Pre-Performance Prep

October 31, 2007

Warming up and cooling down are part of a dancer’s daily schedule. You stretch before class and massage your back or rub tender muscles. Then you stretch again. What about during show time?


The excitement of rehearsing, doing your hair and makeup, getting into your costume and finally performing can sometimes cause so much of a rush that dancers don’t always do right by their bodies. And after your breathtaking performance, do you change quickly and head out to meet friends, or do you take care of your body? (See more on cooling down on pages 72-73.)


Warm-up exercises prepare the body for larger, more taxing movements and decrease tension in the muscles so you can move without stress and strain. Your goal is to limber up and gradually increase your body temperature to optimal working level—and to avoid injuries. Dance Magazine spoke to five dancers about what works for them.


Holley Farmer, a Bessie-award winning dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, approaches her warm-up methodically. “Being calm and being able to concentrate is essential.” She starts on the floor with ab work, Pilates-based back exercises, and external rotator cuff and abductor exercises. “I need to feel centered and balanced. A lot of us use Merce’s center warm-up to prepare. I’ll do leg circles on the floor and in the air. You have to have your spine fully articulated as well as your legs to perform Merce’s choreography. I’ll also do small jumps and go across the floor to get used to the stage surface.”


Farmer compares the unwarmed body to a beast that must be tamed. “If you pounce the wrong way, you end up with a cold, lifeless thing. The right way gives you warmth, blood, and the heightened senses needed for the experience ahead.” Talking about beasts and blood, she goes on to ask, “Do you know that bullfighters go into the chapel before they enter the ring? They pray to God they won’t die. Dancers have it easy!”


For Elizabeth Auclair, a principal dancer in the Martha Graham Dance Company, warming up is a time to transition from the outer world to the inner world, get deeply connected to her body, and align the mind with what will happen onstage. “If my back is very tight I will begin with a series of slow, deep roll-downs from a seated position, progress to abdominal work, then roll back so my legs go over and behind my head.”


Auclair also does Graham floor work, which includes deep contractions, releases, and spirals. This, she says, “opens and warms up the muscles of the back and utilizes deep abdominal work. It also integrates the legs with the torso.” Next, she does a series of yoga poses to open the hips and the back further. These might include Downward Facing Dog, Pigeon Pose, Seated Spinal Twist, or Ankle-to-Knee Pose. “If things seem to be going well,” she says, “I will move on to a pretty standard ballet barre, involving forward bends and arches.” She warns that if you have a tight back, stretching back into cambré too quickly can make it feel tighter, or even throw the muscles into spasm.


Auclair’s guiding principle is to warm up from the center outward, addressing the torso area and then progressing to the extremities. “It makes you use your center as your power base so that you move from the core.”


Jenny Mendez, who dances with Pilobolus, incorporates Pilates, yoga, and Gyrokenesis into her warm-up. “I do my tendues and degagés, but I really just listen to my body and see what it needs,” she says. “Sometimes, I merely stretch, other times I go so full-out that I feel I’ve just run a marathon! I also love to listen to my iPod and jam out.”


She gears her warm-up to the repertory of the evening. “If I’m doing the Pilobolus signature piece Day Two, I warm up my feet and ankles really well, as it entails a lot of jumping. In Megawatt, I take extra time to warm up my neck. For Symbiosis, I warm up my back and do deep squatting exercises.” Since Pilobolus is all about supporting each other, they have a special group warm-up. “We have what we’ve termed ‘circuit training,’ where we’ll wrestle each other, hold handstand contests, do the infamous ‘level seven spins,’ and four-legged races—after all, we’re Pilobolus!”


Jennifer Tinsley, a soloist in New York City Ballet, is a self-described workhorse. She says that for dancing the Balanchine rep, you need to be ready to change direction fast, leap effortlessly, and turn on a dime. Skipping warm-ups, she says, might be something you can get away with when you’re younger, but you will pay physically eventually. “When you’re young and in the corps, you take class in the morning, rehearse all day, and before you know it, it’s time to get ready for your show and do your hair and makeup. But I always make the time to warm up. I put on my sweats, wrap myself in a shawl and do a basic barre.” She makes sure to warm up her toes before putting on pointe shoes.


How does she get in the mood? “I love to listen to the orchestra,” says Tinsley. “I know some people like to ‘get in the zone.’ But for me, listening to whatever music is going on in the theater is relaxing.”


Sara Webb, a principal dancer with Houston Ballet, knows what can happen if you don’t prep properly. She incurred a serious back injury when she was only 20. “It was a difficult injury to overcome,” she says. “But by learning how to warm up properly and train my muscles to stop compensating, it became possible for me to keep dancing.”


Because of that injury, Webb always pays special attention to her back. She starts by stretching on the floor for 20 minutes, taking care not to overstretch. “When my hamstrings are tight, it indicates to me that my back is taking a lot of stress and I need to keep it loose and relaxed.” Then she does a series of ab exercises to strengthen her core and to “make my body and mind aware of the muscles I should be engaging—kind of like tightening the screws on a machine before turning it on to ensure it will run better.” Then, she says, “I do a nice and easy barre that works every muscle we use in ballet. If I continue to remind my body what dancing is, then there won’t be any surprises onstage.”

Lana Russo, a former dancer, is the senior editor at
Advanced Research Press, publishers of Muscular Development and FitnessRx for Women.