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Third in a planned series on ballet

By Katherine Hartsell, PTA

dance warm upAs a physical therapist assistant and yoga teacher, I am both invested in and inspired by the continuing education opportunities that come my way.  This past weekend I began a Dance Medicine Practicum,  joining a diverse, intimate group of movement specialists dedicated to the health and well-being of dancers. I look forward to bringing this material back to Boston Sports Medicine and weaving it into my work with dancers. The depth and richness of the course was evident, but most striking to me was the emphasis on simplicity. I was reminded that though dance medicine is complex, it is really the basics that matter most. Even dancers of the highest level can benefit from learning or returning to the basics of wellness. My passion is to educate dancers and dance teachers about these basics. Simple strategies can prevent injury, optimize health, enhance ballet success, and bring longevity to dancers.

Peek into a ballet studio, rehearsal hall, or performance stage prior to a scheduled dance class, and you are sure to find dancers sprawled out everywhere. Some might be sewing pointe shoes or pinning up hair, while others might be reading or doing homework. A few people could even be sleeping! Unfortunately, these dancers (even the sleeping ones) are usually attending to these tasks while hanging out in a static stretch for countless amounts of time. I admit that as both a ballet student and professional, I had this habit. I would arrive very early to class, nudge myself into a deep stretch and camp out there until I felt “ready” to dance. It wasn’t until much later in life that I learned the pitfalls of this pattern.

The current demand of ballet requires dynamic flexibility, strength, power, speed, coordination and control. A warm-up marked by static, excessive stretching fails to prepare the body and the brain for dance. Furthermore, research is showing that hanging out in extreme positions can damage ligaments, destabilize joints, and temporarily decrease the contractile force of muscles. A true warm-up should aid the body in physiologically and psychologically preparing for the challenge of dance.

A well rounded pre-class routine should enhance awareness of alignment, increase the heart rate, prime appropriate muscles to move through the required ranges of motion and speed, focus the brain, and relax habitual areas of tension. When dancers come to Boston Sports Medicine, a review of warm-up strategies is provided during treatment. Programs are always customized for each specific dancer, but examples include:

  • Mental focus, breathing and alignment: These basic exercises are performed without the distraction of other tasks. Focus is on stabilizing joints while also relaxing areas of the body that easily become tense in ballet.
  • Increasing the heart rate: This is achieved with 5-10 minutes of light studio jogging, the use of the elliptical, or other light aerobic activity.
  • Light dynamic stretching: Controlled stretches before class should be movement based and not held longer than 15 seconds.
  • Neuromuscular Stimulation: I encourage dancers to work before class barefoot, with Therabands, away from the mirror and off the ballet barre. We challenge the neuromuscular system with a variety of tasks, such as balancing with the eyes closed and walking backwards.
  • Strengthening: Specific, functional strengthening is used to target areas of weakness or imbalance that typical ballet technique class may not address.

It is my hope that all dancers, from young students to elite professionals, stretch their minds to embrace a new way of warming up. The benefits can be far-reaching and long-lasting.

Katherine Hartsell is a Physical Therapy Assistant at Boston Sports Medicine


Tate-Pineau. 2013. Cardiovascular Conditioning.

Wyon. 2010. Stretching for Dance.