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Warm-up for Bharatanatyam dancers
- Veena Basavarajaiah, Bangalore

November 29, 2012

Hello Veena,

I am a regular reader of your articles about dancers' fitness on narthaki and those are really very helpful. I wanted some guidance regarding warm-up...especially before a performance. I am a Bharatanatyam dancer. I often experience that there is hardly any warm-up done before a performance. Considering the preparations - make-up, costumes, anxiety etc, a hardcore warm-up is hardly possible. Directly going on stage and dancing becomes difficult if the body is not warmed up... even the mind needs to settle. I request you to guide me regarding the same.

Similarly cooling down after a practice session is also important, which is never taken into consideration and gradually starts creating problems. Please guide me regarding the same.

Your guidance will be very helpful for me as well as my dancer friends.

Thanking you,

Gauri Kashelikar
Pune, Maharashtra

There are hardly any references to warm-ups in our mythology. We do not hear about Lord Krishna doing surya namaskars before dancing on Kalinga sarpa or Lord Nataraja doing a few Pilates before his thandava nritya nor do we hear about them suffering from any injuries for not having done any exercises before a performance. The divine beings who danced slaying demons or saving the world obviously never felt the need for a warm-up. Looks like they functioned on magical powers and could always rely on mortality. Unfortunately, for us mere mortals, a warm-up is quintessential before any performance, practice or rehearsal.

Do Bharatanatyam dancers have to do a separate warm-up when they do so many adavus to prepare their body? This is an excellent question but, is the body really ready to start a thattadavu from the word go? Thattadavu, though considered a very simple adavu is very demanding on the body. A warm-up then becomes essential to prepare the body for these adavus. It prepares the limbs for a good araimandi and ensures that the lower back, ankles and knees are ready for the impact of thattadavus. Besides, how many of us do adavus before a rehearsal or performance? A good warm-up before starting adavus will make sure that you do not have any cramps or aches while doing them.

During a warm-up, there is a change in the pace of breathing; this in turn increases the rate of heart beat and the circulation of blood to different part of the body. The circulation also ensures that all the muscles loosen up and the joints are well-lubricated. Preparing the muscles and joints would lead to lesser injuries and cramps during dancing. Every dancer's requirements for a warm-up are based on their body types, strength and weaknesses. The parts of the body that are weak or previously injured need to be given extra focus during warm-up. It is also dependent on the length of the performance and choreography of the pieces. Each individual needs to design a set of exercises that would work for their specific needs and capabilities.

A good warm-up could start with a couple of good stretches with the focus on breathing. Starting with the back on the floor is a good way to ease your way into movement, stretch those stiff muscles and let the blood flow into different parts of the body. Always remember to stretch on a yoga mat or a warm wooden floor as a cold concrete floor could cause damage to your joints and muscles. A Bharatanatyam dancer needs to stretch the lower back, the hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, Achilles and the arches of the feet compulsorily. One could do additional stretches based on the requirements of the body. A good 5 to 10 set of surya namaskars is a wonderful way to start the heart pumping and blood circulating. Surya namaskar is probably one of the quickest and safest ways of getting your body warmed-up. Doing a couple of Pilates to strengthen your core muscles is highly recommended. This would ensure that the centre is activated and you will be left feeling light and strong in a short span of time. A couple of push-ups or plank positions would be excellent to feel your core muscles.

Doing a couple of adavus in all three speeds is an excellent way to get your focus back to Bharatanatyam. A warm-up is also about preparing the body and the mind for those extreme moments during performance. It is always good to choose a section like a jathi/korvai that is both physically and mentally challenging and performing it before the performance. It is useful to do a set of balances while waiting for the performances to commence as it is meditative and grounding. It is also beneficial to wear warm clothes during make-up and whilst waiting for the performance to commence as this would prevent the heat from escaping your body.

Cross-training is a very effective method of warm-up. If you are trained in any other movement form like Ballet, Capoeira, Kalaripayattu, Kung-fu, Kick-boxing, Tai-chi etc, doing half/one hour of movement basics from these forms is an excellent way to warm-up before class, rehearsal or performance.

Most western professional dance companies do rehearsal just hours before the performance. They start with a two hour class and continue to perform the entire repertoire on stage with lights, music and other technical support. After the dress-rehearsals they give themselves enough time to rest, eat, dress-up and do a short warm-up before the final performance. This method is very effective as the individual needs to be extremely fit and strong to follow this regime. It also ensures that the dancer is not functioning on adrenaline and there is no room for anxiety, nervousness or stage fear. The dancer is then able to effectively distribute the energy based on the demands of different pieces during the performance and also conserve energy for maximum efficiency. It acclimatizes the dancer to a performance space and performance. Though this is an ideal situation, this luxury is rarely available to dancers in India who get to see the stage only when they start the performance. However, It is definitely possible for all dancers to make time and space to dance the pieces before a performance.

Running late from work/school/college into a dance class does not constitute a warm-up. Ensure that you arrive early and give enough time to prepare yourself before you start dancing. Dancers who have a day job which involves working at a desk, staring at a monitor with very less movement must give extra attention to warm-ups before dancing. People with desk jobs could suffer from serious repetitive stress injuries and posture related injuries if they do not invest time and efforts on a warm-up. Most dancers, choreographers and teachers do not allot any time for warm-up. It is a matter of self-discipline to make time for oneself or insist on being given time for a warm-up before dancing. Ultimately, it is your body and it is your responsibility to keep it safe and strong. So, "Stay warm, Stay safe!"

Veena Basavarajaiah is a Bangalore based solo dancer and choreographer who is trained in Bharatanatyam, Kalaripayattu, Ballet and Contemporary dance. She has worked with Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, Angika Dance Company, Attakkalari, Kalari Academy, Gati Forum, Nritarutya, Natyantharanga & Yana Lewis Dance Co. She has performed on various platforms across India, UK and Europe. She is the recipient of Special Mention Young Achievers Award in 2007 and also a paneled artist of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.


Such a wonderful and useful read...Thank you Veena
(April 8, 2021)

This really helped me get a rhythm with my warm-up. Also, I really enjoyed reading about other styles of dancers and how they perform. Thanks for the tip about warm clothes during make-up and before.
Thanks again
- Anon (March 24, 2017)

Thanks for this post, Veena. I have another question related to this. How do you stay hydrated during the performance? I sweat a lot during my performance & towards the end, my legs become stiff due to dehydration. How do we take care of this?
- Radhika Shetty
(Dec 3, 2012)
Sweating is directly proportionate to the body fat percentage and is related to the diet. If you can run 5 km in 20-24 min, your legs will not become stiff during the performance.
(Dec 7, 2012)

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