Cooling Down After Class - Does It Serve Any Purpose?

"If you don't take care of your body, where will you live?" - Author Unknown

        The broad music begins, the grand allegro has been shown, and dancers begin soaring through the air performing saute de chats, grand pas de chats, and tour jetés.  After traveling across the floor, they return to line to perform the combination once more.  The breathing is audible, and the dancers’ faces are flushed.  Their hearts are beating quicker, they are breathing harder and faster, the increased frequency of heart contractions have pumped blood faster through their arteries, and their blood pressures have risen.

            All too often, class time runs out and movement draws to a complete stop.  The teacher dismisses the class, the students bow, clap, and quickly exit the studio to make room for the next class. 

            In order to stay healthy and minimize the stress on the body, it is important for all dancers to learn about the benefits of a cool-down.  Just as the warm-up prepares the body for what is to come, the cool-down slowly returns the body to the pre-exercise, resting state.

            A cool-down is a gradual decrease in activity that allows the heart rate and the breathing, or respiratory, rate to gradually slow down and return to normal.  As this slowing occurs, blood circulation also gradually slows.  Without this gradual decrease in activity, a quick drop in heart rate will decrease the pressure in the arteries rapidly.  This sudden drop in blood pressure can cause dizziness and fainting.

            A simple exercise performed at the end of class, similar to a reverence, that incorporates a gradual slowing down of the body is all that is needed.  The exercise might include grand pliés in second position, slow head circles, slow reaches or circles with arms and stretching.  A cool-down is an ideal time for dancers to work on flexibility and range of motion.  The muscles are now completely warm and will not be required to perform any more explosive activities, providing the perfect time for static stretches to be held for 20-30 seconds.  While stretching, the internal temperature of the muscles gradually decreases and, therefore, reduces the chances that muscles will cramp or go into spasm upon leaving the studio.  Muscle cramping becomes a bigger concern during cold, winter months when warm bodies move out into the cold air.  Muscles, like everything else, contract when cooled and will do so quicker when moving from one extreme temperature to another.

            The cool-down takes no longer than 5 minutes at the end of class and provides the benefits of decreasing some of the stress exercise puts on the body, avoids dizziness or fainting, assists in developing range of motion, and helps decrease muscle spasms and cramping after class. 

            If time does not allow for a cool-down in class, each dancer should take responsibility for the health of his or her body and perform an individual cool-down, including stretching.  It will take only a few minutes out of the day, but will keep you dancing healthier, and your body will thank you for it!


Warming Up - Is it Really Necessary?

“If you do not have enough time to warm up correctly, you do not have enough time to train.” – Author Unknown

It’s time for the rehearsal to begin, and there is only a short amount of time so it may be tempting to skip the warm-up and just jump right in.  What happens during the warm-up that makes it so important anyway?

We are given one body and our job, as dancers, is to make certain that we care for our bodies and insure that they are working at an optimal level.  A warm-up not only prepares us mentally by focusing our thoughts, it also leads our body through steps to prepare for the demands we place upon it.

When we first begin to move, our bodies are able to create energy immediately by using the phosphate that has been stored within our muscles as a substance called ATP.  ATP stands for adenosine tri-phosphate which is a substance made up of three phosphate molecules.  When the molecules are separated, energy is released. Although this energy is readily available it can only last for 8-10 seconds.  After those ten seconds, the muscles must use the glucose, or sugar, that is available to create energy for the next few minutes of exercise.  Our muscles are able to create energy for this brief period of time without having to rely on oxygen.

As this energy is created and the warm-up continues, the autonomic nervous system receives a signal to stimulate the nerves around the heart.  The heart receives a signal to contract, or beat, faster and stronger.  The stronger the heart’s contraction, the stronger the release, resulting in more space in the heart for a greater volume of blood.  This greater volume of blood means that, when the heart contracts, more oxygen and nutrient filled blood is pumped out and circulated through the body with each heartbeat.

At the same time, the nerves that control the blood vessels are activated and signal the vessels to constrict, or get smaller, meaning there is less blood flow to all parts of the body.  Concurrently, the energy creation, or metabolism, that is occurring within the muscles overrides this signal, and the blood vessels in the muscles get wider, or dilate, which results in greater blood flow to the muscles.  Therefore, blood flow is diverted away from the organs so that the working parts, the muscles, may receive an optimal amount of nutrients and oxygen.

As all of this is occurring in the circulatory system, the brain stem, which controls our breathing, is receiving signals to stimulate and increase the activity of the respiratory system.  As a result, our breathing speeds up to supply more oxygen to the blood, which is being rapidly delivered to the muscles.

This oxygen is used for the next step in creating energy as the warm-up ends and more rigorous physical activity begins.  This process is called aerobic glycolysis and allows the body to continue to breakdown stored glucose to create energy for a sustained period of time.

As a result of all this activity, the temperature of the muscles increases, leading to increased flexibility.  Additionally, the heat that is generated during the warm-up serves to liquefy the synovial fluid that is in our joints.  While we are resting, the fluid becomes jelly-like, but as heat is generated, the jelly breaks down into a liquid that is able to lubricate our joints and keep them “well-oiled” and moving smoothly. 

Our bodies are amazing machines that are equipped to do so many things.  However, much like a computer, the human body is wired to complete tasks in a series of steps.  In order to be able to provide the optimum physical performance required for a class or a rehearsal, the body needs to be able to sequentially go through the above steps.  We, as dancers, demand so much from our bodies.  Our bodies will definitely respond, but we need to make sure we are going to let them.

This post originally appeared on Access Dance for Life's blog - a blog that promotes health and wellness within the dance community - this past January.  

Improving Balance

            “BALANCE – The ability to equally distribute weight and remain upright."                                                        Merriam-Webster Dictionary                                                                                                     

            Balance, equilibrium, steadiness, stability – a goal for a happy life and a necessity for a dancer. Balance is regulated by our body in three different ways: through our eyes, through the vestibular system of our inner ear, and through sensory receptors in our muscles that provide proprioception. 

            We constantly use our eyes to determine where we are in space, and this optical sense is the body’s most dominant way of establishing balance.  The optical righting reflex helps ensure that we remain upright since it works to keep both eyes constantly on the horizontal plane.

            The vestibular system helps the body maintain balance through the anatomy of the inner ear.  This system gives the brain information about the body’s position during movement.  The ear canals are filled with fluid and lined with cilia, or tiny hairs, that are sensitive to the movement of the fluid.  When the position of the head shifts during movement, the cilia send signals to the brain to activate the muscles that keep the head vertical.

            Our body also uses proprioception to determine if we are balanced.  Proprioception is the body’s awareness of its position and movement in space.  There are sensory receptors located in the body’s muscles, tendons, and joints that send messages to the brain, letting it know where the different parts of the body are and how they are moving in relation to other body parts.  The sensors in the muscles respond to muscular contractions, those in the tendons respond to changes in tension, and the sensors inside the joints respond to changes in pressure while those in the connective tissue surrounding the joints respond to the speed of a moving joint.
            These three systems work together and communicate with the cerebral cortex in the brain.  The cerebellum controls coordination and stores learned information about muscular actions that can restore balance.  The signals that the systems send to the cerebral cortex are integrated with the information stored in the cerebellum, and the body is able to right itself when it is thrown off balance.

            When one of these systems does not operate correctly, the body must rely on the other two systems.  If an inner ear infection disturbs the vestibular system, the optical reflex and proprioception must be depended upon to maintain balance.

            The proprioceptive sense is vital for a dancer.  A dancer must be able to “feel” the difference between a parallel position and a turned-out position and needs to be able to sense how high a leg is being held.  When turning, dancers need to be aware of the position of the gesture leg, and dancers need to be aware of the position of their arms.  Mirrors can be used as a tool when dancers are first learning a skill, and the eyes and vestibular system can be used to establish balance when the training is at the beginner level.  However, as dancers grow more advanced, learning skills like tilts and advanced, inverted jazz turns, it becomes difficult to rely on these two senses, and when a dancer performs onstage with lights, the optical sense is taken away.  Reliance upon the proprioceptive system becomes a dancer’s lifeline.

            Since this system must be relied upon so heavily, it is important to help students develop it in the studio.  Although the mirror can be used effectively as a tool, dancers often become dependent on it.  Having dancers perform combinations facing away from the mirror forces the dancers to rely on their proprioception to determine where they are in the space and what positions they are in.  Another way to work on the proprioceptive sense is to ask the dancers to perform stationary combinations with their eyes closed.  When this idea is first introduced, the combinations can be simple port de bras exercises and then progress to exercises that include développés, grands battements and even jumps.

            Our bodies come equipped with three systems meant to help maintain balance, yet we often do not use all three effectively.  Dancers can improve and strengthen their technique and performance skills vastly when they are aware of, learn to use, and practice training the proprioceptive system.