The role of warm-up progresses as our understanding of dance changes. This is true whether our role is that of a student or a teacher.
For many young dancers, warm-up is something to be endured before set free to really “dance” in the subsequent segments of class. For my students, it is what they are referring to when they ask if next year we’ll do “different stuff.”
I try to patiently explain, again and again, that “the stuff” stays the same but how we work with it will be different.
This past year I began at a K-8 magnet school where there had been quite a bit of turn-over in instruction. In revitalizing the dance program I found myself needing to introduce students to learning movement authentically, learning movement quickly, and dancing it without simply imitating it.
As a result, my warm-up featured two main elements: the quick study of new material and unpredictable sequencing of familiar conceptual phrases.
Warm-Up 1.0: The Quick Study/Themed Movement Concepts
This is essentially follow-the-leader format I have most experienced in jazz classes. When teaching K-12, however, with 30-45 minute classes that quickly reduce to 20-35 minutes of actual instruction, time is of the essence.
Technique is explained in small, digestible pieces that can be applied to most of the movement. In this way, I tend to use warm-up as a warm-up for analyzing choreography in addition to training the body.
Portions of warm-up become familiar but are usually executed in varying sequences and interspersed with improvised movement or new movement threads. This allows students to focus on technical elements but also requires they stay tuned because they don’t necessarily know what is coming next.
Let’s think about the types of ways we can shift weight. Some include: from straight leg to straight leg, through plié, in and out of plié, in and out of plié with an elevation, from bent leg to straight, from straight leg to bent, from the right side to the left side, from bottom half of the body to the top, and so on….
I am going to lead you through a warm-up. Your job is to be thinking about how your weight is shifting.
Here are some ways to think about this as you dance:
- How would you describe these sensations?
- Which types of weight shift come naturally to you?
- Which weight shifts are challenging for you? Why?
Refining the conversation over the next few classes:
- What does it mean to complete a weight shift?
- How can you improve our dancing by thinking of where your weight is and where it needs to go instead of only finding shapes?
- Where do you tend to over- or under-shift? In which direction are you falling out of a turn (forward, left,….) Out of a jump?
- How can we add weight shift to make choreography more interesting and/or challenging?
- How might shifting weight “incorrectly” or “unnaturally” change the way the phrase feels/looks?
In addition, you can touch on “core subject” lessons within your dance class:
- Add weight shifts to one half or 50% of this movement phrase.
- How much force might you need to shift to the floor or into the air?
- Choose one type of weight shift to add repeatedly and to serve as a motif.
- Treat stage directions as directions on a compass. Map your movement phrase before next class.
- If you had to assign a story to the dance you’ve created by applying weight shifts to this phrase, what would the story be?
Warm-up 2.0 The Exercises
Here is the warm-up more commonly experienced in ballet and modern classes. It involves teaching the exercise, explaining the technical attributes, and a more specific use of terminology.
Now that my students are better prepared to see details and apply them to their dancing, I add this layer of training to compliment and build on what was set up with the warm-up already described.
Class 1: Let’s list what you know about weight shifts. Now that you are on a roll, let’s have a quick practical review all together. Today’s class will focus on shifting weight in order to move. Period. It might be a small shift. Your job is to pay attention to the details. Here’s what should be happening as we shift weight to move one leg,…
Class 2: Last class we discussed the need to shift weight in order to move. Now let’s focus on shifting from straight legs through plié.
Class 3: We’ve already discussed shifting weight as a principle, from straight legs and through plié. Let’s explore it in and out of plié, including elevations.
Class 4: Here is a review of weight shift as we continue to explore. Today we’ll add fall and recovery, balancing, and more.
Class 5: Review/Pop-quiz
In reality, this progression would cover many more classes with opportunity to really teach/discuss/master the concepts as well as introduce terminology in a meaningful way.
Let us really be intentional, however, in warming up what is required for our daily class and not always relying on daily barre to cover all bases.
By this, I mean that if the main lesson of the day is examining spatial relationship among performers, a technical warm-up may be starting the journey in the wrong direction.
Let’s begin class by walking in any direction you like. Listen to my commands as I adjust the movement that we are exploring, the directions we are exploring, and the speed at which we are moving. Keep your eyes lifted and your bodies safe.
Now I will divide you into groups. When directed, each group will enter and exit the space at random with movement such as walking, running, jumping, and moments of stillness. Listen to my voice for the movement commands and other directions.
An exercise such as this gets the class working as a whole and prepares their eyes and bodies to be aware of details that a traditional approach to warming up may not set them up to do as well.
This exercise, too, can build on the concept of weight shift as the dancers are now prepared to explore how the force of their weight shifts, and the directions of weight shifts, impact how their movement is perceived and assessed for meaning.
Now they have a reason to “dance” the warm-up regardless of which version is presented. It gives them concrete reasons as to why warm-up is not to be endured but expressed clearly, neatly, and with intention.
For more ideas on how to add variety to your classes, check out Maria’s article, 5 Ideas That Will Make You Feel Like Less of a Teaching Robot.
How are you warming up for the upcoming year?
Heather Vaughan-Southard MFA, is a choreographer, dance educator, and performer based in Michigan. She currently directs the dance program at the Everett High School Visual and Performing Arts Magnet in Lansing. With the philosophy of teaching dance as a liberal art, Ms. Vaughan-Southard collaborates with numerous arts and education organizations throughout the state. She has danced professionally in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York and has performed works by Mia Michaels, Lar Lubovitch, Donald McKayle, Billy Siegenfeld, Alexandra Beller, Debra Levasseur-Lottman, and Bob Fosse. As a choreographer, her work has been credited by the Los Angeles Times for “creating heat.” She has recently choreographed for the dance programs at Michigan State University, Grand Valley State University, Lansing Community College and is the former dance professor at Albion College. She is a regular guest artist and blogger for Dance in the Annex, an innovative dance community in Grand Rapids. Heather received her MFA in Dance from the University of Michigan, BFA in Dance from Western Michigan University and K-12 certification in Dance from Wayne State University. Read Heather’s posts.