"He lives most life whoever breathes most air."
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Last week’s post addressed the importance of breathing when we exercise and how muscles cannot work efficiently without oxygen. Many dancers, however, often forget to breathe or use their muscles in ways that hinder breathing.
When dancers focus on tightening the muscles of the torso or pulling their centers inward, they hold the diaphragm tightly and prevent it from contracting completely. When the diaphragm cannot contract fully, the lungs cannot fully inflate, and the dancer begins to take shallow breaths and use the muscles of the shoulder area to attempt to make room for the lungs. Shallow breathing is inefficient and results in a lack of oxygen and a build-up of carbon dioxide in the body.
Dancers who do not breathe efficiently will find that they might have difficulty learning and retaining combinations since the brain is not getting an optimal amount of oxygen. Additionally, dancers may experience muscle cramps due to a build-up of carbon dioxide. Holding one’s breath can also result in increased blood pressure, which can cause headaches.
Dancers should focus on lifting their torsos and using the image of lengthening their abdominal muscles rather than contracting them inward. By doing so, they will be allowing the diaphragm to do its job and be able to breathe more easily.
Dancers also need to work on remembering to breathe throughout class. Tension, created when trying to execute steps correctly and remember combinations and corrections, can also hinder breathing or cause shallow breathing.
Breathing tends to be more of an issue in ballet class than other classes like modern where teachers often ask to hear audible inhalations and exhalations. Although it is untraditional, it can be helpful for ballet teachers to also request audible breathing from their students during warm-ups. Another idea for teachers to employ is asking the dancers to use their voices when moving. Singing a familiar song during warm-up sautés forces dancers to breathe.
Additionally, teachers can actually cue breathing during warm-up exercises: exhaling into a plié and inhaling when coming out of one; inhaling before a cambré forward and exhaling when reaching the floor, inhaling on the way up and exhaling into a cambré back.
Yoga classes or incorporating yoga into a dance conditioning class will also help dancers to be aware of their breathing and encourage them to use breath to keep themselves dancing efficiently and in a healthy way.