Health & Body
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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.

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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."

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

Studio Owners
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Small businesses across the U.S. are keeping careful tabs on their states' reopening schedules and making changes to their business models accordingly. As pandemic-related guidelines and timelines evolve, it's important that you have a multilayered plan for the gradual reopening of your studio—one that prioritizes your dancers' and staff's health, reassures families that it's safe to return and allows you to operate your business to the fullest extent. Keep in mind that flexibility will be key: It's possible your state may experience a spike in new cases of COVID-19, requiring your studio's plan to take a step or two backward before it moves forward again.

Here are four crucial steps to preparing your studio for a flexible, responsive and well-considered reopening.

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Health & Body
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It's time to talk seriously about safety in dance education. As the physical and psychological demands put on student dancers escalates—thanks to competitions, social media and ever-evolving choreography—there is a pressing need to consider how we can successfully safeguard young dancers.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, we've heard numerous accounts of unethical, dangerous and appalling practices at dance institutions around the world. Stories of abuse at major dance schools draw media attention and they shake our community to its core.

Old enough to remember less-sensitive times, I'm not surprised to learn that dancers somewhere are being treated badly by people in power. When I was a young child, a dance teacher once threw a chair in rehearsal—not really at anyone, but at the floor in utter frustration with our inability to meet her expectations. Other teachers slapped legs, dragged children by the arm, yelled, shamed or ignored their charges. Fortunately, most of the young people I now teach could not imagine such outbursts or indignities in the studio. Most teachers these days hold themselves to the high standards of discipline and professionalism that the dance world generally values, though there are still those who have not embraced the culture shift.

However, the dangers for young people in dance are not limited to outright abuse. Dance is inherently a high-risk activity because in pushing the boundaries of our human capacity, physically and emotionally, we sometimes discover rewarding artistic results. This reality can encourage students, teachers and even parents to engage in dangerous behaviors in the name of excellence, or more so lately, winning.

From my niche in dance science, I am regularly both impressed by the ways that dance training has improved and horrified by the stories I still hear—stories of students jumping all day on cement floors, being physically pressed into over-splits, dancing for 20-plus hours in one weekend, only to return on Monday to a full week of stressful school days followed by nightly dance classes. For the record, from a health perspective, none of these examples are safe or appropriate for young people, no matter how common they are. If they seem worth it in the short term, know that in the long run, these strategies render young dancers vulnerable to serious injury, illness, burnout and a range of mental health issues.

So who is the driving force behind these and other persistent, unsafe practices? I believe it varies depending on the situation. I am aware that students see things on Instagram and they want it, now! I know that many teachers sense that young dancers are not generally interested in the slow steady progress that past generations sweated through. I know that parents, too, can contribute to the pressure. And I certainly know that competitions and conventions profit from an industry that pushes young people beyond their reasonable limits. But as a dance educator, it is the motivation of my colleagues that interests me.

What can be done to ensure that dance teachers keep students safe while simultaneously challenging them to reach new heights in their dancing? Is it an issue of information? Do we need more resources devoted to clarifying safe practice? Do we need standards and regulations, which both assure that all teachers have a basic knowledge of safe practice and help teachers defend these strategies when parents and students pressure them to do more? Do we need to take an ethical oath to do no harm so that in the heat of our artistic and competitive passions, we don't forget that compromising a student's safety is NEVER worth it? I'm inclined to think that all of these are important, but there are currently no industry-wide safety regulations, no governing authorities for dance and no certifying exams required to become a dance studio owner or teacher. Perhaps it's time for that to change.

I am quick to defend dance teachers to my students and peers. I understand that teaching dance is an imperfect, challenging craft. I know that dance cannot be taught perfectly from A to Z; that students need to sometimes make mistakes and find their own way out of them in order to grow. I want dance to be an exciting and rigorous experience for young people, and I believe that most teachers genuinely care deeply about their students and want all the best experiences and outcomes for them. But I hear too many stories of unreasonable training practices to turn a blind eye. We all need to have a meaningful talk about maintaining student safety in dance training, and I'm eager to get the conversation started.

For more information about safe dance practice:

International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS)

Dance/USA Task Force on Dancer Health

Safe in Dance International (SiDI)

Healthy Dancer Canada

National Dance Society

Health & Body
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Q: Despite stretching, my knees stay at least a foot off the ground when I sit or lie down in butterfly. When I gently push my knees down, I feel a sharp pain deep in the hip joint. What can I do?

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Health & Body
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Q: Two years ago, one of my dancers fractured her ankle and was out for six months. Upon her return, I cautiously allowed her to take pointe class, but treated her as if she was a beginner, because she was rolling out into supination, and I was fearful she would reinjure her ankle. Her mother feels I have held her back and changed to another studio. Did I make the right choice?

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Health & Body

You've seen them: dancers, still recovering from a holiday food coma, shuffling into class in a woozy, post-vacation stupor. (You may even know the feeling yourself.) It's all they can do to make it through their classes, and by day two, they're stiff, sore and moaning about it.

“Winter break is the worst," says Rubén Graciani, chair of dance and associate artistic director, Conservatory of Performing Arts, at Point Park University. Not many students take a January intensive, and with no school for about four weeks, it's just long enough to fall seriously out of shape—especially if dancers aren't cross-training.

“The biggest thing is stamina," he says. “Jumping into that schedule—11 to 13 technique classes a week—it's really hard on their bodies."

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Health & Body

I have a dancer who has a very tight back. She can't even touch her toes. She says it doesn't hurt, but she feels no stretch. I am able to push her back down further (with no pain for her), but she just can't do it on her own. How can I help her? —Anna

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