by: Kathi Hennesey
In the last issue of this newsletter, I reviewed the importance of hydration. Another critical area for getting the most out of your Irish dance class is a proper warm up and cool down. Like hydration, this is a “before-and-after” package. In this issue, I'll focus on pre-class warm ups.
First of all, warm ups and cool downs have very different goals, so they're structured differently. The purpose of the warm up is to prepare the body for Irish dance movement patterns. We want to gradually get our heart rate up, increase our blood flow to the muscles, and activate our nervous system. As Irish dancer and coach, Lauren Early points out in Reaching New Heights, we're firing up the fast twitch muscle fibers to increase muscle speed and contraction times. Warm ups also help release fluid around the joints, which makes motion easier for the dance moves.
An important aspect of warm ups is injury prevention. A body that is properly warmed up is much more able to withstand the stresses of Irish dance movements, which include leaps, jumps and less strenuous, but very repetitive motions.
A less obvious, but still valuable part of warm ups, is the mental preparation. A warm up session is a kind of ritual for the dancer to get prepared and to get focused on what they have to do in class. During warm ups, we're leaving the outside world behind and getting ready to reconnect with the dance class learning process. We start thinking about our steps, what we've been working on and where we want to go.
Proper warm ups for Irish dance class involve dynamic stretching, where the muscles are stretched through continual movement. The muscle is not stretched and held; we want to gradually loosen and warm up the muscle while taking it through its full range of motion. We also want to engage several muscle groups at once and get the muscles working together. This builds strength and power for dance class.
Examples of good warm ups are exercises of a steady rhythmical nature involving joints of the body, such as gentle knee bends, arm swings – with or without torso twisting - skipping, light jogging or marching in place. Whatever your choice, it's important not to overstretch the muscles at this point.
A favorite warm up of Lauren Early is standing leg swings. While holding the wall or a barre, the motion of swinging your leg back and forth prepares the hamstring, as well as the glutes, hip flexors, lower back, and all the surrounding stabilizing muscles in one exercise.
A note about dynamic stretching vs. static stretching. Dynamic stretching involves movement. Static stretching is used to increase the range of movement with the body at rest. Static stretching is often done as floorwork or barre work. An example of this is sitting on the floor, stretching to touch your toes and holding for a certain period of time. Another common static exercise seen in Irish dance class is using a wall for balance, standing on one leg and pulling the other leg up in back (holding the foot or ankle) to stretch the large muscles above the knee.
First, this tends to target one area with little connection to other muscle groups. Secondly, while you're doing this, your heart rate and blood flow will decrease, which is the opposite of what we need to prep for class. Also, numerous studies have shown that static stretching reduces your muscle strength for an average of sixty minutes. So if you've been doing static stretches before Irish dance class, you'll want to make a switch to dynamic stretching for your warm ups. Remember, the key to dynamic stretching is movement involving multiple muscle groups.
There is a place for static stretching, which is during your cool down, and we'll cover that in more detail next issue.
Dancer's tip: Schedule extra time for dance class warm up and cool down activities to maximize your class time. Think of it as a package deal!
McBride School of