Warm Up

Warm-up and Cool-down

Exercises for the Middle Eastern Dance Class

by Margo Abdo O’Dell

The warm-up is an important piece of any dance class because it increases blood flow and enhances oxygen supply to the muscles, increases core body temperature, helps prevent soreness and injuries, increases feelings of coordination, and promotes body awareness. The most effective warm-up movements are those that are purposeful and prepare the body for the specific workout you are doing, in this case, Middle Eastern dance. Consider these four types of movements:

1. Practice movements are range of motion exercises that are similar to dance moves performed later in class but are performed at a lower intensity. Since practice moves are functional, they comprise the majority of the warm-up. Many instructors use this method of warm-up, especially to introduce parts of a choreography early in the class.

Generic practice movements for the upper body include moving the torso upward, downward, in circular and undulating patterns, and slower movements of the shoulders and arms. Generic practice movements for the lower body include forward moving foot patterns, basic hip work in up, down, twisting and circular patterns, lateral moves such as the grapevine, and basic turns.

2. Large muscle movements are not identical to dance moves but engage the large muscles of the body, thereby helping to achieve the overall goal of warming up the body. Large muscle movements include squats, lunges and push-ups. If this segment of the class is well planned, these movements can also serve as a vehicle for conditioning specific muscle groups, although to achieve significant results, conditioning exercises should be executed two to three times a week.

3. Joint isolation movements are range of motion exercises dedicated to muscles surrounding a specific joint area. Examples of joint isolations are side-to-side neck rotations, shoulder shrugs, shoulder rolls, hip isolations, ankle circles, foot rolls and pelvic tilts. These isolations help warm up the specific joints with active contraction.

4. Flexibility movements (or stretches) are appropriate to a warm-up if the goal is to prepare the body for the more vigorous dance movements that occur later in class. If stretches are part of the warm-up, consider a short series of full range-of-motion movements that take each muscle group to the limits of its range of motion in a slow and controlled manner. Although these movements may be referred to as stretches, they are not held as long as static stretches which are used for flexibility enhancement in the cool-down phase of a dance class.

How to combine these four types of movements together will vary according to personal style and class goals. The selected sequence should include a progressive blend of intensity, duration, and variation appropriate to the age, health, fitness and skill level of students.

There are a few risky exercises worth mentioning, as these should not be used at all, or used with caution for the general population. Employ judgment with advanced students. Exercises that put the lower back at risk include double leg lifts, thrusting donkey kicks with neck and back arching, straight leg sit-ups, back arching or bridge, yoga plow and inverted bicycle, simultaneous arm and leg lifts and standing toe touches, windmills and other exercises with sustained forward flexion at the hips. Risky exercises for the knees include deep lunges with knees extending past ankles, deep knee bends and lean back quad stretches with both legs tucked under the body. The neck can be put at risk when the head is dropped back and when executing full head circles.

Music selection for instruction is a personal choice and certainly not limited to Middle Eastern music. I believe a student cannot hear too much of this genre, because for some it is difficult to distinguish various instruments, rhythms, and other musical nuances. Dance class provides an opportunity for music education which is so important to Middle Eastern dance, where the movement is unequivocally linked to the music. I have employed medium tempo songs for warm-up, including Amr Diab’s “Mayal”, Setrak’s “Habait” from volume 20, Warda’s “Nar El-Ghera” and Abdel Halim Hafez’s “Waloaou Inak Ya Habibi Baid.”

The primary purpose of the cool-down in dance class is to enhance flexibility for improved performance and injury prevention, lower elevated heart rates and generally relax students. Studies have shown that the combination of warm-up movements and flexibility movements will do more to enhance overall flexibility than either used alone. Current evidence also shows that stretching warm muscles reduces tissue damage and increases muscle elongation. Therefore, greater benefit is achieved when flexibility exercises are performed at the end of class.

The rule of thumb is to perform flexibility exercises in a slow, sustained manner, holding the stretches for up to thirty seconds. Stretch slowly and gradually without bouncing, maintaining a continuous tension on the muscle. The stretch should be felt in the muscles, not in the joints, and exhaling during a stretch further relaxes the muscles. If stretching hurts, the stretch has been taken too far or is being performed incorrectly.

My goal is to devote a minimum of ten minutes to stretching at the end of class using mood music such as harps and flutes to encourage relaxation. Here is a description of a basic cool-down sequence that addresses muscle groups most commonly tight and prone to injury:

1 ) Torso/frontal shoulders: seated on floor, legs together and outstretched, hands a few inches behind hips, push the floor, lift the torso and tilt chin up slightly.

2) Hamstrings/calves: in same seated position, flex feet, keep knees and back straight, flex forward from the hip not letting the back curve.

3) Inner thighs/hamstrings: still seated, straddle legs, flex from the hip and stretch to the center and to each side, rotating the torso over the leg (again not letting the back curve).

4) Quadriceps: still seated, bend one knee and fold the leg under, support yourself with hands on the floor and lean back (go to elbows if more stretch needed, lay back on floor if more stretch is still needed), same stretch for other leg.

5) Low back: laying down, hug knees to chest.

6) Upper back/rear shoulders: gently roll over onto knees, sit back on heels while keeping arms outstretched over head, parallel to the floor, and hands in contact with the floor.

7) Come to upright position slowly by tucking toes under, pushing back onto feet, and slowly rolling up through the spine.

As noted in the sequence above, many basic exercises are effective enough for advanced students. By altering body position, an advanced student can achieve increased stretch intensity. As flexibility improves, stretches can be added to include more muscle groups and more complex positions. The focus should remain on technique and relaxation when adding or modifying exercises.

Finally, check to be sure students are feeling well enough to leave the class. If overheated or light-headed, the student can walk around the room slowly, drink water and wait until heart rate and breathing return to normal.

For the well being of dance students and instructors, the warm-up and cool-down segments of a dance class should not be minimized or ignored. With proper planning and practice, warm-ups and cool-downs can be as engaging as the technical and rehearsal portions of a class. And best of all, they will serve to better condition Middle Eastern dancers of all abilities and experience levels for improved performance.


Blahnik, Jay and Paula Anderson, MS, “Wake Up Your Warm-Up,” Idea Today, June 1996.

Clippinger-Robertson, K. 1993. “Components of an Aerobic Dance Class.” Aerobics Instructor Manual: Reebok University Press.

“From Tight to Right,” Prevention Magazine, February 1995.

Kravits, Len Ph.D., “Warm-Up Wisdom,” Idea Today, March 1996.

Kravits, Len Ph.D., “Slowing the Aging Clock,” Idea Today, May 1996.

Copyright, 1996, Margo Abdo O’Dell


Margo Abdo O’Dell has been teaching and performing Middle Eastern Dance for fifteen years. She teaches and performs in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and at workshops and seminars. She is certified by The American Council on Exercise and serves on their Quality Assurance team for continuing education. www.margo1.com.

Originally published in Habibi Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 1997, Santa Barbara, CA. Copyright Shareen El Safy, 1997.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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