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Why Warm Up and Cool Down?

Sydney Dance Company. Photo Peter Greig
Sydney Dance Company dancer warming up on tour. Photo by Peter Greig

By Emily Yewell Volin of Dance Informa.

Warm-up, stretch, strengthen, cool down and repeat – these are all necessary components of a dancer’s day. The objective is to maximize the impact of these specialized tasks, control the body’s response to these challenges and achieve longevity.

To do this, it’s essential that dancers and teachers keep current on best practices for body conditioning. Thankfully, there is a lot of research on these topics and a growing population of professionals who study strategies for the warming up, stretching, strengthening and cooling down of dancers. These people marry the science and art of dance in order to educate, train and when necessary, rehabilitate dancers’ bodies.

Dance Informa spoke with four such professionals in the field:

According to Lisa Altamirano, owner of Agile Physical Therapy, “It’s been a common misconception that a dancer’s warm-up is their barre work. It is easier for a dancer to focus and strengthen any weaknesses they may have at barre when they are already warm and ready to go. A five-minute personal warm-up that not only focuses on the dancer’s area of concern, but is a full-body muscular, ligamentous, tendinous and capsular warm up, is key to performing to the best of their ability throughout class.”

And, a warm-up is called that for a reason. Leigh Heflin, MA, MSc, Program Coordinator at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries of the NYU Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases says, ‘The purpose of a warm up is just that, to warm your body up in an effort to increase blood flow and core temperature (accompanied by light perspiration), without undue fatigue.”

“A warm up should include light exercises that mimic the genre or style of movement in which you are about to participate, dynamic stretches and core strengthening. Dynamic stretching actively engages the muscles while moving in and out of stretched and contracted positions (i.e., lunges, sun salutations, bottoms-up). A combination of both full body movements and dynamic stretching will allow muscles to be warm and supple for the functional demands of dance.”

Leigh Heflin with dancer Alexandra Pinel. Photo Pamela Leary

Leigh Heflin works with dancer Alexandra Pinel. Photo by Pamela Leary.

Laura Hillenius, Sydney Dance Company Physiotherapist, adds, ‘”Warm up should be about getting the body physically warm for class or rehearsal – the cardio-vascular or ‘active’ part of a dancers’ warm up is the component most commonly missed by dancers.”

Stretching and strengthening are inextricably linked throughout a dancer’s day.  Hillenius makes this distinction clear as she states, “Strengthening is always the priority for a dancer. There is no use in having lots of range of movement if you don’t have the strength to utilize it in the studio or on stage.”

Heflin agrees, sharing, “The science of stretching is always evolving; however, the current finding in studies on stretching promotes the use of dynamic stretching during warm-up, prior to activity, and static (held) stretches during cool-down, post activity. The reasoning for this is that static stretches have been found to decrease the contractile properties in muscle, due to the extended tension. Hence, the muscles will not be able to produce full force to jump, sprint and engage fully for movements found in petite and grand allegro.”

“Additionally, we know that overstretching a muscle, by staying in a static stretch for a prolonged period of time can make the surrounding joints unstable. Therefore, strengthening also needs to be incorporated to obtain the functional flexibility requirements in dance.”

Regarding strength, Mme Peff Modelski, American trained professional ballet dancer for four decades, master teacher and Feldenkrais practitioner in Chicago adds, “Strength comes from careful, thoughtful repetition that includes monitoring breathing. Stamina for jumping, for long ballets or aerobic competitive sequences is built by starting much more slowly than the final speed and working up to it, in order to find out when the breath is needed.” Overall, stretching and strengthening shouldn’t be separated. The presence of one without the other creates serious deficits in a dancer’s training.

What happens now that class is done?  Altamirano emphasizes, “A cool down is just as important to a dancer as the warm-up. Generally, dancers leave class and enter back into their busy lives, but they’re missing a great opportunity to increase flexibility and prepare their muscles and other connective tissue for the next time they enter the studio.”

“A cool down helps slow the heart rate after exertion and it allows a dancer to reap the most benefits for their warm muscles through giving them one final stretch. These stretches may include Achilles and calf muscle stretches and stretching the tops of the feet, increasing a dancer’s point. Cool downs reduce the tightness that may be found the following day waking up.”

Heflin says, “The typical dance class ends with a grand allegro or the biggest, fastest movement phrase, which increases blood flow to the active muscles. In order to encourage proper circulation post-exercise, discouraging blood pooling and bringing blood back to the heart, you must cool down with light movements (similar to the movements from your warm up, although less invigorating).”

Furthermore, Mme Modelski adds, “When the body has been dancing, the patterns of movement are propelled by adrenaline coursing through the body. For a healthy return to normal for all parts of the body and brain some movement needs to be continued after a performance to bring the speed down, and if the ballets have focused on one type of trick – pirouettes repeatedly on one leg for example – then the body deserves to be re-balanced before resting or sleeping.”

Above all, a dancer must tailor a cool down to his or her personal needs. Hillenius shares, “A dancer’s cool down should be very individual. It may involve some strengthening exercises. For some dancers it may involve an icing regime, hot/cold showering or the wearing of compression garments. It can be a good time for realignment, proprioception training and re-addressing technique corrections from class or rehearsal.”

Deliberate attention to the personal development of healthy routines for warming up, strengthening, stretching and cooling down will empower a dancer to achieve longevity in his or her career. Find ways to create these healthy patterns in your life and enjoy the gift of endurance within the world of dance.

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