Dancers have been called the “athletes of the theatre” but in reality they differ greatly from athletes. Dancers are not as concerned with the outcome as athletes are. They do not train to compete, to be the fastest, the strongest, or the one with most endurance.
It is the quality of the movement that matters most. Dancers develop their muscles groups to the fullest without allowing the development to show. Ballet in particular does not bulk up the body, but rather defines it. That’s why ballet training is regarded as body sculpting as opposed to bodybuilding.
The primary reason for any warm-up is to prepare the body for more strenuous exercise, so this series of isolation exercises should be performed slowly and without force. However, if you have any doubt about an exercise, please do not do it. You should be the judge to its suitability for your body and level of fitness.
In this warm-up, we start from the top and work down.
Starting at the top, let us relieve some of the built-up tension in our necks and explore the range of movements of the head.
HEAD TILTS whilst maintaining the normal upward stretch of the neck lower the ear towards the shoulder and then return it to the upright position. Perform 8 each side and then 16 alternating sides
HEAD TURNS are the same action as saying a very definite “no!” Turn to the right, bring front, turn to the left bring front –8 times slowly and then 16 times double speed.
HEAD DROPS allow the head to drop forward so that the chin rests on the chest before coming upright and then stretching backwards. Perform 8 complete forward and back movements slowly feeling the stretch in the neck.
HEAD CIRCLES attempt to cover the full range of movement of the neck both clockwise and anti-clockwise. Four in either direction.
SHOULDER ROLLS bring first one shoulder forward/down/back and up and then the other before doing the exercise with both shoulders. Four for each shoulder and then four times using both, now reverse the direction (back/down/front/up) and repeat the exercise.
PORT DE BRAS now is the time to perform any of the port de bras (carriage of the arms) exercises you have learnt at your dance school. Finish off with a series of lifting and lowering of the arms fully extended to the side making the shape of a swan in flight.
In this section we warm-up the torso with twists and bends.
TORSO TWIST requires the hips to remain perfectly still, so stand with your legs planted firmly and slightly apart. Now swing the right arm forward and the left arm back whilst twisting the entire upper body in the same direction. Now allow the arms to fall down beside your body as the torso faces front and the arms continue their swing in the other direction. The exercise continues alternating with the right side forward and then the left side forward. 16 repetitions please!
CHEST ISOLATIONS are performed standing firmly in place with the arms stretched sideways and our legs slightly apart. The entire upper torso is slightly lifted and moved sideways to either the right or the left. 16 repetitions of this exercise too.
CAMBRÈ is the ballet term for bend and in the next exercise that is what we do. With hands lightly touching the shoulders, we lift the body up and over to each side alternately. This exercise is also performed 16 times.
To finish this section in a fun way and to warm up the waist, bump and grind the hips in a HULA.
Now concentrate on your legs and feet.
PLIE Bend and stretch of the leg. Every step we make begins and ends with a plie.
To perform plies safely it is wise to hold onto something, like the back of a chair. With feet side by side and parallel bend and stretch the knees to a lilting rhythm. 16 times.
Now turn them out by making the heels remain touching and the toes pointing sideways. Repeat the rhythmical bending and stretching for another 16 repetitions.
Open the legs to the side about the width of your foot and once again perform the PLIE exercise firstly in parallel and then with the feet pointing sideways. 16 times in each position.
TENDU is French for stretch and in this exercise we move the fully stretched leg forward until the foot also stretches. Take care to slide the foot forward and back maintaining contact with the floor. The exercise can be performed with the feet parallel but we develop a more shapely leg by turning both legs out so that the heels are together and the toes are facing away from each other. 16 times to the front and then 16 times to the side.
GLISSE means to glide and this exercise is an extension of the previous one except that we allow the leg doing the outward slide to glide off the floor a little. Great care has to be taken to maintain fully stretched supporting and working legs throughout the exercise. 16 repetitions in each direction.
KICKS – not a ballet term, but a lot of fun – let go of whatever you have been holding for support and walk around the room doing a series of step – kicks! As many as you like! Incidentally in ballet this movement is called Grand Battement.
Although by now we should have started to warm the body up, we must re-look at our feet so that we do not injure ourselves. Lets try this simple ankle warmer.
PRANCES. Transfer the weight from one foot to the other with a slight spring, landing with a soft knee and simultaneously fully stretching the foot that is off the floor. Slowly build up to performing 32 repetitions.
GALOPS. Travelling sideways by stepping side and with a slight jump joining the other foot to the first, perform eight going right and eight returning left. Four sets.
SPRINGS. With the feet in “1st” position – heels together and toes pointing sideways – jump up and down in place 16 times then repeat with the feet in “2nd” position – heels one foot length apart with the toes still pointing sideways – a final 16 jumps.
The reason why dancers are both slender and strong is that a dancer always stretches the muscle groups that have just been worked. So finish your warm-up with a series of your favourite stretches.
The important thing to remember is that a dancer’s training yields strength and co-ordination which helps them move gracefully whether on stage or not. But these exercises designed to maintain athleticism, tone, health and carriage are not exotic. Anyone can do them.
Dance is a universal form of expression – a type of communication, whether primitive, improvised or stylised. Babies move in the womb – children dance for joy – and couples waltz into their later years.
The trick is to hold onto your dancing self throughout your entire life.