Dance Warm Ups

Adrea Gibbs
Warmups; © Denis Raev | Dreamstime.com

A good dance warm-up can mean all the difference between cutting a rug and sitting out on the bench. Even something as harmless as hitting the dance floor at a club can result in injury if you don't take a few precautions. When you learn to do warm-ups properly, you will see differences in your dance practice overall.

Why Warm Ups Matter

Warming up properly is very important to dance, or any exercise, because it helps the body become prepared to move faster, make larger movements, jump, bend, and kick readying for what is to come. Simply put, when you warm-up the temperature of your body rises, consequently getting the muscles warmed, the joints lubricated, and the blood flowing more quickly. All of this contributes to the reduction of injury because everything is revved up and good to go. Fitness organizations like the American Council on Exercise promote warm-ups as an essential part of any workout.

Think of it this way. When it is cold, you may feel like everything is tighter, stiffer, and you may even feel a bit slow. In warm weather you probably find it is easier for you to move around, get in and out of the car, and even have more energy throughout the day. That, in a nutshell, is basically how your body is before and after a warm-up.

Certain styles of dance contain warm-ups as part of their session. In general the more complex the dance style and level, the more specificity will be found in the warm-up. Whether you're dancing in a class or at home, try some of these exercises and movements to warm your body up for the real dancing to come.

Basic Ballet Warm Up

Key to ballet is the terminology as all the moves are in French. Once you have an understanding of the vocabulary, the language becomes embedded in the dance.

A classical ballet warm-up at the barre would be as follows, typically with one hand on the barre, sometimes two, and the exercises to be done on both sides.

  • Plié - Bend and straighten the knees through the five ballet positions. Traditionally a combination of demi-plié (half plié where knees bend as far as possible without heels coming off the floor) and grande-plié (full plié with heels lifting off the floor so the body lowers further to the ground, except 2nd position where the feet remain flat on the floor) are performed.
  • Tendu - Beginning in 1st, 3rd, or 5th position, move the working leg away from the standing leg by pressing the foot through the floor as it moves forward and ends in a point, then reverse the movement to the starting position. Do this exercise with four tendu to the front, four to the side, four tendu back, then back to the side. Close, then repeat with the other leg. Posture is everything, so it is important to keep the supporting leg firm, back pulled up, chest lifted, and head up.
  • Degage - This move follows the same pattern as tendu, but as the leg reaches full extension on the point, the force from the foot pushing against the floor lifts the foot slightly up, disengaging from the floor, then returning to the starting point. Follow the same pattern front, back, side, and back as the tendu exercise, keeping your body in a pulled up position.
  • Rond de jambe - Extend the working leg forward in tendu, then keep it extended and trace a half circle, clockwise, to end in a back tendu. Slide like a tendu from back through 1st position to a front tendu, then repeat. It is important that the leg and foot work to stay turned out and extended through the exercise. Rond de jambe can then be done in reverse, starting to the back and moving counterclockwise to a front tendu, back through 1st position and into back tendu, again with the focus being on lengthening the leg and turning out during the entire exercise.
  • Grand battement - Following the technical structure as tendu and degage, grand battement takes the force from the floor and the leg extends to the highest point possible (waist, shoulder, eye-level based on skill and flexibility) without losing postural form. Repeat the front, side, back, side pattern. Close and repeat on the other side.

The wonderful thing about a ballet warm up is that it can be changed by the number of repetitions or the position in which the exercise is performed (front, side or back), but it will always have a very similar order to what is listed here, allowing for the muscles to warm up gradually.

This video gives a good example of a ballet barre warm up, which you can use as inspiration for your own.

Basic Jazz Warm Up

Many jazz warm up exercises are based on the ballet barre routine, but are modified to better benefit jazz movements. Variations of plies, tendus, degages, and grand battements (often simply called kicks in jazz class, but still following the same postural requirements) are likely to be included. Isolations are typically a part of the warm-up for jazz as a lot of choreography will move body parts in unique and sometimes seemingly disparate ways.

Jazz warmup; © Wavebreakmedia Ltd | Dreamstime.com

The key to any isolation is to retain good posture and work on moving only the area indicated by pulling up tall, shoulders pressed down, chest lifted, back extended, glutes tucked under, and knees slightly bent. Hands should be placed on the hip bones with fingers spread wide with arms at 90 degrees and elbows tucked into sides, or straight down at the sides.

Each of these sections typically repeats the movement four times for sixteen counts of music and flows from one section right into the next without stopping.

Head

Head movements can be done standing up, or kneeling on the floor with your hands on your hips.

  • Head begins looking forward then looks to the right, center (meaning looking back forward), left center, and repeats (usually going through the total pattern four times).
  • Without stopping go right into chin to chest, center, chin lifted to ceiling, then center and repeat three times.
  • Head then inclines with right ear dropping toward right shoulder (without lifting the shoulder), center, left incline, center, and repeat three times.
  • Drop chin to chest, incline right, chin toward ceiling, center, incline left, center and repeat three times.
  • Do an easy circle to the right for eight counts (be careful to not drop your head back toward your spine, instead think about pointing the chin at the ceiling) and then to the left.

Shoulders

Pay attention to your back while doing these movements. It should be straight and extended throughout.

  • Lift both shoulders up then down for eight counts.
  • Right shoulder up, left shoulder up, right shoulder down, left shoulder down twice, then reverse leading with left shoulder.
  • Roll both shoulders forward then back four times in eight counts.
  • Roll both shoulders back then front four times in eight counts.
  • Extend both arms directly out to the sides and at the same time roll right shoulder forward as left shoulder rolls back (two counts), then reverse and continue (two counts), repeat.
  • Shimmy shoulders quickly for 8-16 counts. You can add bending forward and backward at the waist to add more movement.

Ribcage

A key to rib isolations is to think about keeping your shoulders level and sliding your entire ribcage off the pelvic bone.

  • Press ribcage forward, bring back to center, then backward (concave) and center and repeat three times.
  • Press ribcage to right, center, left, center, and repeat three times.
  • Press ribcage forward, right, back, left, repeat, then change to forward, left, back, right and repeat.
  • Circle ribcage to the right twice, then to the left twice.

Hips

Make sure your knees are bent for these moves.

  • Hips push forward, center, press back, center and repeat three times.
  • Hips push right, center, left, center and repeat three times.
  • Hips go forward, right, back, left, repeat then go forward, left, back, right and repeat.
  • Circle hips to the right twice, then to the left twice.

Isolations will give you a better understanding of how some of your different body parts can move and may be moved through upcoming combinations and routines.

General Warm Up

If you are using dance as your exercise of choice, here are some simple ways to get yourself warmed up properly before getting down and getting funky. You will get the greatest benefit if you connect all these steps together in a sequence, mixing and matching as you go to make sure you are hitting all of your body parts, getting that temperature raised, muscles warmed and joints lubricated. You'll be a dancing machine!

Zumba dance workout; © Arne9001 | Dreamstime.com

All of these can be easily modified to meet your fitness level.

  • If you have shoulder issues, only reach to a point where you don't feel pain.
  • If you have hip issues, narrow your stance to reduce pressure.
  • If you have knee or back issues, use low impact movement, meaning always keep one foot on the floor at all times.

It is immensely important that you listen to your body, whether during a warm-up, class, or cool-down and be aware of what both works and doesn't work for you.

Walking

Put on some music and start walking to the beat. This will start to get everything moving. If you want to add some larger moves pick up your knees to march, but concentrate on just getting that body moving. Be sure to swing your arms vigorously too. Do this for a couple of minutes.

Wide Marches With Arms

Move on to marching in wide steps (in place) and reaching up from the side with both arms slowly in a count of four and then back down. You are waking up your hips and shoulders, getting them good and toasty. If you want to change things up a bit, try marching wide four times, then narrow four times or create your own variation.

Head Bops and Shoulder Rolls

Reduce your march until you are standing with feet apart, then switch to rocking your hips side to side. Your wide stance will keep you stable but the side to side will keep the blood flowing. Carefully look to your right, then your left, then repeat. You want to do this very slowly so you can retain your balance and equilibrium. Next, keeping your shoulders down, lower your right ear toward your right shoulder to feel a slight stretch on the left side of your neck and repeat with the left ear dropping toward the left shoulder. Finally, make large circles with your shoulder first rolling forward at least four times, then backward four times.

Hula Circles

Bring your legs together and bend your knees. Hold your arms out to the sides and roll your wrists backwards as your circle your hips right four times, then circle your wrists forward and circle your hips left four times.

Front Taps

Continuing to keep knees bent, reach forward with the right leg and tap the toe, then return to feet together. Repeat with left and do at least four times in total. Then switch it up by reaching forward with right foot, but tapping the heel in front then bring it back and repeat with the left foot. Alternate toes and heels and switch it around to create some fun variety, all the while swinging your arms side to side.

Reach and Pull

With feet wide, put your weight on your right leg, reach out to the side with your left leg, left toe tapping the floor, and reach both arms up overhead to the right, spreading your fingers wide (jazz hands). Flatten your left foot changing the weight to the left bringing both arms down, elbows bent at your sides, both hands in fists at shoulders. Bring your feet together and repeat with your right leg.

Step-Together-Step

Step wide to the right, but bring your left foot in to meet the right. Continue stepping to the right with the left foot coming in for a total of four times. On the fourth step, as the left foot comes in, instead of placing weight on the foot just tap then step out to the left to move in the other direction. As you do this move to the rhythm of the music, move your arms so they reach out to the sides when you step, then bring them down to your sides, straight in front of your chest with a clap, or simply clap in front of your chest and repeat as you step.

One-Legged Jacks or Jumping Jacks

Do some traditional Jumping Jacks for about a minute. That will quickly raise your heart rate. If you want to keep to low impact moves, move your arms up and down as if you were doing a full Jumping Jack, but step out wide to the side with one leg (arms up), then push back bringing feet together (arms down) and repeat to the other side.

Socially Responsible Warm Ups

Warming up is essential for all types of dancing. Even when you go out for a social evening or event that may involve dancing, particularly if it will be high energy and fast paced, consider starting with some simpler movements to get yourself up to speed. Using fun, well-known dance moves like the sprinkler, the hustle or, if you are at a wedding, perhaps the Chicken Dance, is a great way to ease yourself into the action before breaking out your worms and windmills.

Dance Warm Ups