Health & Body

Learning to Breathe From the Diaphragm Has Many Benefits for Dancers

Getty Images

Just when young dancers need oxygen the most—during a challenging balance or speedy petit allégro—it often seems they instinctively hold their breaths. Sometimes this happens as a reaction to stress; other times it might simply result from a constant sucking in of the waistline. No matter, it is an important habit for dance teachers to break.

"Dancers do not want their bellies sticking out, so most of them never breathe deeply enough and only take very shallow breaths into their upper rib cage," explains Marika Molnar, founder of Westside Dance Physical Therapy. "This reduces the amount of oxygen that gets into the blood to nourish the working muscles." Limiting the breath can also bring aesthetic and functional issues, from appearing stiff or uncoordinated to experiencing fatigue and exhaustion from not getting enough oxygen to your working muscles. In order to start coaching a deeper breath or diaphragmatic breath, it is necessary to help students understand the muscles at work with every inhale and exhale. While much time is spent having dancers work on their core, most often the abdominals are the focus and the topmost muscle is ignored: the diaphragm. The diaphragm is best described as a thin, dome-like muscle that acts as a partition separating the thoracic cavity, or chest, from the abdomen.



"I think visualization helps a lot," says Molnar. "If you have a round, blown-up balloon, and you put your flat hand on top and press down, you will see that the balloon increases in circumference as the pressure on it increases. This is what happens when you inhale: The diaphragm descends and flattens out, the rib cage expands while the abdominal contents get pushed down and outward, and air rushes into the lungs." When you actively release the diaphragm through an exhale, it returns to its starting position and allows the abdominal muscles to contract.

"Using a correct breathing technique can help to stabilize the lumbar spine and distribute the forces of gravity more equally around the lumbopelvic spinal muscles through their fascial connection to the psoas muscles," says Molnar. Other benefits of diaphragmatic breath include slowing down the heartbeat, stabilizing blood pressure and encouraging a sense of calm by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Along with visualization, Molnar recommends palpating students' back ribs and explaining that they should direct the breath into that area, allowing the abdomen to rise and fall as needed. "Dancers tend to pick this up very easily, because they are very kinesthetic," she says.

Breath as a Practice

Though we conceive of breathing as a natural skill, many experiences as we grow tend to stifle our innate ability to breathe deeply. Molnar prefers to teach dancers to think of breathing as a practice: "Do it every day, just like your barre," she says. While there are many ways to improve your lung capacity through specific breathing exercises, here are a two of her favorites that can be practiced anywhere at any time, in 5 to 10 minutes.

Counting the Breath

1. Start by exhaling through your mouth. "Purse your lips to really call in the deep abdominals," says Molnar. You can place your hands on your abdomen to feel your abdominals contract.

2. Inhale through your nose, with your mouth closed and your tongue resting on the roof of your mouth, its tip behind the front teeth. Move the back of one of your hands to your back ribs and feel them expand (don't be concerned with keeping the belly tight; allow it to expand naturally).

3. Begin to count to four in each direction of the breath.

4. See if you can increase the length of each inhale and exhale by one or two counts. Eventually, you might increase the exhale to a count of eight.

5. Then add a one-count pause at the end of each inhale and at the end of every exhale. Slowly increase that pause to four counts as you get more proficient.

"In a group class the teacher could give a combination like this: Four counts to inhale through the nose, four counts to hold, eight counts to exhale through pursed lips," says Molnar.


Breathing and Walking

"One of my favorite exercises is to combine breathing and walking," says Molnar. "Let's say you can walk three steps on your inhale and three on your exhale to start; after a while you may be able to walk five or six steps on each inhale and exhale."

This exercise is a great way to bring mindfulness to the breath and encourage coordination of breath and movement. Use the same tactile cues as above if they are helpful.

Getty Images

Tip: If you get lightheaded doing this exercise in a standing position, try it sitting or lying on your back.

The Parasetter

After treating professional dancers and students for many years, Molnar developed the Parasetter, a patented roller that includes an elastic wrap for the waist, to assist in three-dimensional breathing exercises. "I love using the Parasetter," she says, "because it gives you great feedback from the posterior rib cage as you take deep inhales, and if you wear the rib wrap, you can get the sensation of the whole rib cage in motion."

PhysicalMindInstitute.com

Marika Molnar founded Westside Dance Physical Therapy in NYC. Photo by Rachel Papo

News
Scott Robbins, Courtesy IABD

The International Association of Blacks in Dance is digitizing recordings of significant, at-risk dance works, master classes, panels and more by Black dancers and choreographers from 1988 to 2010. The project is the result of a $50,000 Recordings at Risk grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

"This really is a long time coming," says IABD president and CEO Denise Saunders Thompson of what IABD is calling the Preserving the Legacy and History of Black Dance in America program. "And it's really just the beginning stages of pulling together the many, many contributions of Black dance artists who are a part of the IABD network." Thompson says IABD is already working to secure funding to digitize even more work.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
The Dance Concept staff in the midst of their costume pickup event. Photo courtesy of Dance Concept

Year-end recitals are an important milestone for dancers to demonstrate what they've learned throughout the year. Not to mention the revenue boost they bring—often 15 to 20 percent of a studio's yearly budget. But how do you hold a spring recital when you're not able to rehearse in person, much less gather en masse at a theater?

"I struggled with the decision for a month, but it hit me that a virtual recital was the one thing that would give our kids a sense of closure and happiness after a few months on Zoom," says Lisa Kaplan Barbash, owner of TDS Dance Company in Stoughton, MA. She's one of countless studio owners who faced the challenges of social distancing while needing to provide some sort of end-of-year performance experience that had already been paid for through tuition and costume fees.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Ryan Smith Visuals, courtesy Whitworth

A New Hampshire resident since 2006, Amanda Whitworth is the director of dance at Plymouth State University and the co-founder of ARTICINE, a nonprofit that uses the performing and creative arts as a means to improve people's health. Whitworth is also the founder of Lead With Arts, a consulting service working in three priority areas: performance and production, arts and health, and creative placemaking. The NH State Council on the Arts recommended her to the governor for a two-year term, February 2020 to February 2022. She is the first dancer in New Hampshire to hold the title of artist laureate. We caught up with her to hear about her new role:

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.