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Breath: the gateway to expressivity in movement

One thing is constant from the moment we enter this world as humans until the day we leave.

We breathe.

We breathe automatically and unconsciously.

We also breathe in intricate and sophisticated ways. For example, singers, horn players, actors, and athletes often train in breathing patterns to improve technique. Breath training is a useful strategy to enhance both musicality and performance.

In many forms of dance the breath support for movement is not an integral part of training. It is not perceived to be important in the same manner that stretching, strengthening, and balance warrant focus. Little coaching and training time addresses breath support in most Western dance forms. We propose breath support is at the heart of expressivity and artistry in movement phrasing.

Teachers may verbally coach students to hold the abdomen in so tightly the action impedes optimal performance. A traditional verbal cue often used in ballet training asks students to ‘pull up’ or ‘pull in’ the abdomen to gain motor control. These are useful verbal cues if the student does not overdo the instruction. If the dancer overexerts in this command, the action actually impedes movement, impairs breathing, and reduces efficiency of action. Recent research delves into the role of breath and motor learning in acquiring ballet ‘skills.’  Over exertion of abdominal support muscles does not ensure efficacy in movement. To the contrary, it can elicit unnecessary stiffness and tension that can impede range of motion and fluidity of action.

Deepening an understanding of the relationship between the muscular support for breathing and central support can help a student discover the necessary recruitment needed to support the pelvis and lower back for stability while maintaining mobility in the breathing apparatus. The diaphragm, seen in the image provided, is a primary muscle involved in the breathing process. It is responsible for approximately 75% of the action of breathing (Calais-Gemain, 2006). Similar to other muscles it can be chronically tight or have a limited range of motion Dancers spend many hours stretching the hamstrings and other leg muscles, but think little about this important muscle that has myofascial connection from the pelvic floor to the floor of the mouth.

Dana, a colleague and professional dancer with whom we have worked, began her interest in dance during college. Prior to discovering dance she was a synchronized swimmer. This involves swimming in formations and often holding the breath for long periods of time. As she trained more intensely to prepare for a professional dance career, her teachers asked her to stop swimming. Within one year the circumference of her ribcage when measured around the chest reduced from 38in to 36in— a difference of two full inches! The muscles of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles between the ribs no longer maintained the capacity to stretch as far. The muscles of breathing require attention for resiliency of action just as the muscles of the leg require both strength and stretch activity to enable expressive movement.

 

The lungs are located in the thoracic cage superiorly above the first rib and inferiorly between rib 5 and 7 with the diaphragm muscle situated below the lungs. Photo by Caitlin Duckwall.
The lungs are located in the thoracic cage superiorly above the first rib and inferiorly between rib 5 and 7 with the diaphragm muscle situated below the lungs. Photo by Caitlin Duckwall.

Try this movement exploration:

  1. Quietly notice your breathing.
  2. How long is your inhale? How long is your exhale? Use a personal counting system to create a relative measure of time. Breathe in as fully as possible expanding your torso.
  3. Now, hold that breath for a slow count of 8. While holding the breath, let go of unnecessary tension your body. Check in with your neck, jaw, fingers, shoulders, and lower back.
  4. Exhale for a slow count of 6.
  5. Repeat this several process times.
  6. Return to breathing in a natural way without any particular expectation. In what way has the breathing pattern changed?

Breath is both autonomic and muscularly controlled. As we have musculoskeletal habits such as standing on one leg more than another or chewing more often on one side of the mouth, we also have unconscious habits for breathing. Training the breathing mechanism should be as important as training the legs and core. Exploring functional principles for respiratory action in relation to breathing habit provides new possibilities to improve respiratory function, reduce excess tension and stress, and improve expressivity in movement. Employing breathing practices within dance training can shift the breathing mechanism for the student and improve performance.

Breathing, emotions and movement are normally strongly interwoven, with each influencing the others. Young dancers often hold their breath, interfering with their movement’s integrity and precluding expressivity. In a sensory context, exploring various relationships between breathing and moving may enhance expressive potential and release physical and psychological tension (Brodie and Lobel, 2012).

The breathing mechanism supports neuromuscular stamina and cardiovascular health. In the dance studio, conscious use of breathing patterns can enhance the phrasing and expressivity in movement. Beyond the dance studio, conscious awareness of breathing function can enhance our choices for creating ease in daily life, to release unnecessary tension, and restore the body towards balance.

Featured image: “Lungs and the Diaphragm Muscle” by Functional Awareness illustrator Caitlin Duckwall.

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