Moving into the chilly and dark time of year here in the northern hemisphere, I like to get cozy and comfy and bring some wonderful warmth from the inside out with yummy dance and movement warm-up exercises.
As I age, it becomes more and more important to properly prepare for dancing and teaching, and it takes a little time and loving care to find ease and range of movement, as well as manage pain and stiffness.
At any age, it is critical to properly warm up before we undertake larger movements and stretches in order to prevent injury. Ever notice how movements are way harder at the start of your workout (such as climbing a hill first thing in the morning) than even a few minutes in? That’s the power of a warm up, making every movement smoother, and the topic of today’s blog and Podcast Episode 072:
Warming Up Defined
The Usborne Book of Ballet and Dance explains the importance of warming up for dancers succinctly: “Dancing makes great demands of your body. Before you start any dance session, you should do some warm-up exercises to help loosen and stretch your muscles and prepare them for more vigorous work. If you do not warm up your body, you may damage a muscle while you are dancing.” (p.52)
Eliza Gaynor Minden’s The Ballet Companion defines warming up in this way: “Warming up is just that; it elevates tissue temperature, which in turn makes the muscles more pliable, coordinated, responsive, and resistant to injury.” (p.108)
In his book Ballet Pedagogy, Rory Foster describes the several purposes of barre work, including to “Warm the body and make it supple–generating heat through increased circulation in the muscles and fascia along with stretching and increasing the range of movement in the joints and spine.” (p.37)
Foster emphasizes the injury-preventing qualities of a proper warm-up: “It is important for dancers to get thoroughly warmed up in order to reduce the chances of injury. It takes approximately 20-30 minutes to completely warm up muscles, so coming to class early in order to begin warming up should be encouraged. Once the muscles are warmed (in the latter part of barre work), it is then safe to do full stretches.” (Ballet Pedagogy p.122)
I agree that although ballet barre work can be a part of a thorough warm-up, that it’s best that dancers begin our warm-up before commencing with barre or other dance or exercise (true for other athletes, too!). My recent YouTube video teaches a lovely pre-barre full-body and foot/ankle warmup inspired by that taught to me by master teacher Duncan Noble at North Carolina School of the Arts:
Anatomy of Warming Up
Part of the reason we feel as if we can move more easily and freely through warming up is due to the qualities of our Fascia tissue, as Foster explains:
“Fascia is connective tissue that covers the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. It has elastic qualities, and part of its structure is made up of a gelatinous substance known as collagen. These firm gelatinous collagen fibers soften and flow when the fascia becomes warm. This enables a greater and more comfortable range of movement. Notice how during the cold winter months the body generally feels stiff and tight before class but much less so during the warmer months. This is due to the warmth or coldness (stiffness) of the fascia. Risk of injury is greater when the muscles and fascia are cold. This is why it is so important for dancers to warm up before a rehearsal if they have not had a previous class and to take time to stretch at the end of their dancing.” (Ballet Pedagogy p.122-3, emphasis mine)
In an article on Dance Magazine online called “You Took Class, Then Took a Break. How Much Do You Really Need to Do to Warm Up Again?” Nancy Wozny adds that, “The definition of ‘warm’ in dance goes beyond heat. According to the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science, it’s not only an increase in body temperature, but also an increase in the flow of synovial fluid (which helps joints move freely), faster breathing and focused concentration. All these changes get us ready to dance.” (emphasis mine)
Therefore I’ll start with a couple of precautions, and then look at the approach of warming bigger to smaller muscle groups, gradually building range of motion to promote the flow of synovial fluid, breathing and circulation, specifically targeting muscles for the type of movement we will be performing, and focusing our concentration.
Warm Before Intense Stretching
“Only when you feel warm is it appropriate to begin stretching. Once warm, be guided by the idea of ‘gently dynamic.’ Small, controlled movements are safer than either big, ballistic movement or no movement at all. […] Before class is not the time to test your full range of motion; a low, slow, mini battement cloche before class is okay, but whacking your leg up to a full extension might pull a muscle.” This is the warning about warming up before you deeply stretch that Eliza Gaynor Minden provides in The Ballet Companion. (p.109)
Rory Foster provides a similar caution about stretching in Ballet Pedagogy: “Overly zealous stretching, as well as stretching when the muscles and fascia are still cold, can cause slight tears in the fascia. These microscopic tears can usually heal quickly, though the feeling of soreness can be acute. Intense over-stretching should be avoided, as it can severely tear soft tissue and cause serious injury, which will require a longer recovery time.” (p.122-3)
Warning for Movement Teachers
It is true that student, recreational, and professional dancers risk injury by not properly warming up, but it is also important to remember to care for our bodies as educators! As Foster admonishes in Ballet Pedagogy, “Demonstrating over many years can be very hard, even destructive, on a teacher’s body, especially if one is muscularly cold before beginning. Unfortunately, the ill effects of this do not manifest until years later. Therefore, take the time to warm up before teaching and don’t demonstrate every exercise full-out.” (p.104-5)
I know several teachers personally who have hurt themselves in this way, while teaching movements that normally aught not be injurious, but without being fully warmed up can lead to injury. Sometimes said injuries can be serious and lasting, so it is vital that we always warm up before teaching, and remain warm, particularly if we are going to demonstrate movements in class.
Start Big, then Get Specific
In the Dance Magazine article on re-warming-up, Carina Nasrallah, a Houston Methodist athletic trainer for Houston Ballet, goes on to recommend that you get to know your own needs, start with large muscle groups, be specific to the types of movements or choreography that you’ll need to prepare for, and if you’ve already warmed up once for the day, you will still need to keep warm or re-warm-up before engaging in intensive activity.
To engage large muscle groups, light cardiovascular exercise works well, such as prances, jogging in place, skipping rope, jumping jacks, or other full-body exercise that works best for you. You can then do gentle circles of specific body parts, as appropriate, such as isolations the head, shoulders, hips, ankles, and wrists (not the knees, which are a hinge joint). Shall I film a video of the types of joint-specific isolations we perform as a warm-up for jazz, hip hop, and some contemporary dance. I also like to do a warming full-body yoga sequence, full-body core work such as planks, which are extremely warming, or reclining exercises such as leg kicks and swings.
What does it mean to be specific in our warm-up? According to Wozny, we should “Mirror the type of choreography you’ll be dancing. ‘A contemporary piece with parallel lunges and deep pliés would be served by doing stationary squats or walking lunges, while a petite allégro variation would benefit from an abbreviated barre with small hops and quick relevés to elevate your heart rate,’ says Nasrallah. ‘If the work includes partnering, don’t neglect the upper body or core: Jogging with arm circles, push-ups, tricep dips and walking caterpillar planks would be great exercises to include.’”
Here are links to video examples of the types of exercises Nasrallah describes that we can use as appropriate to the choreography or movement will will need to perform: Scrumptious Squats, Luscious Lunges, Push it Up!, Tasty Tricep Dips, and Sensational Caterpillar Walks. What follows are further ideas for warm-ups for ballet, dance, and just for the joy of the movements themselves.
Eliza Gaynor Minden recommends a couple specific warm up activities for dancers in the book The Ballet Companion: “Prances are an ideal way to warm up. Keep your knees soft and articulate your feet, pointing them not just at the ankle, but also through the toes and metatarsals. Light prances forward, backward, and even around the room increase tissue temperature–it’s like lubricating the joints. Two or three minutes should suffice.
Rises at the barre, in parallel position and ideally with a tennis ball between and just below your ankles, help you find your placement for the rest of class so that you are properly aligned even before the first plié. Think of distributing the weight equally on both feet over all ten toes, and allow the body to move forward as a unit with each rise.” (p.108) I have included links to examples of such prancing and rising exercises above and below this block of text.
I also have a range of dynamic and ever-expanding playlists with many videos on dance and ballet-specific warm-ups, an adaptive mini full-body workout, foot and ankle exercises, ballet barre exercises, yoga flows, and breathing exercises:
The Wonderful Warmers YouTube Playlist contains videos on exercises that are floor-based, such as Planking Pleasures (planks being an awesome core and full-body warmer developing strength, stability, and alignment), Buoyant Bridges, Sweet Leg Swings, an example of how I weave such exercises together in my own practice as a 6-Minute Good Morning Dance Warmup; warm-ups at the barre including the Pre Barre Warm Up to Whet the Appetite and Plush Paralleleves; freestanding warm up exercises like Amazing Undercurves and warming yoga sequences Heart-Warming Love Yoga.
A brisk warm-up of classic large-muscle group exercises or calisthenics can also be great. For that, check out my Micro-Workout Playlist for Jelly Jumping Jacks, “Push it Up!” Push-Ups, Tasty Tricep Dips, Luscious Lunges, and Scrumptious Squats which were inspired by Ben Greenfield’s 10-Minute Workout, which I wrote about in my Move Your Body: Minimalist Fitness for Maximal Well-Being blog.
It’s important to work specifically on our foundation, so we are well-served by including foot and lower-leg exercises in our warm up, such as those on the Foot & Ankle Conditioning Playlist, as well as core exercises that help connect and coordinate all body parts as well as warm up our circulation. You can find a collection of Concentrated Core Conditioning exercises on my YouTube Playlist by that name. Of course, those of us who have a sequence of physical therapy exercises that we must perform regularly can make them a part of our warm-up session, too.
I find that yoga is excellent as a full-body warm up and stretch and also a way to focus concentration. I provide a range of flows from 5 minutes to an hour in length on my Yogalicious playlist and I also wrote a blog on the topic of Yoga for Energy and Enthusiasm. Yoga, along with meditation, is a part of my daily morning ritual and gets me ready for anything I might face, physically and mentally.
To focus on the action of your breathing and get centered, my Beautiful Breathing – Yoga Pranayama playlist includes a variety of techniques. Then once you’re ready to start dancing while continuing to warm up for bigger steps and choreography, follow along with the Ballet Barre Playlist.
Then, once you are fully warm as well as after your class/performance/main event as a cool-down you can do some deep stretching to help relax your muscles and improve your range of motion. To do so, take advantage of my Sumptuous Stretching Playlist.
Questions for Reflection
- What’s your favorite way to warm up your body and get going for dance and other activities?
- For what sort of choreography or athletic pursuit are you preparing your body?
- What are your current dancing/fitness/athletic goals?
- What movements or practices just plain make you feel good?
I hope you luxuriate in all of these wonderful warm-ups that are appropriate for you! Please tell me about your experience and personal challenges (as well as videos and content you’d like to see in the future) by email or on social media @ablythecoach.
Blythe Stephens, MFA
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A Blythe Coach: ablythecoach.com
move through life with balance, grace, & power
DISCLAIMER: A Blythe Coach recommends that you consult your physician regarding the applicability of any recommendations and follow all safety instructions before beginning any exercise program. When participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in this exercise or exercise program, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself.