Friday, August 5, 2011

What Makes Dancers Good: Breathing

I guess I'm starting a new series! I keep doing this. Grr.
In this series, I'll be discussing different aspects of dance that I think all "good" dancers have or do. Please note that these are my opinions and I am in no way trying to force my ideas on you, and that I'm not an expert, so I'm just sharing my thoughts as another dancer who's noticed things. Thanks!

Of course you've noticed that your favorite dancers make everything look impossibly effortless. Many of my favorite dancers appear never to touch the ground - it's like they're constantly floating, they're so magical. They're so light on their feet and never appear to be straining. They're limber, nimble, and amazing. So what is it about them that makes them different from the rest of us?

They breathe. They are able to take every movement and send the air they breathe through their body and make it float. Okay, not literally, but the fact that they breathe means so much.

Did you ever notice that you're holding your breath? Maybe you're trying to get the steps of a new combination down and you're having problems, or you're concentrating on the perfect turnout or getting your leg higher. Basically, if you've ever been out of breath after a combination or performance piece, it means you weren't breathing as much as you needed to. You're holding your breath because you unconsciously feel like if you focus all your brain power and energy on your leg being higher, it will magically pop up another few inches and you won't have to waste time breathing. You don't need air. Air is secondary. Leg up first.

In all actuality, if you took a deep breath in as you lifted your leg and continued to breathe as you held it there, you might have discovered that it went a little higher, or that at least it felt easier. In an exercise my ballet teacher had us do in our stretch class, she asked us to do a grande plie in first position first breathing out as we went down, then breathing in as we went down. Amazingly, breathing out makes you drop faster and feel like a sinking rock, while breathing in makes you feel light as a floaty feather and makes the drop look (and feel) so much better. Try it - you'll probably experience something similar.

One way I learned how to breathe more when I dance is focusing on being able to hear my own breathing. I also thought about the dynamics of what I was dancing and chose particular places of split-second rest or suspension to take breaths in, and faster sequences in which to let breath out. It was weird and unnatural at first, but I was able to train my body to make breathing through each movement more of a reflex. I still catch myself not breathing sometimes, especially when I get excited about what I'm doing, so breathing is still something I'm working on.

Maybe you don't understand what I mean when I say "breathe through movement." Basically it's what I touched on above: thinking about and understanding the dynamics of a dance and when a breath in or out will help you achieve those dynamics. If you're taking a huge leap into the air, take a breath in. If you're doing some fast footwork that ends with a suspended turn, take short breaths out followed by a long breath in to help you suspend. If you're (into ballet terms) doing a tombe pas de bourre, glissade, grande jete sequence, take a luxurious (slow) breath in on the tombe to help you fall slower and lighter, take quick breaths out on the pas de bourre and glissade, and take a quick, big breath in as you go up into your grande jete. Then do the whole sequence without breathing. Feels different, huh?

I hope that made some sense and that it'll get you thinking about breathing. Remember, dancing isn't just about how high your leg goes or where your arm is - it's just as much about how the leg comes down and how the arm extends and curves to flow into the next movement. Dancing is nothing without transitions, and learning to breathe will get you through those transitions with ease.

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