Breath: A Back-To-School Basic

Author: Jennifer Deckert on behalf of the IADMS Dance Educators' Committee

With the academic year quickly approaching and our August holidays drawing to a close I find myself once again filled with excitement, and a bit of anxiety, for what this year may bring. I can only imagine how my students may feel as they leave their families to continue their training. During this time of re-acclimation, particularly at Wyoming altitude, I often spend several classes re-connecting to the breath in order to provide a much needed ‘reset’ and reminder of the role of breathing in our dance practice. Breath is the only controllable aspect of our autonomic nervous system which includes the sympathetic or “fight or flight” and the parasympathetic or “rest-and-digest”. Breath awareness provides the ability to move between these two states in a balanced and effective manner, allowing the dancer to be powerful and relaxed, strong and steady, connected and focused. 

Anatomy of Breathing
Understanding the anatomy of breathing and the function of the diaphragm allows for a more complete application to movement. The diaphragm is a large parachute shaped muscle which divides the thoracic and abdominal cavities. Connecting from “nipple to navel” and across the width of the rib cage, it is our primary breathing muscle. 

As the diaphragm contracts it pulls the lungs downward, thus creating space (volume) in the lungs. As volume increases, the pressure in the lungs decreases, and in an effort to equalize the pressure, air from the outside is “sucked” into the lungs = inhale. The opposite response occurs when the diaphragm releases, decreasing volume, increasing pressure = exhale. Additional muscles, including the intercostals and abdominals, also act to change the “shape” of the lungs, allowing for the ribs to move or the belly to expand in order to increase/decrease volume. 

Three-Part Breath
One simple breathing exercise that allows students to explore the multi-dimensionality of breathing is the yoga Three-Part Breath. In the supine or seated position, ask students to place one hand over the chest and the other on the belly. Then, thinking about the breath as filling a cup of water, cue the students to inhale into their belly, then ribs, then chest, pause for a moment with the cup full, then empty the cup, chest, ribs, belly. Paying particular attention to the fact that the bottom of the cup must remain full until the end of the exhale. Coach the students with verbal cues for several breath cycles, then ask them to try 2-3 more cycles on their own.  

Explore this breathing pattern in a variety of positions including prone and child’s pose, each time asking the students to find ways to increase the volume of their lungs and asses the effect of the position on their breathing capacity. Following each position allow time to rest for several normal breath cycles prior to shifting to a new positon. As this practice becomes more familiar, small movement patterns can be added, such as the raising and lowering of the arms, in order to begin the exploration of breath, volume, and movement. 

Application to the Classroom
Breathing practice should then be integrated into the dance practice. Provide time in class for students to examine their own movement patterns with breath or provide a combination with specific breath cues. I find that particularly during ballet classes dancers tend to hold their breath on exertion, leading to inefficient movement patterns. Take the time in class to explore a plie with an exhale on the decent, cambré at the barre with an exhale forward and inhale back, or grand battement with an exhale to help facilitate a powerful movement. Carry these ideas forward into the center by trying pirouettes with an exhale to prepare and an inhale on each spot, or grand allegro with an inhale at the top of the jump. Challenge the students to try breath patterns opposite of those given or ask how their movement quality is affected by their awareness of breath. The best way to learn is to play, so give your students permission to play through their new understanding of breath.  

Jennifer Deckert, MFA
Dance Educator, Researcher, and Yoga Instructor
Co-director of the Dance Science Program at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, WY USA 


For further information, check out these recourses:
1. Kaminoff, L. Yoga Anatomy. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007
2. Calais-Germain, B. Anatomy of Movement. Seattle, WY: Eastland press, 1991
3. Staugaard-Jones, J. The Concise Book of Yoga Anatomy. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2015
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