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Here's What Experts Say to Look For in a Mask for Dancing

From oversized mouse heads in The Nutcracker to Jabbawockeez masks, most dancers have experience performing with restrictive costumes or headpieces. But as we transition from taking class at home during the COVID-19 pandemic to sharing a studio with others, masks aren't just a costume accessory: They're a necessary health tool.

While masks are not a replacement for other COVID-19 prevention measures that we've been following for months, such as social distancing and practicing hand hygiene, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear face masks or cloth face coverings in any public setting or instance where it's difficult to maintain at least six feet of social distance—and that includes the dance studio.

We spoke with medical experts and dancewear manufacturers about what to look for in a protective mask for dance.


Why masks are a must

COVID-19 is mainly spread through respiratory droplets and aerosols that are produced when an infected person talks, coughs or sneezes. Covering your nose and mouth is one of the easiest things you can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and keep your fellow dancers safe, says Dr. Nita Bharti, an infectious disease expert from the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State University.

The point of wearing a mask is to protect other people from your own respiratory droplets, says Dr. Charlotte Baker, assistant professor of epidemiology at Virginia Tech. Everyone in the studio must wear a mask, because people can carry and spread COVID-19 without having any symptoms. "The more people wear a mask, the safer everybody gets to be," she says.

Masks are particularly important when you're indoors, because there's less airflow for respiratory droplets to disperse. If you're in an enclosed indoor dance studio, for example, your droplets will essentially be confined to that room, Bharti says. Not to mention, you tend to breathe heavier during physical exercise, which means that you're spreading even more droplets, Baker says.

Keeping your nose and mouth covered throughout a day of rehearsals and classes comes with its challenges, but it's worth it for your long-term health. "Even if you're young and healthy, this virus can do horrible things, with lasting effects that could really have a negative outcome on your dance career," Bharti says.

Find the right fabric

Ideally, your mask should be breathable so you can still exert yourself, but thick enough to stop your respiratory droplets. Baker recommends a simple fabric test: Put your mask on, hold your hand six to 10 inches from your face, and take a deep breath. If you can feel the air on your hand as you exhale, your mask isn't thick enough, she says.

Since your mask will be close to your face for prolonged periods of time, opt for natural fabrics, such as bamboo and cotton, over man-made ones like polyester, says Luis Guimarães, CEO and co-founder of dancewear company Ballet Rosa. The Ballet Rosa masks are made from a blend of bamboo and stretchy cotton, which are natural fabrics that work well at filtering particles while also allowing breathability.

Focus on fit

From a practical perspective, your mask needs to cover your nose, mouth and chin, with no gaps where respiratory droplets could easily escape, Baker says. "The biggest thing is you just want to make sure it fits your face," she says.

Of course, buns and other dance hairstyles can make mask straps awkward. Ballet Rosa offers four masks that have slightly different straps to accommodate different hair needs: one with an adjustable single strap; one with double elastics; one that loops around the ears; and one with an adjustable over-ear drawstring. The idea is that you can choose how to position the mask around your bun and keep it secure throughout your day.

These details matter, because once you have your mask on, you shouldn't fidget with it or remove it. Touching the outside of the mask can cause contamination.

Wash it well

Many fabric face masks that are intended for exercise are treated with antimicrobial agents to ward off germs from your sweat. Bloch's B-Safe face mask, for example, is made from a cotton-polyester blend that's designed to control odor and keep the fabric fresh as you dance, explains Cathy Radovan, COO of Bloch. Eurotard's washable 3-Ply Antimicrobial face mask is interwoven with a silver copper zeolite agent, which helps break down bacterial growth as it occurs. The Under Armour Sportsmask, another popular pick for athletes, has an inner fabric liner that wicks away sweat and keeps bacteria from growing on the mask.

Even with these special features, it's important to wash your mask after every use, or when it becomes visibly soiled. The CDC suggests machine-washing your mask with regular laundry detergent and warm water, and drying it on the highest heat setting.

Keep your mask in a plastic or paper bag when you're not using it to prevent further contamination. If you dance most days, you may want to have more than one mask so you can always have a clean mask at the ready.

Do a "dress rehearsal"

Exercising in a mask takes practice, just like everything else in dance, Baker says. It's completely safe to cover your nose and mouth with fabric while dancing or exercising, but a little discomfort is to be expected, she says.

Research suggests that masks and face coverings may increase "breathing effort" during exercise, but not to a degree that it would affect your performance, explains Dr. William O. Roberts, a family medicine and primary care sports medicine physician and professor at the University of Minnesota, who's a past president of the American Council of Sports Medicine. "You're not going to have any problems with oxygenation, increased CO2 retention or anything like that," he says.

If you're having difficulty breathing, or if you feel short of breath while dancing, that's a sign that you need a different mask, Baker says. You might want to explore either a more breathable fabric that is still effective or an alternative fit that allows you to get more oxygen, she says. (Keep in mind that wearing a mask or face covering can be dangerous for people who have medical conditions that affect breathing, such as asthma, she says. Talk to your doctor if you're not sure what the best option is for you.)

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I'm a Professional Dancer With Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Here's Why Dance Companies Need to Start Prioritizing Mental Health

My name is Abi Stafford, and I have generalized anxiety disorder.

I've had this "hook" in my mind for how I'd open an important essay my entire dance career, but I was never ready to talk about it, until now.

I might be the only dancer to say this, but the best change to result from the coronavirus shutdown is company class moving to Zoom.

As a kid, my teachers encouraged competition between students. While it undoubtedly helped push me, all these years later I still struggle with unhealthy levels of competitive feelings in class. But on Zoom, I don't have to compare myself to anyone, and it feels great. I can dance freely because no one is watching and critiquing my abilities.

When the shutdown started, I was preparing to return to New York City Ballet after a hiatus. I had taken a leave of absence since December 2019, the middle of Nutcracker season, to focus on my mental health.

As NYCB underwent leadership transitions during the last few years and the culture among the dancers shifted, I had developed new feelings of anxiety. Some dancers felt more emboldened to ask for roles they wanted, envisioning exciting career possibilities. Others quietly wished casting choices would remain the same and sensed a more uncertain path. With my brother as artistic director, workplace dynamics collided with my personal life. Casting disappointments jabbed me painfully, and it became hard to find a corner in the theater where my soul felt safe.

It was difficult to officially inform the company that I needed to take a leave because I'd been burned when I'd shown my anxiety before. Back when Peter Martins was in charge, I had an anxiety attack backstage prior to Theme and Variations. I felt too insecure, too scared, too tired, and I couldn't fathom performing. He offered me en­coura­ge­ment at the time, but, several years later, he brought up the episode unexpectedly, pointing to that painful moment to explain why I wasn't reliable. The experience solidified that I should never show emotional vulnerabilities or weaknesses.

Fast-forward to December 2019. When I finally let myself stop dancing, literally mid-rehearsal, some colleagues tried to talk me out of it. While well-intentioned, their words made me feel worse because I started to question my choice. But it was the right decision for me. I have been focusing on my mental wellness, family and pursuing my law degree to heal my spirit as quarantine carries on.

I have lived and performed with (sometimes crippling) anxiety for my entire career, and I'm nowhere near the only one who's struggled. I know of a dancer who picked up her bag and quit in the middle of a rehearsal. One time a young dancer timidly asked a group of older dancers whether ballet company life was hard for them. Upon emphatic replies of "yes," he said, "I thought it was just me. Everyone walks around like they are just fine."

Dancers feel immense pressure from management to constantly be perfect onstage. Yet, we are at the mercy of our bodies. Those two factors are an excellent recipe for anxiety. Some dancers cry a lot. Others call out sick when they're too anxious to perform. Some even choose to retire altogether—far too young.

There needs to be more mental health support within dance companies. Psychological services should be made available to all dancers and artistic staff—including ballet masters. At my company, they're under an intense amount of pressure to prepare the vast repertory, and all are former NYCB dancers who shared similar experiences, stresses and pain during their own careers.

Overall, everyone needs to listen more. Artistic management could send out anonymous surveys to assess what areas need improvement. Companies could hold talk-back sessions with dancers to open up the lines of communication about what's working and what's not. We need to make it acceptable for dancers to take care of their mental health. We need to stop training dancers (explicitly and implicitly) to hide their anxiety for fear of losing performance opportunities.

It is time to begin the conversation, because I worry about the ongoing suffering of dancers if this is not addres­sed. I worry that company leadership will continue to view my very real struggles with my mental health as a weakness. Most of all, I worry that the next generation of artists will continue to suffer as too many of their predecessors have.