Find the pre-show routine that will help your students look their best onstage.
Students from Valentina Kozlova’s Dance Conservatory of New York prepare for a performance.
The performance is about to begin, but your students are distracted, nervous and cold. Some girls are making frantic last-minute costume adjustments; others are standing idle in the wings. With only a few minutes until curtain, none of them seem prepared to dance. How can you avoid this scenario?
Many teachers rely on pre-performance warm-ups to make sure their students are ready for the challenges they’ll face onstage. Yet there are different ways to get dancers warm and focused, and the kind of warm-up you give has to reflect your dancers’ needs and the performance atmosphere they are about to experience. Dance Teacher talked to three teachers about their very different warm-up strategies.
The Hands-On Approach
If your students have trouble getting motivated and gelling as a team, a highly structured warm-up will help them focus. Wendy Miner, artistic director of The Performers Ballet Jazz Company in Albuquerque, gives a mandatory warm-up before each performance. “We take attendance; if they’re not there, we hunt them down,” she says. She starts the warm-up about 90 minutes before the performance starts, so that students are still warm by performance time but have at least 30 minutes before the onstage call to put finishing touches on hair and makeup.
If it’s a ballet performance, Miner gives a ballet class; a jazz performance, something more jazzy. She avoids giving new, unfamiliar steps. “It’s important that they do the actual movements they’ll be doing onstage,” she says. “If the piece has a lot of jumps, then those are the kinds of things I’ll give them in class.”
A warm-up with the entire group prepares students mentally, too, by building a sense of camaraderie. Miner finds that her mandatory group warm-up makes her students feel like a team, which in turn helps them present themselves as a unified group onstage.
Have Students Take the Lead
While some teachers prefer to guide the warm-up themselves, others encourage more advanced students to take the lead—a strategy that works especially well for large groups spanning a wide age range. Anne Forrest, artistic director of Inspire School of Dance in Naperville, Illinois, has company dancers give the warm-up. It’s a method that keeps students of all ages engaged and challenged before the show. Though the older students usually just give a shortened version of Forrest’s comfortingly familiar, traditional warm-up—which includes head and shoulder rolls, stretches, sit-ups and pushups, and a few simple plié and tendu combinations—each leader gets to choose her own playlist, which gives her a chance to put a personal stamp on the exercises.
But when large groups face especially high-pressure scenarios, it can be helpful for the teacher to be a bit more involved in the pre-show routine. Prior to a stressful competition or a performance with dancers from other schools, Forrest will participate more actively in the warm-up to ensure that her students stay calm and focused. She’ll then usher her students to a space that’s away from everyone, so they can take a moment to focus. “I’ll stay and joke around, just to make it a little more lighthearted and ease nerves,” she says.
Rehearsal as Warm-Up
Small groups of advanced students don’t require the same type of handholding when it comes to warming up. They often benefit more from last-minute coaching. “Instead of leading a warm-up, I rehearse my students onstage on the day of the performance, full-out, a couple of times,” says Valentina Kozlova of Valentina Kozlova’s Dance Conservatory of New York. That way, the students get warm while focusing on what’s about to happen onstage. Each student does a brief barre on her own before the rehearsal, but “everything goes toward the rehearsal, not the warm-up.” Kozlova’s students are also not allowed to do anything extra, like Pilates or yoga, on the day of the show. “I want them practicing exactly what they’re going to dance,” she says, instead of wasting energy elsewhere.
And Kozlova recommends taking a very short break between the rehearsal and the show, only one or two hours. Otherwise, anxiety builds as the dancers sit and wait. She also works on mental readiness during that last rehearsal. An especially anxious dancer might get more encouragement; a more confident performer might get bigger corrections. “Some people get more nervous than others,” she says. “It’s a process.” DT
Julie Diana is a principal dancer at Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA in English from University of Pennsylvania.
Photo: Students from Valentina Kozlova’s Dance Conservatory of New York prepare for a performance. (by Helen Bibilouri, courtesy of Dance Conservatory of New York)