Monday, 7 January 2013

Revisiting the basics - Warm up and Cool down

Whether you're a teacher, a choreographer or just leading a rehearsal, for your dancers to perform at their best you need to ensure their bodies are adequately prepared. One thing that has been missing from teacher training programmes for years is the provision for this. On the one hand 99% of it is common sense, on the other it can be easy to forget your own practice when you're leading others.

Trinity College and IADMS now offer the Certificate in Safe and Effective Dance Practice, which I think will eventually end up being the standard bearer across all dance forms to say you know enough not to lead your dancers into an unsafe class or rehearsal. If you lead dance in any form it's worth doing (you can do it in most parts of the UK check their website for details). Again most of it is common sense, but it makes you think of the application of this during classes, making it less likely you forget anything obvious.

Anyway, the basics are the same in all forms of exercise - check for injuries, remind people to drink water, warm up properly, cool down properly.

People have a tendency not to think about things that become habit, which far too often extends to warm ups and cool downs. It should go without saying that these are pretty fundamental in any dance class but unfortunately it doesn't.

So on that note...

Warm Up

Everyone knows you need to do it. If you ever doubted that you soon learned the first time you threw yourself straight into a piece of rep and pulled a muscle.  All of us are guilty of skimping on it now and then as it's hardly the most exciting part of class, but it's still important.

The premise of warming up is clear - you need to warm up your body to prepare it to work physically. Warming up raises the body temperature, increases blood-flow preparing the muscles, ligaments and tendons for more strenuous work. When you are fully warmed up, your muscles are better served by your blood moving round your body meaning they can react to neuromuscular signals more quickly. The nervous system works better when the body temperature is raised, and so warm up also improves your agility, coordination and sense of proprioception. The colder the environment you're dancing in is, the harder you'll have to work to warm up correctly.

Static stretching is NOT warming up.

Before class or rehearsal or an audition when you're watching everyone shoulder their legs and sitting in the splits, do yourself a favour, check your ego and leave the static stretching until afterwards. By static stretching you're not preparing your body to do anything, you're just fatiguing the muscle while it's cold, so you will be no warmer but already weaker when you come to dance.

A proper warm up should include both a cardio warm-up and dynamic stretching - lunges, leg swings, whatever. Make sure that dynamic stretching is incorporating all the muscles groups you're going to be working. If you insist on static stretching, at least wait until you've warmed up with some form of cardiovasular work and have performed dynamic stretches first, or until after the barre section in a ballet class, however you really, really should be leaving it until after you've finished dancing.

Dynamic stretching should replace static until the end of class or rehearsal
Duration of warm up is a tricky one, if you only have to warm yourself up then you know when you're done, you can feel it. It you're taking a rehearsal of 20 dancers though what works for one might not work for the others. I remember being told Linford Christie used to warm up for hours before a race. Hours. To prepare for 10 seconds work. That worked for him, it's unlikely to work for most people, you're just going to knacker yourself. Ask your dancers if they're warm enough, if they're not, extend the warm up. There's no point having someone that isn't prepared when an extra couple of minutes would make all the difference.

10 minutes can be enough, especially for a single dance class or if people are coming straight in from a previous class or rehearsal. Equally, depending on the schedule for the day, you may wish to run a 30-60 minute warm up before moving onto anything involving technique. The effort the individual puts in will also affect the rate of warm up, even starting at a sedate pace, the duration of an adequate warm up can be relatively short if the intensity is steadily ramped up. Remember though whatever the duration, the point is to prepare, not fatigue. Exhaustion results in bad technique.

I often think ballet class is one of the easiest classes to get this right in; the barre section should function as a pretty solid warm up, and then as you build from adagio through to petit and then grand allegro you are steadily working up to the most physically demanding section. If you make sure you give each section of the class a reasonable amount of time for the body to adjust, you should be managing to schedule the workload well. In classes or rehearsals that are less obviously structured, you need to do the extra work in ensuring the order of exercise is coherent and sensible for the dancers to perform.

Cool Down

Fear not, you are now allowed to do all the static stretching you like (provided you're not going straight into another class or rehearsal). The cool down is the opposite of the warm up section. A lot of teachers skip it; if your teacher or rehearsal leader skips it use your common sense and do it for yourself. Even if you have to vacate the studio for another class or rehearsal take time in the hallway before you call it a day. You need to get your heart-rate back down to normal, if you've just done grand allegro your heart rate will be through the roof and you'll be considerably out of breath; don't just stop and get changed. In ballet the reverence section, especially if it is a considerable length, will function well as a cool down. Other styles of dance will have a short cool down section in place; if you're instantly out the studio and have no space but the hallway at least walk it off until your breath and heart-rate are approaching normal.
Save static stretching until you're done dancing 
Once you've got your heart-rate and breathing calmed, you need to stretch. Stretching at this point functions mainly to realign the muscle fibres that have torn or been stretched during your period of work. You can use the time as an opportunity to develop flexibility if you like, however the main focus should be on allowing your muscles to recover, so make sure you give each muscle group some attention and don't merely work on an area you're trying to improve. When you're done you shouldn't feel any specific tightness. You're going to maintain flexibility if you allow your muscles to cool down and stretch properly, if you don't, they're liable to become stiff and lose elasticity due to trauma sustained during work and being denied the chance to realign before healing.

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