A Note from Laura: Sydney is a lifelong dancer who holds a Masters degree in dance and has substantial experience in both solo and partnered styles. She is currently travelling around the world to better understand the history, culture, and technique of Brazilian Zouk. Given her extensive classical training, she seemed like a great person to author a piece on the importance of a full warm-up and cool-down in the context of partnered dancing – an aspect many social dancers neglect. We hope you enjoy her debut piece on TDG. 

Injuries: One Potential Culprit

Social dancers often don’t think about dance injuries until they happen. But, once they’ve happened, they impact our ability to engage in all parts of our favourite hobby – and in some cases, injuries can also affect a professional’s ability to earn money from dance.

Often, we focus on injuries that result from bad technique. However, it is completely possible for any dancers to experience injuries during social dancing. Even strong technical dancers. Even dancers who have had lots of great quality instruction. Even professionals.  So, if having strong technique and good instruction isn’t always enough to prevent injury, what exactly is going on?

One potential culprit is the lack of appropriate warm-ups used by social dancers.

The Warm-Up

One critical difference between most social dancers and professional solo dancers is the importance of a real warm-up.  A ballet dancer would never perform without one. In fact, most professional ballet dancers arrive up to an hour early for their morning classes for the sole purpose of warming up. Further, those classes function as the warm-up for their rehearsals. If, for some reason, a professional ballet dancer can’t make it to class, they will still arrive early for rehearsal to warm up on their own.

What a Warm-Up Does

A proper warm-up primes your body to be able to use its full range of motion safely. This is why most professional ballet dancers save stretching for the middle or end of class – after their warm up. They know that their full range of motion is only accessible to them after their muscles are warmed up. Conversely, many social dancers (and lay people on general) confuse stretching as the warm-up.

In addition, many social dancers will walk into a party, often coming from a sedentary day job, and start dancing immediately. Because their body is not warmed up, they put stress not only on their muscles, but also their tendons, ligaments, and bones.

To understand what is happening, think of silly putty: if you pull it apart quickly when it’s cold, it breaks. But if you warm the putty up first, it stretches into long, gooey strings.

Our muscles are similar.  They are encased in collagen fibres that don’t stretch when they’re cold, but melt to a sol-gel state when we are warmed up. This allows the muscles to move and change shape. However, if we ask the muscles to stretch when they can’t, the strain goes into the tendons (which only stretch a little), ligaments (which, when stretched, won’t go back to their original length), and bones.  This can lead to injury.

Ok, I got it. But, how do you warm up and cool down?

If you’re not sure where to start with your warm up, here are two videos you can do to get started:

1) Here’s a warm up you can do at the beginning of classes (or before classes).

2) Here’s a warm up you can do with a little less space on the side of a dance floor.

To cool down after a long night of dancing, take 5 minutes to do some gentle stretching, roll out with a foam roller or lacrosse ball, take a warm shower, and drink water. Your body will thank you in the morning.

What Community Builders and Teachers Can Do

If you are a community builder

If you are a community builder, preventing injury is an important part of building a healthy, growing scene. After all, injured dancers will generally leave. Therefore, even if you have not yet had an issue with injury, it is in your best interest to ensure that your community understands the importance of warm-ups and other modes of injury prevention.

What does this mean? It means we should encourage people to warm up and have warm up dances. I always warm up on the side of the dance floor before dancing at parties, and generally will lead a few dances to prime my body for more movement. If I am following, I will specifically ask for a gentle, warm-up dance, and also sometimes ask them not to lead head movement while I’m warming up.

If you are a teacher

If you are a teacher, you have the power to teach your students the value of a proper warm-up.

The current standard class model is 60 minutes long, includes a brief warm up, and involves a lot of standing and repeated movements. This type of repetition may fatigue newly-discovered muscles, which increases the risk of injury.

Many social dance teachers spend the first song of a class leading a brief warm-up. However, in my opinion as a solo dancer, this is not enough. After all, there is a reason most ballet classes are 90 minutes long – not 60.

A warm-up should last more than one 3.5 minute song, and should not include static neck stretches or lunges. If you watch me during class warm-ups, you will see me modify these types of exercises (which usually includes a lot of wiggling to start melting those collagen fibres).

Teaching your students an appropriate warm-up strategy can help prepare them for more intense training, and for the congress experience.

The Congress Effect: Compounding Problems

Picture this: you are super excited to go to your next congress. From work, you go straight to the airport, and then straight off the plane to the Friday evening party. You dance all night, interspersed with socializing. Then, you crash for a couple hours, shower, and grab a coffee.  Sore and likely dehydrated, you hobble into the first workshop of the day: head movement.

The class goes something like this: a 5-minute warm-up, followed by alternating between standing and repeating the movement you are learning. Then, you run to the next class, and repeat this 5 or 6 more times. Maybe you take a lunch break in the middle, treating yourself to another coffee. After workshops, you have dinner with friends, take a nap, and head to the next party. There, you dive onto the dance floor without – you guessed it – warming up.

This approach can lead to both mild and severe injuries that can take you off the floor for hours, weeks, or (in some cases) permanently.

But I already warm up!

The lack of warm-up (and cool-down) is not the only problem in the above congress approach. Even with appropriate warm-ups, a lack of sleep, dehydration, new material from workshops, muscle fatigue, and poor eating habits can add to the risk of injury. If you can, attempt to find time to sleep, pack healthy foods, drink lots of water, and speak up if a partner is doing something that hurts.

Further, there are some other factors that can increase your risk of injury. These include sticky floors and inappropriate footwear, which can lead to knee pain or even meniscal tears.Further, there are some other factors that can increase your risk of injury.

On Competitions

If you compete in Jack and Jill competitions, be aware that the excitement, nerves, and adrenaline can affect your judgment regarding what your body is capable of. On top of that, you might never have danced with your partner before, and may not have had appropriate time to warm up. Or, maybe you’re excited to show off your flashiest moves.

This can tempt you to try something you haven’t done in a while. Say, the splits. Or, sometimes, it can inspire you to push through something you’d otherwise decline to do at a social. Take care to make sure that you don’t push your body past what it’s ready for.

Help! I’m Injured!

It’s every dancer’s nightmare: you’re social dancing, things are going great, and you decide to go for that move – even though you weren’t warmed up enough. After all, you were dancing with a pro, and you really wanted to impress them. Unfortunately, in the middle of the move… you felt something go wrong. But, it doesn’t bother you enough to stop dancing. Besides, you don’t (think you) need to go to a doctor.

This is exactly what most injured dancers say. There are scientific studies showing dancers don’t want to be injured and have a high tolerance for pain, which means they hate going to doctors.

It doesn’t help that when dancers do go to a doctor, most tell us to rest. For professional dancers, this is sometimes not an option at all. For many social dancers, it’s not a direction we’re willing to follow.

This is why professional dancers go to sports medicine or dance specialists for help. They have the training and experience to diagnose your injury, create a treatment plan that fits your needs, and teach you how to prevent future injuries.

If you are in New York City, I recommend the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. Even if you’re not in New York City, call them – they may be able to recommend a specialist in your area.

How do I prevent future injuries and compliment my warm-ups?

Here are some tips to keep your body in dance-shape, and prevent future injuries. Keep in mind that these are my personal tips, but that if you are dealing with a specific injury, you should seek guidance from a medical professional.

1) Cross train:

Your teachers do it. If you want to look like them, you need to do what they do. If you don’t go to the gym, take other classes. For example, ballet, contemporary, or yoga are a great start. Remember to be realistic about your personal capabilities when you make a plan.

2) Use a simple workout app to keep your body in dance shape

Here’s a free app that tells you what to do. I do the ab workout a few times a week, and it has transformed my dancing. I also do it to warm up before workshops, and when I just need to move after long trips. It’s nice cause once you press go, you just follow the instructions.

3) Pay attention to your body and how it feels

Does your body feel different from yesterday? Last week? An hour ago? The more you listen, the less you will hurt and the longer you will dance. If I need to rest so I can dance longer and with less pain, I absolutely will.

In Conclusion

Many of my conclusions and approaches are based on things I have learned by dancing and being injured over two decades. Even recently, I noticed a huge change when I stopped taking regular ballet classes. In only a few months, I lost some of my range and abilities.

Caring for a dance body is an ongoing commitment, whether you are simply enjoying social dancing or looking to go pro. Learn as much as you can about how to warm up, stretch, recover, and train your body so that you can do the things you want to on the dance floor. This will give you the ability to dance safely and comfortably for many years to come.

Author: Sydney Charisse
Editor: Laura Riva