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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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What Is Your Definition of Success? 10 Dance Artists & Leaders Weigh in


Success is sharing.

Arun Kumar, courtesy Ramaswamy

"As a dancer and choreographer of a form that is not widely known, sharing it with communities all over the country feels like a major success. The fact that audiences are eager and receptive to hear and see what I feel are universal human messages, but through my point of view, is incredibly rewarding.

"I also feel success in the relationships I've maintained. I create with my mother and sister—the three of us perform together and have grown our partnership over the years. My mentor in India, Alarmél Valli, has been my teacher for over three decades. Every day that I am accepted as her student I feel humbled." —Aparna Ramaswamy, co-artistic director of Ragamala Dance Company

Success is staying passionate.

Courtesy Steffanina

"My first goal was to pay my bills using only dance. No side jobs. Once I got to that point, I felt like I'd 'made it.'

"When I was starting out, it was a big deal to me when record labels would repost a video of mine. It's easy to get caught up in the numbers. But I've realized the most important thing is maintaining your passion for what you're doing. If it starts to be about the views, you will fall out of love with dance. Keep the passion first and then figure out your marketing." —Matt Steffanina, Los Angeles–based dancer and choreographer

Success is serving others.

Courtesy Hibah

"It was more about self-fulfillment as a youngster, and I think as I've matured, I look to see who I can help, whether I'm inspiring someone who sees me onstage or teaching an up-and-coming dancer or sharing my knowledge with my 'Seasoned Saints'—a group of women probably about 60 and over whom I teach yoga to. Of course, I want to continue to be fulfilled artistically. Every artist feeds off of having opportunities to thrive. But now I realize that what I do—how I maintain my body, my craft, my integrity, my diligence—is in fact serving the younger dancer or serving an elder who is looking to find strength and move." —Bahiyah Hibah, Broadway performer

Success if finding balance.

Christian Savini, Courtesy Pam Tanowitz Dance

"It was my dream job once I finally got hired at Cunningham. The financial burden was eased greatly by having that security, and it also helped me improve as a dancer because I had more resources. I was able to consistently go to an Alexander teacher and swim at the Y. I could afford to go to more yoga classes.

"Now, as a freelancer, being successful is having a family, having a healthy relationship and being able to also have a career. I'm at a place where I still love performing, but I also split my time with rehearsal directing and coaching. I feel successful when I can find balance in all of those things, and also financially sustain a life in New York with a child." —Melissa Toogood, freelance modern dancer and coach

Success is feeling proud—and passing it along.

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Anderson

"To me, success has nothing to do with how the public feels. It has nothing to do with applause. It has nothing to do with how much I got paid. It has to do with being proud of the work. As a dancer, every time I got to do a new role and I made it through, it was a little success.

"Now my success has nothing to do with how I feel. I work at Houston Ballet in education and community engagement, so my success is in how students understand what I'm teaching them, and seeing them grow." —Lauren Anderson, former principal dancer with Houston Ballet

Success is dedication and openness.

Stephanie Diani, Courtesy Gibney

"If there was a moment of success, it's probably in the future because I see my career as one of evolution. Certainly, along the way there were milestones—a piece of choreography that really resonated or a space that opened that was particularly functional or unique in its aesthetics. But I think our field is about moving forward one step at a time in increments—constant improvement, iterative growth.

"I think that success is having a deeply rooted, relentless dedication to what you believe in—dedication that can weather difficulties, indecision, rejection. That, coupled with a kind of agility and openness to change at any moment, to redefine and even reinvent yourself. I think those things combined, whatever the outcome, to me defines success." —Gina Gibney, founder, CEO and artistic director of Gibney

Success is continuing to learn.

John Deane, Courtesy Capucilli

"Whether it's delving into the archetypes of a Graham role, a day of teaching or the months required for staging a work, I think that delving voraciously into colorful expression in a truthful way that touches people is what fills me. These experiences can't really be measured by words of success, at least not in my book, but they become a reservoir of knowledge. To say 'I made it!' is too definitive. If you've 'made it,' your journey is over. It should constantly be evolving. I take great pride in knowing that I am continuing to learn." —Terese Capucilli, artistic director laureate with Martha Graham Dance Company

Success is making the most of opportunities.

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

"When I got promoted to principal, after 10 years of being a soloist, I really felt that I had accomplished something. And then, all of a sudden, I was thrown into premieres of some of the hardest full-length ballets, with no stage rehearsals, sometimes no company rehearsals, and I realized that actually it doesn't matter what rank you are. It matters what you do with what you've been given. For me, it was going onstage and being able to have enough confidence that I could forget about myself when I was performing, that I could actually get into the character and make the role my own no matter what." —Sarah Lane, American Ballet Theatre principal

Success is investing in others.

Noah Stern Weber, Courtesy Alexander

"I've found that as soon as you get to one peak, you look around and there are other peaks to climb. It's not dissatisfaction, but the creative impulse to continue.

"One of the measures of success I think about as an advocate and producer is that Chicago Human Rhythm Project has managed to invest millions in artist fees and marketing for American tap dancers who weren't being paid by mainstream dance presenters until recently. We've helped to build capacity for our field. That will last beyond me." —Lane Alexander, co-founder and director of Chicago Human Rhythm Project

Success is less important than desire.

Peter Graham, Courtesy Noche Flamenca

"Sometimes I don't even know what I'm looking for. It's like success has kind of been thrown out the window and it's more the feeling of, as if, I was thirsty and I needed to drink. During my career, or during my life, I've found different roads to try to calm that thirst, satisfy that thirst. But the thirst always exists. An artist is always searching. You can't look for success as an artist. For me, the only thing is a capacity to quench my thirst." —Soledad Barrio, star of Noche Flamenca

(Translated from Spanish by her husband and artistic director, Martín Santangelo)