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About a week ago I injured my back while dancing at a Belly Dancing gig. I lay immobile on my bed, a friend was kind enough to come over and massage and then lay a hot water bottle on my back. It was then that I had plenty of time to recall what I may have done to illicit this type of injury. Retracing the night's events, I knew that although I had managed to prepare and organize everything I would need (zills, directions, veil, make-up etc) I had failed to stretch before coming on stage. I couldn't believe that I did not think to include something that is so vital to dance in my usual preparations. I thought of every other show I had been in the past few years, feeling desperate to prove to myself that I had not in all this time been cruel to the body I depend on so dearly. Not only did I remember that most often there was no stretching on my part, but there was also very little done by my fellow performers before a show. Why aren't we warming up and stretching? Below are the main questions I needed to have answered to get my mind back into the habit of stretching.
Is there a difference between warming up and stretching?
YES! Cold muscles suddenly put to work are more likely to become damaged than ones that have been warmed up properly. Warming up gradually will increase your heart and breathing rates, increasing the flow of oxygen and nutrients to your muscles before you begin to work them hard. How do I know when I can safely begin some stretching? My breathing and heart rate feel like I may have just jogged up a long flight of stairs and my usually cold feet and hands are warm and pink.
How do I warm up?
There are many easy ways out there to warm up. I prefer to begin simply by breathing. Taking the time to inhale and exhale with intention and completion will do wonders to get your body rolling. Next, a simple jazz move of "step-touch-step-touch" using alternate feet along with some favorite music is a great way to prepare your body for some stretching.
How long do I warm up?
Most dance teachers and health care professionals recommend at least 5-10 minutes spent on warming up before actual stretching begins.
What kinds of stretches are good for dancers?
As long as you are gentle with your body, breathe properly and retain excellent posture the list of stretches available is enormous! As a Belly Dancer I prefer to use Pilates, Yoga or simple Ballet stretches. If you are unsure as to which you prefer, try some local classes or if you're brave enough to go at it on your own, buy or rent a quality instructional video or two. The key here though is to be gentle. In fact, I found a great list of tips for safe stretching on the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Website: "www.upmc.com"
Tips for stretching:
Common stretching mistakes to avoid:
What areas of the body are most susceptible for injury?
The knees, lower back, neck, and ankles are the most susceptible. Always make sure you include stretches that work out those areas before you attempt to dance.
What do I do if I don't have enough time to do more than 2 or 3 stretches?
See question above. If only given a few moments before a show and you weren’t able to stretch and warm up before you arrive, hit the major vulnerable spots. Breathe with intention and completion, lightly jog in place to warm up, then one by one lightly stretch your neck, knees, lower back and ankles. A great way to stretch your ankles is to spell out the alphabet with each foot. You may save yourself from any number of injuries that can take months to heal. (I injured my ankle several months ago and can still feel it!)
Should I be stretching every day? Or just before class or a performance?
Stretching every day is great! I try and think to stretch a bit after I've taken a bath or shower (I know my body is warm and my circulation is moving) but always keep it light and simple. Stretching before a class or performance is essential. I would also urge people to make sure they stretch right after intense dancing to cool down, and then the following day. Not to compare dancers to horses: but as an example racehorses are walked out after a race and ridden lightly the next day to keep them in top form.
My recent injury proved to be a very real reminder of why it is so important to take extra care when it comes to our bodies. We as dancers use our bodies to express, to learn, and to experience life. Let's take better care of the instrument we use most in dance! I hope you find the information provided valuable, and good luck keeping warm and supple!
* Please note that the preceding article was written by a dancer based on her experience and personal research and not a health care professional.