For the past few years, self-care has been the focus of countless books, articles, and social media posts, especially for dancers and those working in creative fields. Between eating right, drinking enough water, and taking the time to address mental health issues, there are so many elements to tackle in the pursuit of new ways to practice self-care that it may seem overwhelming to add another. Every dancer knows the importance of warming up, and how it helps protect the body against injury and prepares you for the dancing you’ll be doing that day. Despite all the hype around warming up, however, its post-workout counterpart, cooling down, has yet to receive the same level of attention.
Cooldown exercises properly serve many ways to practice self-care for athletes in general, but for dancers specifically, it can both promote physical recovery from the exercise of dancing, as well as encourage a positive mental/emotional transition from class or performance to life outside of dance. Physically, cooling down can gradually restore your body to its resting state. This means bringing your heart rate down, lowering your temperature, and regulating your breath. It also reduces the buildup of lactic acid in your muscles, therefore preventing some of the soreness and stiffness that happens after exercise. This is often referred to as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS. Emotionally, cooling down can be very relaxing. Although exercise is scientifically proven to benefit mental health, it can cause stress, especially for dancers, who are not only physically but also emotionally invested in the movement our bodies do. As the body regulates during the cooldown process, the brain releases two chemicals that make people feel good: dopamine and serotonin. Taking this time to also reflect on your dancing can help you better understand your body and artistry.
So, what constitutes a good cooldown? According to Jennie Harary, a DPT candidate at Hunter College in NYC, dancers should remember that stretching should be reserved for the post-class cooldown. “Muscles lose power from static stretching,” Harary says, adding that stretches in a cooldown after class should include dynamic stretches to maintain strength, alongside static stretches such as a straddle or split.
Cooldown routines can extend to what dancers do at home before bed. While taking an epsom salt bath is a commonly-accepted treatment for post-class soreness and stress, there are more specific choices dancers can make in their extended cooldowns. Heat and cold treatment are both very helpful, but for different issues. Someone with an injury may want to use cold treatment on the affected area, such as an ice pack wrapped in cloth, to reduce inflammation. Alternatively, chronic pain may benefit more from the application of heat, such as a hot bath or a heat pack (although never extreme heat). To unwind from the emotional stress of a day, many dancers love to relax with a book or favorite TV show, or spending time with friends.
Post-class snacks are also an integral part of a dancer’s cooldown. Many nutritionists recommend snacks with protein and carbohydrates in them, since protein helps to rebuild muscles and carbs replenish energy. Some good examples include toast with peanut butter, cottage cheese with granola, or other similar combinations. Adding chocolate chips or something else fun to a post-dance snack never hurts either!
Dancers should remember that stretching should be reserved for the post-class cooldown
If you are interested in improving your mental and physical health, or interested in aiding your body’s recovery from the strain of dance, adding a cooldown routine is the way to go. While it may add a few minutes to your time in the studio, at the theater, or nighttime routine, it is definitely worth the extra effort to take care of your body in the way it deserves to be treated- with love! If you’re struggling to come up with something on your own, feel free to try out some of the cooldown exercise routines below after your next class!
- Standing roll downs: Gently tuck the chin to chest and roll down through the spine- feel free to bend your knees at any point in the exercise. Once you’ve reached your bottom point, bend the knees and straighten your spine, the head being the last part to come up. Repeat three or four times.
- Spinal twists: Sitting on the floor, bend the right leg in front of you (like half a butterfly stretch) and cross the left leg on top and place that foot flat on the floor. Take your left arm and put it on the right side of your body. Breathing in and out, gently twist your body towards the right on the exhales. Be sure to be mindful of the breath, and allow your head to follow the spine. Repeat to the other side.
- Yoga-inspired cooldown: Moving through certain yoga sequences, such as a Sun Salutation, can be great cooldown routines. They incorporate elements of both static and dynamic stretching, as well as being conducive to relaxation and reflection post-class.