Every time I walk into dance facilities, I see the same thing, and as a physical therapist, it makes me cringe. I see dance students waiting for their classes to start by surrounding their respective studios in splits or some variation of a split. Yes, flexibility in dance is so very important, but this bad practice is not going to prevent injury or cause your dancing to be any better in the upcoming class that you are waiting for. A warm up is called just that because it is something that gets your muscles warm. It gets your blood flowing.
Sitting in a series of long duration static stretches, as dancers tend to do, is not going to get you prepared for the tasks ahead in class. If anything, it may make it harder to recruit the muscles needed to perform the hard tasks. So the little children running around while their parents try to quiet their laughs and wrangle them into one spot are probably the ones that have it right. Their body temperature is rising, their muscles are getting warm, and their core abdominal muscles are being prepped as they maneuver away from their parents grasps with deep abdominal contractions with every giggle and laugh.
A good warm up routine for a dance should include getting your primary muscles working or engaged. You have to think about the style of dance that you are doing to determine how to warm up efficiently.
A good place to always start no matter which style of dance you do is in the core. When I prepare for a ballet, hip hop, jazz or tango lesson, I start with pelvic exercises. One of my favorites is the pelvic clock. This can be done in literally any position, but for beginners, the easiest is lying down on your back with your knees bent. In this exercise, I roll my pelvis and hips around in a clockwise and counter clockwise motion. This starts to wake up my lower abdominals, obliques, glutes and spinal muscles. I also like working on deep breathing with an emphasis on contracting my lower abdominals with exhalation.
Next I like to do an exercise that PhysioDC likes to call pelvic control. This exercise gets me aware of how my spine and pelvis are moving, because the goal of this activity is to use my abdominals so that I move one spinal segment at a time.
For a ballet class, the next muscle group I move to is the gluteal muscles. I like to do about 20 bridges. For the bridge I lie on my back with my knees bent and push my hips up by pressing down through my heels. The gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and abdominals are so active in this exercise that it helps basic posture for dance. The glutes are so important for power with jumping and balancing, which is often done in ballet, so after doing some bridges I am well prepared.
The next muscle I work is the gluteus medius. This muscle helps to rotate the leg in an outward direction to help with achieving and maintaining the turned out position of a ballet dancer’s legs. To work this muscle I do a sidelying clamshell exercise.
This exercise requires me to lie on my side with either both knees (level 1) or just the top knee (level 2 clamshell) bent. I keep my hips stacked on top of one another, not letting myself roll backwards into lying on my back, and I then rotate my top leg so that if my legs were a clamshell, the shell would be opening. I tend to do about 30-45 on each side, broken up into sets.
Lastly for any dance class, you’ve got to warm up your feet and ankles. I use a resistance band and do inversion and eversion exercises to work the lateral parts of my ankle and lower leg.
Inversion (above video) is moving the ankle so that the toes point inward, while eversion (below video) is moving the ankle so that the toes point outward. This helps with balance and stability.
You can also use the band to point the toes downward, which is known as plantar flexion or you can just stand and do some heel raises, by pushing up onto your tippy toes.
There are many other activities that can be done, but these are just a few examples. Hopefully all the dancers reading this will change their warming up style so as to help them prevent injury and become more efficient in classes.
If you are having trouble in any style of dance due to injury, please contact your friendly therapists over at PhysioDC so that we can evaluate you and help you get on the mend and back on the dance floor.
Image credit: © Anbrey Bezuglov/Fotolia