Wake Up Your Body: Dancers' Favorite Warm Up Moves

July 31, 2007
f you stroll into class moments before the first barre exercise begins, you aren’t doing yourself any favors. Even if you’re as limber as Gumby, you need to warm up. You’ll be less prone to injury, have full range of motion and you’ll be ready to dance freely and fully. And by taking the time to properly prepare, you’re showing your directors, teachers, and choreographers that you care about your body and your career.
Physio-therapists recommend an aerobic start. Sitting on the floor in a big “V” while leaning forward to stretch your inner thighs may feel productive, but you aren’t creating warmth and you aren’t lengthening the muscle. “Warming up is an active, full-body, multi-area process,” says Katy Keller, clinical director of physical therapy at the Juilliard School. “Stretching targets muscles and regions to lengthen muscles that are already warm. If you aren’t warmed up, it isn’t useful.” Light activity like prances, small hops, or brisk walking increases the temperature of your tissues (muscles, ligaments, and tendons) and makes you breathe a little faster. Keep it simple. You don’t need to run a marathon, just do something to increase your pulse and rate of respiration. If your heart and lungs are working a little harder, you’re getting a little warmer.
Now that things are beginning to flow, move on to your joints. “A warm-up will lubricate them,” says Keller. Try bending and straightening your knees and elbows. Do some shoulder rolls and hip, arm, wrist, and ankle circles. You are waking up your mind/body connection and putting in place the patterns and paths your movements will follow for the rest of the day. “Dancers run a risk of falling into certain patterns that might neglect certain regions of the body,” says Keller. So try to cover all of the different planes of motion—up and down (vertical), side to side (lateral), and front and back (sagital).
Since your body is completely different than anyone else’s, what’s great for your best friend may not work for you. “It’s so individual,” says Keller. “There isn’t one perfect warm-up.” Steal from technique classes, physical therapists, experienced teachers, or colleagues.
Dance Magazine
interviewed 10 professional dancers on their favorite warm-up routines. Maybe you’ll recognize some things that you do, maybe you’ll see something new that you want to try. And get to the the studio a little early tomorrow!
Roxane D’Orleans
Artistic Associate, Limón Dance Company
I try to move throughout the day in the healthiest way possible with the least amount of tension. Tight muscles get in the way so I work on doing less and releasing. What I really like to do is to have vibration or movement that oscillates. If I have my arm down, I’ll shake it or just move my little finger towards my thumb, in and out. It gets my blood going. Undulation makes me feel relaxed and ready. It unlocks my body. It’s movement that creates energy and heat, which is good. I love to shake out tension!
Sonia Rodriguez
Principal Dancer, National Ballet of Canada
I like doing Theraband exercises and using the balance board to get my lower legs warmed up. I stand on it and do small rotations with the board making a circle. Without touching the ground, I go all the way around in both directions. It’s an exercise that you can walk in and do without thinking too much about it. So, it’s good for first thing in the morning! It gets all the small tendons, ligaments, and muscles. All the little things you don’t normally use are targeted. Everything gets strengthened and awakened.  
Kenna Draxton
Dancer, Ballet Arizona
Everyone has something to work on. My weakest point is my turnout. I need to make sure my hips are warm and stretched out because if they aren’t loose, they feel strained. My hips are extremely tight. I find myself in the frog position a lot. I sit with my back against a wall and let my knees fall open to the side. I really notice a difference when I don’t do it. I’m not able to achieve my fullest turnout and extension.  Another thing I do all the time is write the ABCs with my feet. I learned it when I had a minor strain. Nothing warms up my ankles like that one.
Michael Trusnovec
Dancer, Paul Taylor Dance Company
I have shoulder problems so I do a lot of stabilization exercises before class. The most important one for me every day is the plank, where I’m in a push-up position and I hold it. I do it with extended arms, sometimes on my forearms, sometimes with twisting, maybe even some small push-ups. If I do that then I know that I’m set up so when we start moving I don’t have to think about it much. I’m ready for the day.
Elizabeth Koeppen-McDole
Associate Artistic Director, Rehearsal Director, Dancer, The Parsons Dance Company
David Parsons’ movement is extremely airborn. We have to get ready to play basketball—it’s really that athletic. There’s so much air time and jumping. I need to focus on warming up the jumping part, including my back, core, and everything that entails. I do about a hundred sit-ups. That gets my blood flowing so I don’t feel lethargic. For me the warmer I get, the better.
Jon Lehrer
Associate Director, Dancer, Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago
I am a huge advocate of the push-up. I tell people that if they are only able to do one thing for the rest of their life, do a push-up. It gives you full body strength because if it’s done correctly, you are engaging pretty much every muscle in your body. It keeps your spine long and it gets very aerobic. I finish up in the plank position and hold it for 30 to 45 seconds to emphasize correct form. It’s killer.
Riolama Lorenzo
Principal, Pennsylvania Ballet
Warming up my feet is the most important thing for me to do every day. I always do Theraband exercises before class. I put the Theraband longways on my entire foot (not just the ball and toes) and flex and point 30 to 40 times. I also do inversion and eversion where I’ll sickle and wing my foot using the band for resistance. If there is a particular part of my body or a particular muscle that is sore, that’s what I will focus on first. But still, I’ll always do my Theraband exercises no matter what—every day.
Lawrence Rabson
Swing/Eddie and Tony (Understudy), Movin’ Out (Broadway Cast)
There have been times that I had to jump into the show with just 10 minutes left. One thing unique to the show is that we have to give our calves special attention. They get really tired. We’re dancing in contemporary running shoes so we can’t articulate our feet as if they were ballet shoes, and we can’t point our feet when we jump. I use a Feldenkrais foam roller to massage my entire leg. If I stretch my legs before I do a fast barre, it’s always gentle and very slow. 
Lorna Feijóo
Principal, Boston Ballet
Pilates is great—it uses your entire body and it works everything. I have a little problem in my back, and I have to give it more attention. But for me it’s important to do Pilates not only when I have a problem but all the time. Because if I focus on warming up one thing and not the other, before I know it the other thing is giving me a problem. All dancers have pains and injuries and how you take care of your body determines how long you will dance. You have to make yourself stronger. Pilates warms you up and strengthens you at the same time.
Renée Robinson
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
I believe in cross training and I like to read about what others do. I’ll pick up a magazine about runners or body builders just to find out about how other athletes take care of their bodies. I’ll see if there are some things I might be able to incorporate. It broadens my thoughts so even if I don’t use their techniques, my mind is open. I even hang out in the physical therapy room and I ask tons of questions. It’s important to remember that you are a part of the process. It’s not just people pouring things into you. You have to take things and make them happen!
Khara Hanlon, a former dancer, is a freelance writer based in New York City.