I think by now, most of us are thoroughly convinced of the benefits of warming up for dance – or at least, we like doing it! When we surveyed 109 belly dancers in New Zealand, we found that 84% of them warm up prior to their dance practice (bravo!).
When I first started out in the world of exercise science, the evidence for warming up was a bit patchy and contentious. Nowadays, there’s a lot more evidence out there that a good warm up can improve your performance, and can decrease your risk of injury.
However, it’s important to know that not all warm ups are created equal!
To be fair, I have not seen too many awful warm ups in my time. The one that stands out was when a dancer started with extreme (and I mean: extreme) backbends and hair tosses within 30 seconds of the warm up song commencing. This was one of the few times I was generally worried about injuries (but to be honest, I was stifling laughter because it was so unbelievable). Aside from that, I do see a few warm ups that don’t really fulfil the goal of getting warm, and could have some potential for injury.
One of the common mistakes I see includes beginning with stretching. Dynamic stretching (moving joints through the range of motion you’ll use in your session, but doing so by actively using muscles) is a common part of a warm up routine, but it’s not usually the first thing we do, and it isn’t a passive, held (or static) stretch.
We don’t generally recommend static stretching before exercise sessions (an exception is made at times for hypertonic muscles), as it’s been found to be linked with an increased injury risk due to decreasing the muscles’ ability to produce power (and therefore meet the demands of our dance). Most of this research is on long, static stretches of 60 seconds or more, which a lot of exercise professionals brush off, saying “no one does this in their warm ups anyway!” However, a specific sub-group sometimes does engage in this practice of long, static stretching: dancers!
So how do we warm up properly?
One common method that is supported by science is the RAMP protocol. This consists of three phases:
- Activate and Mobilise
Let’s take a quick look at how we can use each of these phases to build effective warm ups!
The first aspect of the RAMP protocol relates to raising the heart rate, breathing rate, blood flow, and core body and muscle temperature, but also the level of skill of the dancer or athlete.
Raising a lot of these physiological aspects like heart rate and blood flow is particularly important for some dancers with pre-existing conditions like exercise-induced asthma, but it also helps all of us by increasing muscle temperature and getting our body ready for the challenges our practice or performance will present us.
Raising the level of skill is also not to be ignored. Here, you can think of including key movement and skill capacities for dancers. If you’re teaching a beginners class, it could involve introducing some basic foot patterns as part of this phase. For all levels, it could be including certain movements that use the same muscles you’ll be using in the rest of the class or session.
The general rule for this phase is that movements are bigger and less isolated, they make dancers feel warmer and breathe a bit heavier, and there is no kind of stretching present yet.
Activate and Mobilise
The “Activate and Mobilise” phase of the RAMP warm up protocol involves moving from more general movement in the “Raise” phase, to key movement patterns required for belly dance performance.
This is where things start to become a little more isolated and more closely resemble belly dance technique. This is also the phase where we start to focus on stability and flexibility, and use active range of motion exercises, such as lunges, big hip circles; things that start to move the joints through their required range of motion for the upcoming practice session. This will likely look different for a drills class compared to when preparing for an advanced choreography run-through!
This phase also has benefits for learning, as if you introduce similar movement patterns to those you’ll be using later in the class, it gives students a chance to repeat them and learn them better.
This is where the warm up starts to bleed into the class or practice session itself! The “potentiation” phase is all about increasing the intensity of the warm up until it is truly “sport-specific” (or dance-specific, in our case!). This phase is where you start moving and performing movements at the same intensity as you will for the rest of the class. The more intense you intend your practice session or performance to be, the more important this phase is. So if you’re about to get on stage and do a drum solo, you certainly want to be moving quickly, feeling really warm, and have worked up to fast, strong isolations by the end of your backstage warm up!
Warm ups should be individualised to what is coming in the class or performance ahead. The literature suggests that this full warm up (phases 1-3) should last about 10-20 minutes, which can sound scary when we only teach 50 or 60 minute classes!
However, as mentioned, the third phase (“Potentiate”) really starts to become inseparable from the class itself. I tend to spend around 8 minutes on the first two phases, and then I move in to specific drills that increase in intensity. That way, we’re all warm and ready to go, but we’re also learning and improving during this time!
As long as you make your warm up specific, that 5-10 minutes at the beginning won’t feel like a waste. Consider what dance concepts you can remind students of as you get them warming up so they’re not only prepared physically, but also mentally for the class ahead.
Have fun getting warm!
Want to create the strength, mobility, and metabolic conditioning you need to be the dancer you dream of? Siobhan Camille writes personalised strength and conditioning programs for dancers, and regularly hosts online and in-person dance-specific workshops. Find out more about what Siobhan has to offer here, and sign up for semi-regular newsletter here to get all the knowledge delivered right to your inbox!
In addition to being the founder and director of Greenstone Belly Dance, Siobhan Camille is a Rehabilitative Exercise Specialist and Strength & Conditioning Coach. This blog post was originally written by Siobhan for her Safe Dance Column in the Middle Eastern Dance Association of New Zealand (MEDANZ) December 2020 Newsletter. You can join MEDANZ to access their newsletters and find out more about MEDANZ here. Photo by Veronika Hegedus-Gaspar.
 Milner et al., 2019. A Retrospective Study Investigating Injury Incidence and Factors Associated with Injury Among Belly Dancers.
 Jeffreys, 2007. Warm-up revisited: The ramp method of optimizing warm-ups.
 DeRenne, 2010. Effects of Postactivation Potentiation Warm-up in Male and Female Sport Performances: A Brief Review
 Malliou et al., 2007., Reducing risk of injury due to warm up and cool down in dance aerobic instructors.
 Barengo et al., (2014). The Impact of the FIFA 11+ Training Program on Injury Prevention in Football Players: A Systematic Review.