Supercharge Your Dance Warm-Up

One of the biggest challenges with running a part-time dance company is making the most of our limited time together.  In the span of two hours, we need to stretch, work on new choreography, prepare for gigs, and discuss any business, ideas, issues or updates. Add to that our desire to continuously improve our technique, and suddenly our agenda is longer than Fabrice Calmels’s legs.

In the interest of gaining time for learning or cleaning choreography, we’ve been guilty of short-changing our warm-up, despite the fact that we are well aware of its importance.   In the fall, the company collectively decided to ditch this practice and instead, supercharge our dance warm-up with carefully curated practices and exercises.  Our intent is to have a hard-focused warm-up so chock-full of benefits that we wouldn’t dream of glossing over it.

Over the past few months, we’ve been taking classes and researching various dance warm-ups and practices while simultaneously testing and tweaking our own approach.  We created a framework outlining the key components to ensure that we are properly warmed and stretched regardless of who is leading rehearsal.  In January, we started using the framework.  And, well, we’re getting warmer.

The table below describes each of the key dance warm-up sections we identified.  When time permits, we expand the technique and specialty skill work.  Although there is nothing revolutionary about our framework, it serves as a blueprint and keeps us grounded during crunch time.

Section Description Ideas Length
Cardio Easy rhythmic movement to get the blood flowing and raise overall body temperature. Jog around the room or in place, mark through a full company piece, simple aerobic style moves like grapevines, step touch, etc., creative movement exercises. 3 – 4 minutes (~ 1 song)
Stretch & Core Slow movements, both flowing and static, to open up and stretch the muscles Torso/spinal movements, hip openers, flex and point feet, laterals, hamstring and calf stretches. Include core work such as planks. 6 – 8 minutes (~2 songs)
Technique Exercises and drills to hone fundamentals Pliés, tendus, dégagés, balances, extensions. 6 – 8 minutes (~2 songs)
Specialty skill Drill to work on a specific skill(s) Turns, battements, jumps, leaps, floorwork, etc. 3 – 4 minutes (~1 song)
Total Time 18 – 24 minutes


Lessons Learned

While we are still evolving and adjusting our warm-up, below are some tips that we’ve gleaned thus far.  We’d love to hear your ideas and suggestions as well!

1. Align the Warm-Up to the Repertory

The primary purpose of a warm-up is to prepare the body for the demands of the upcoming rehearsal; the stretches and exercises selected should be aligned to the requirements of the repertory in production.   This practice may seem intuitive, but it doesn’t necessarily happen without a little forethought, coordination and communication.  For example, if we are working on a piece with a lot of extensions, then more attention should be paid to the hips, hamstrings and adductors.  In addition, a short adagio in the “specialty skills” section is the perfect place to practice the actual flow of extensions.  When we were working on a piece last year with several double turns, we did this exercise regularly to prepare for performances.

2. Put Your Best Foot Forward

Dance puts tremendous strain on the feet, and the ankles are one of the most injured joints among dancers.   As a result, strengthening and stretching our feet and ankles should be part of every warm-up, no matter how strapped for time you may be.  This will help prevent injuries and also allow for greater mobility throughout rehearsal.  Here’s an example of a simple exercise: Lie in a supine position with one knee bent, foot flat on the floor and the other leg extended up.  Then “write” your name with your foot by rotating the ankle and tracing the letters in the air.

3. Start Small to Go Big

While we are often antsy and anxious to get things going in rehearsal with a jolt of energy, most bodies ache for a slow and gradual warm-up.  Stretches should not be forced, but rather eased into.  Begin with easier stretches to allow the body wake-up before launching into deeper ones.

4. Go Beyond Technique

We typically use the warm-up exclusively to warm, strengthen and stretch our muscles and hone technique.  But with some creative thinking, it can also be used to practice other repertory elements. Have troubling transitions or formations?   Start warm-up in a pyramid or grid formation, and then have 8 counts to move to a circle for the next section.  Are the dancers struggling to count or follow a particular piece of music?  Why not use it for warm-up and set your iPod on repeat?

5. Rotate Instructors

In Cambridge Dance Company, we rotate which dancers lead warm-up.  The instructor gains experience teaching or can use the time as a test kitchen for new material.  The dancers enjoy more variety and exposure to new exercises.  We all benefit from an environment where we help and support one another.

6.  No Magic Bullet

Perhaps the greatest lesson learned is that everyday, everybody’s body is unique and different.  What we crave at the start of one rehearsal may be drastically different from the next.  While there is no ‘universal warm-up elixir’, our bodies are intelligent and tell us what they need.  We just need to listen to and respect their wishes.