Dancing With Asthma
It starts with a tight feeling in your chest. Your breaths become shallow and high, like your lungs are sitting at the back of your throat. Then, panic sets in. You're gasping for air, and the anxiety is only making it worse. I was diagnosed with asthma in my early teens, and it would act up whenever I was rehearsing something extra-strenuous. While it rarely put me in immediate medical danger, it certainly changed the way I danced. I approached difficult phrases with less confidence, and tried to save so much energy in the early minutes of pieces that I moved too cautiously.
Dancing, and other physical activity, can trigger an asthma attack. But that doesn't mean you have to let it impact your work. Instead, you can learn how to prevent and control your breathing problems. It will help you feel more secure onstage, give more power to your dancing and, most importantly, keep you out of a dangerous medical situation.
Why It Happens
When you have an asthma attack, it's because your airway has narrowed and become inflamed, limiting the air that can get to your lungs. Asthma, which usually develops by age 30, can have many different triggers, says Atlanta Ballet primary care physician Kara Pepper. It could be environmental, like cold air or dust; allergy-related, like pollen or pet dander; or because of exercise itself.
What to Do
If you're having trouble breathing, see your primary care doctor, who may refer you to a lung doctor or allergist, depending on your symptoms. You'll probably be given a physical exam, as well as a series of breathing tests that measure the power and capacity of your lungs. Most people diagnosed with asthma are prescribed a rescue inhaler. These are used to help open up airways in the lungs, but only relieve symptoms temporarily. If you are experiencing symptoms weekly, you would be given a daily prescription to lessen the need for a rescue inhaler, says Pepper.
Keeping your asthma under control means always having your inhaler within reach, whether that's in your dance bag or safely hidden in the wings during a performance. If you know you'll be dancing something extra-aerobic, take a puff from the inhaler 30 minutes prior. Many rescue inhalers contain a short-acting medication, which can make some people feel shaky and have a racing heartbeat, but it usually isn't enough to throw off your performance.
Learn what triggers your breathing problem. For instance, you could avoid allergens by using your air conditioner during high pollen seasons. Clean your living space regularly, since dust—even if you're not allergic—can be a key player. And invest in a dehumidifier if you live in a particularly damp climate. Pepper's biggest advice is to find a lung doctor to monitor the severity of your symptoms. Lastly, get a flu shot every year and a pneumonia shot sometime after you turn 18, as both illnesses greatly impact lung capacity.
Asthma is a manageable problem, and very rarely will it impact your health so much that a doctor would suggest abandoning dance altogether. You just have to take command of your health, like you would with any tricky piece of choreography that comes your way.
Tips and Tricks
- If you're having difficulty breathing while dancing, put your hands on your hips or on your head to give your ribs room to expand and help you recover.
- Keep a diary detailing your attacks to discover what your triggers are.
- Choreograph your breathing throughout a piece. Knowing exactly where you need to concentrate on your lungs can calm anxiety.
- Try to relax. The more anxious you feel about your asthma acting up, the worse it can make an attack.
- Always give yourself a good warm-up. No one should take their body from zero to 100 immediately, especially if your lungs need a little extra help.
Eating for Better Breathing
According to the Mayo Clinic, people with asthma may have low levels of vitamin D—something many dancers often lack because they spend so much time indoors. Get your fix through salmon, milk, eggs and some sun. Fruits, vegetables and other antioxidant-packed foods have been found to decrease lung inflammation. And, of course, avoid any foods that may trigger an allergic reaction.
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.