Dance class bridges the gap between your creative instincts and your desire to sculpt a sexy body and stay in tip-top shape. A typical session combines the best elements of athleticism and artistry. Like any sport, dance requires a proper warm-up to prevent injuries. Researchers in dance education have discovered that certain warm-up methods provide better protection than others.
To Stretch or Not to Stretch
Step into the Wayback Machine and travel back to the late 1960s. As you walk into dance class, you see students sitting spread-eagle, their chests on the floor as they try to stretch their inner thighs. "Stop right there!" cries a voice from the 21st century. Despite tradition, stretching is not a warm-up, Julliard School physical therapist told "Dance Magazine." A proper warm-up uses dynamic movements to elevate your heart rate and literally deliver heat to your muscles.
Raise your body temperature by walking briskly around the room, or performing little hopping or prancing movements. The straight-legged march involves walking around the room, kicking your straight leg out in front of you, and reaching your opposite hand to the lifted foot. The hand walk provides dynamic flexibility to your hamstrings and shoulders. Stand upright, then bend at the waist until your hands touch the floor. Walk your hands forward until your body assumes a plank position, then walk your feet in to meet your hands.
The ability to turn-out, or externally rotate at your hip joint, makes or breaks a dancer. During the dark days of dance education, ballet masters took a "spare the baton and spoil the dancer" approach. Dancers who did not demonstrate proper turn-out during the plie were baton-whipped on their knees. The teachers might have been superstars of the stage, but their knowledge of anatomy was severely lacking. Turn-out comes from the hip, not the knee. The spiderwoman crawl helps external hip rotation and serves as an effective dance warm-up. Assume a plank position, then step forward with one leg, bending your knee. Place the foot outside of your elbow. Repeat with the opposite leg.
Tradition vs. Research
Dance teaching is steeped in tradition, says Virginia Wilmerding of the University of New Mexico. Retired dancers often carry out this tradition when they begin teaching. They use centuries-old instruction methods, while ignoring the depth of biomechanical research that has been conducted since the 1960s. Wilmerding believes that this Luddite approach to dance training hurts the student. The dance warm-up, in particular, is the subject of controversy.
Challenging the Barre
In an article featured in "Performance Science," Virginia Wilmerding shows amazing chutzpah by attacking the practically sacred ballet barre warm-up. The barre supposedly provides balance during some of the movements. In theory, these movements should have a direct transfer of training to movements on the floor. Sounds good in theory but often epically fails in practice. While warming up at the barre, your lower leg muscles, responsible for balance, remain inactive. Since the barre does not impose a balance challenge, you don't learn to stabilize without it. Unless you're a natural dance diva, you probably need additional balance training. The Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing suggests practicing one-legged balance exercises to warm-up for dance class.
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