I recently came across a new article by Monika from The Dance Training Project titled “7 Rules for a Highly Effective Movement Practice”.
I’ve followed Monika for a long time, enjoying her thoughts about safe dance training and body awareness. She currently works in Toronto, helping dancers to improve their technique by retraining movement patterns for better alignment and injury prevention. It’s a valuable practice and her insight is relevant to all kinds of dancers and athletes.
In her most recent article Monika makes a point about breathing. My yoga practice has encouraged me to think about the relationship between breath and movement. Vinyasa is defined as “a method of yoga in which movements form a flowing sequence in coordination with the breath.” Breathing properly not only brings oxygen into the blood and to the muscles, it also ensures you are moving from a place of calm and not from a fight-or-flight mode that can lead to tension and injury.
When pole dancing the excitement of a new pole trick, gritting your teeth while you sustain a posture, and the if-I-can-just-ahhh-get-my-foot-to-reach-aahhh-just-there mentality, often results in dancers forgetting about their breath. Holding your breath in, or out, causes the mind and body to become tense and a tense body loses it’s ability to be flexible and strong.
Monika points out,
“If you cannot breathe during the movement, you do not own the movement.”
and she goes to explain,
“Your emotional state and physical health can be interpreted via the quality of your breath, as well as your ability to load and use core musculature to provide dynamic stability and decelerate spinal motion.
In motion, if you can demonstrate a diaphragmatic breathing pattern, you are in charge. Good work.”
Consider a trick that you feel most comfortable with. Beginner or advanced, it does not matter. Many people find a ballerina spin fairly comfortable. It’s a go to for making graceful lines and you can add on elements to show off flexibility or strength.
I’d bet you can breathe fully and completely while spinning in a ballerina. You’re so comfortable that you can even make arm gestures, expressing meaning to make the pose your own. It may even be a resting pose as part of your choreography, where you hold it for 8 counts or so and take a complete breath.
Now think about a trick that requires more effort for you. It may be a straddle/invert, jade split, or even an ayesha. What is your breath doing when you attempt these poses? Can you breathe, as Monika says, with a “diaphragmatic breathing pattern”? Or are you taking shallow breaths barely filling the upper part of your lungs? Are you holding your breath?
If you video your practice, you may even be able to see your face change as you grit your teeth and the tendons in your neck pop, all signs that you are not breathing properly and not “owning the movement”.
If you are still unconvinced that all of this matters, consider how the quality of your breath will also effect the quality of the movement. A dancer who has been holding their breath as they hold a pose, is going to have to breathe eventually, usually with a gasp that will interrupt their flow and progression into the next pose.
So how do you find space in your dance to breathe?
I recall an instructor once asking us spontaneous questions while training. He suggested a trick, an Ayesha for example, and then asked us to stay in the pose and call out five names. This experience forced our brains to change tack, most often allowing our breath to return to state of normal while we focused on a different task. The act of talking also changes the way you hold your face and neck, allowing a more natural breathing pattern to resume.
Try it for yourself and feel how your own breath changes the movement. Prepare for a straddle/invert and inhale as you go upside-down. Now try it again with an exhale. Some people suggest inverting with your mouth slightly open, reducing the chance that you will grit your teeth. Record yourself or do it with a friend and see if they can see the difference. Most likely, you will also find that the movement feels different to you too.
Once you have experimented with this, consider how you breathe when moving through other poses, or throughout an entire routine. I’ve been known to write in breaths into my choreography as conscious reminders of when to check in and make sure I’m breathing properly.