooling itself.
An effective warm-up ensures that the body’s circulation, breathing and energy production (known collectively as the aerobic system) increase gradually so that these systems are working at the correct level to meet the increased demand for energy when dance activity begins. The ideal warm-up will therefore gradually build in intensity, raising the core body temperature through movements that get progressively more demanding.
When the body moves, the volume of synovial fluid and the thickness of cartilage (a tough, elastic, fibrous tissue that supports the joints) in the joints increases. This improves the joints’ ability to absorb shock when the body experiences impact (from jumping, leaping and stamping), which prevents direct wear on the bones.
Movement in the joints increases blood flow and raises the internal body temperature, which increases elasticity in the joints’ supporting tissues and muscles. This all happens within 10 minutes of starting the movement and is almost completely gone 30 minutes after the movement is completed. So, after a 30-minute break from dancing a dancer must warm up again!
Muscles and Nerves
Increasing the temperature of the muscles, which can be as low as 30°C at rest, improves their performance ability.
Nerve impulses travel faster in warm muscles and muscle viscosity (the rate at which muscles perform demands) is lower. This means that the muscles are prevented from reacting too quickly so there is less chance of them tearing.
Achieving a peak temperature between 38.8°C and 39.4°C makes muscle contraction easier and more efficient. The only effective way for a muscle to reach the optimum warmed up temperature is by exercising it.
Movements for warming up
A thorough warm-up includes general introductory mobility exercises and gentle dynamic stretches, followed by more specific movements.
The intention is to achieve the general warm-up principles (preparing the body for exercise) and to address specific warm-up needs (preparing the particular muscles that will be used in the dance activity). Hence, movement should be continuous and gradually build so that it becomes vigorous enough to increase the heart rate and blood flow and cause perspiration – without participants getting out of breath. Dance-specific movements can then be incorporated to mimic the dancing to come.
Remember that the aim is to increase blood flow by slowly easing into exercising. This primes the muscles for the demands that will be placed on them and helps to reduce post-exercise muscle soreness.
A warm-up may include:
• walking, marching, jogging
• isolated movements of the shoulders, hips, knee and ankle joints (e.g. arm swings, ankle circles)
• dynamic stretches (e.g. leg kicks, lunges)
• exercises to improve posture, balance and focus (e.g. demi-pliés, rises onto the demi-pointe, brief balances)
How is stretching used in a warm-up?
The main purpose of stretching during a warm-up is to gently prepare the muscles and joints for the range of movement required for the upcoming activity. It is not about trying to increase flexibility.
Warm-up stretches are ‘mobilising’ dynamic stretches that move a muscle or joint through its full range of movement in a slow, controlled manner as part of a continuous movement. These stretches should be held for no longer than 15 seconds.
The stretches chosen for a warm-up should ideally be simpler versions of the movement that will be used during the dance activity.
- For the hamstrings, inner thigh muscles and hip flexors – use a controlled grand battement (a thrown extension of the leg) to the front, side and back.
- For the calves, inner thigh muscles and hip flexors – use parallel knee bends, pliés and lunges.
Is the ballet barre a warm-up?
The ballet barre at the beginning of a technique class is not a warm-up.
Dancers should warm up before the barre begins to be ready to dance safely and to their full potential from the very first plié. The progressive nature of the ballet barre will then prepare the warmed up dancer for subsequent class activities.
How long should a warm-up be?
The length and intensity of a warm-up will vary according to the dance genre, the planned activity and the age and fitness level of participants. Generally, the older and fitter a dancer is, the longer the warm-up needs to be.
As body temperature increases during the day, morning warm-ups may need to be longer. The temperature of the dance space will also affect how long a warm-up should be.
A warm-up should:
- consist of gentle movements that do not over-exert or over-stretch the body
- be specific to the activity that is to be undertaken, the participants involved and the space and time available
An effective cool-down physically and mentally prepares an individual to end a session of physical activity. The intention of a cool-down is therefore to gradually reduce the intensity of the movement demands being placed on the body, returning it to a state of rest.
- gradually returns the body to a pedestrian activity level
- stretches out the muscles groups that have been used
- releases excess tension acquired while dancing
- focuses an individual’s attention on reflection and relaxation
Cooling down after dancing will contribute to:
- reduced muscle soreness and stiffness
- maintenance of, and potentially improvements in, flexibility
- improved dispersal and removal of lactic acid (the waste substance that builds up in muscles during strenuous exercise)
- a reduced risk of injury
Cooling down reverses the principles of warming up. It allows the blood in the muscles to be redistributed throughout the body and muscle energy levels to be replenished more efficiently.
The physiological and psychological benefits of cooling down
Cooling down benefits the body by:
- lowering core body temperature for smooth return to resting conditions
- bringing heart rate back to a resting level
- preventing dizziness, fainting and nausea
- reducing risk of muscle soreness, cramping and injury
- speeding up the onset of muscle regeneration and repair after dancing
Cooling down benefits the mind by providing an opportunity to:
- reflect on class activity
- address points of concern and difficulty
- psychologically finish the class before starting another activity
Movements for cooling down
When cooling down the key thing to remember is to gradually reduce the intensity of the movement executed, not suddenly stop exercising. This might mean simply continuing to walk around the studio or moving on the spot.
The main purpose of a cool-down is to encourage the muscles that have been active to return to their resting length. Doing this means dancers can actively work to prevent tightness and soreness.
A cool-down may include:
- light activity such as walking around the dance studio or moving on the spot
- isolated movements of the shoulders, hips, knee and ankle joints (e.g. shoulder rolls, ankle circles)
- stretching out the main muscle groups
- foam rolling to relax muscle tissue
How is stretching used in a cool-down?
Stretching during the cool-down provides the opportunity to maintain or improve flexibility as the muscles will be warm and pliable after exercise. Dancers should spend up to 60 seconds relaxing and breathing into each static stretch.
Muscle groups that most dancers will need to stretch after class are:
- hip flexors
- hip rotators
- lower back
- front-of-shoulder muscles
Practising the splits can count as hamstring and hip flexor stretches; a kneeling cat stretch will stretch out the back and shoulders. Stretches do not have to be complicated, but do need to be executed with care.
When time is limited, concentrate on working on tight muscles before turning attention to the more flexible ones.
How long should a cool-down be?
It is important to incorporate some sort of cool-down into a dancer’s post-class routine, no matter how little time may be available.
A complete cool-down is achievable in 10 minutes. The time required can be reduced by incorporating less stretching.
- Time: 2 to 3 minutes
- Gradually reduce the heart rate to resting level (e.g. by walking)
- Time: 15 to 60 seconds per stretch
- Static stretches should be held for up to 60 seconds each to be of benefit
Relaxation and tension release
- Time: 2 minutes
- Enjoy a momentary pause to centre body and mind
After the cool-down: rehydrate, refuel and wear warm, dry clothing.
This resource is intended as a helpful guide.
It was compiled using the following sources:
Koutedakis, Yiannis and N.C. Craig Sharp (1999) The Fit And Healthy Dancer. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.
Simmel, Liane (2014) Dance Medicine In Practice. Oxon: Routledge.
Welsh, Tom (2009) Conditioning For Dancers. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.