Lauren Sanford teaches contractions to demonstrate the connection between breath and movement. Photo by Jenn Shaw Fleming

These 5 Breathing Tips Will Transform Your Dancing

If a teacher or choreographer has ever commented that your dancing looks stiff, the problem could be that you aren't breathing effectively. "When dancers aren't breathing, their shoulders are up and there's no length in their movement. They start to look like they're just waiting to get to the next thing," says Maria Bai, artistic director of Central Park Dance in New York.

It may seem like a no-brainer—of course you can't move without breathing. But beginning dancers often hold their breath because they are so focused on picking up choreography, says Sarah Skaggs, director of dance at Dickinson College. Even advanced dancers can benefit from focusing more on their breath. "Sometimes they are paying so much attention to what their limbs are doing that they forget about the lungs, the chest, the trunk. Breath is the last thing they're thinking about, but really it should be the first," says Skaggs. The more integrated your breathing is, the more relaxed and present you will feel.


Practice Breath Integration

A woman rolling up her blue yoga mat.

Yoga and Pilates can help you link breath to movement. Photo by rawpixel via Unsplash

Learning to connect breath with movement starts before you even begin tackling phrasework. Lauren Sanford, director of jazz, lyrical and contemporary at Image Studio of Dance in Washington, incorporates Graham-style contractions into her warm-up so her students can feel the relationship between breath and movement. She also has them lie on the floor, take deep, slow breaths and imagine that they are sending that breath to different parts of their bodies. This can help dancers think of breathing as an action that involves the whole body, not just the chest and lungs.

Bai suggests dancers take yoga to work on breath control. "Yoga makes you consciously focus on your breath, and eventually that becomes a pattern you can find when you're dancing," she says. Similarly, New York City–based Lindy Fines, artistic director of GREYZONE and certified Pilates instructor, finds that Pilates' focus on coordinating breath with every movement can help dancers breathe fully and use inhales and exhales to facilitate specific types of movement.

Time It Strategically

A crowd scene in a classical ballet, with the featured woman mid-jump.

In fast phrases like petit allegro, you may have to breath during transitions. Photo via Pixabay

Even with plenty of practice, difficult or unfamiliar choreography may leave you struggling to integrate breath. If this is the case, try choosing specific points in a phrase where you will breathe. "When you're doing an adagio, port de bras or waltz, there are places to inhale and elongate," says Bai. "It's harder in fast phrases. In those situations, transitions are where you can find your breath."

Get Comfortable with Panting

A woman's feet, running up a flight of concrete stairs.

Try running or other cardio activities to build endurance. Photo by Bruno Nascimento via Unsplash

Dancing will sometimes make you out of breath. Rather than fighting this, learn to work with it. Don't try to cover up the fact that you are breathing heavily, says Skaggs; it only makes it more difficult to recover and bring in more oxygen. "Dancers have to learn to breathe deeply and continue without collapsing. If you're calm about it, you can go further," she says. She recommends training with activities like running, biking and swimming to get accustomed to breathing heavily and build your cardiorespiratory endurance.

Punctuate Your Movement

A teenage student extends her leg a la seconde while holding on to the barre.

Use breath to help elongate your extension. Photo by Matthew Murphy for Dance Teacher

Using intentional, audible breaths can also be an aesthetic choice. "Breath adds dynamics and texture to your dancing. It can help you feel the difference between rough and smooth, staccato and sustained," says Sanford. Try using breath to accent a sharp movement, or to elongate an extension.

When you're dancing familiar choreography, you can insert these intentional breaths spontaneously to see how they might change your execution of the phrase. You can also choreograph breath, but be careful not to overdo it. "I see a lot of excessive breathers at competitions. If you're forcefully breathing all the time, it makes the movement look robotic," says Sanford.

Breathe as a Group

5 dancers on an NYCDA competition stage in a turned-in second position plie, one arm straight up in the air, the other on their stomachs as if taking a breath.

Breathing with your fellow performers can have a powerful effect. Photo via NYCDA

Being conscious of your breath is also a commonly overlooked way to connect with your fellow performers, especially in unison sections. "It's really hard to move in exactly the same way as someone else. But if you match your breath, your initiation and follow-through will be the same," says Sanford. "I love when I can hear a large group of dancers breathing together. It gives me goosebumps."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021