Proper breathing improves your movement quality.
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Dance is art and athleticism rolled into one, which has certain ramifications in terms of your training. Whether your true passion is ballet, hip hop, tango or tap, you need exceptional strength, flexibility, coordination and endurance. You push your body hard to develop these qualities, but with all of the frantic effort, don't overlook the role of breathing. Whatever type of dance you pursue, simple breathing exercises can help you reach your artistic and athletic potential.
Preventing Muscle Fatigue
When you're engaged in run-of-the-mill, low-intensity activities, you probably give little or no thought to the process of breathing. That's because breathing happens automatically, and there's often no need to interfere. If you dance intensely, however, you need to take conscious control of your breathing in order to prevent fatigue. When you push yourself in class or during a performance, your body requires extra oxygen. In turn, your respiratory muscles work harder and faster to meet the increased demand. If those muscles are weak, they'll tire too easily and too readily. When that happens, your body grabs oxygen from muscles you use for movement, causing them to fatigue prematurely. By beefing up your respiratory muscles -- including your diaphragm and intercostals -- your breathing becomes more efficient, your motor muscles get the oxygen they need and you stay more alert and focused.
Taking control of your breathing helps combat emotional tension, which is arguably a dancer's worst enemy. Dancers at all levels -- from adult newbie to professional -- frequently experience stress and anxiety in the dance studio. Competition among peers can be fierce, and dancers who take their craft seriously often fear failing or falling short of expectations. Pre-performance anxiety and on-stage nerves can leave a dancer in knots. All that tension causes your muscles to tighten, throws you off your center and restricts your movements, all of which bodes poorly for performance and increases your risk of dance-related injury. By training yourself to breathe sensibly, deeply and rhythmically, you'll be better able to shed excessive tension and strain. In turn, your muscles will be more elastic, and your movements -- from jumps and turns to spritely footwork -- will feel easier and appear more fluid.
For dance, it's neither efficient nor aesthetically appropriate to gulp air in preparation for exertion. That sort of breathing forces your chest to visibly rise and expand, which affects the line of your body and changes your center of gravity. This sort of shallow breathing high in the chest also leads to tightening of the upper torso, which inhibits movement of your arms and makes your upper back appear stiff. To maintain a sense of looseness in your arms and back, your chest needs to stay relaxed, and the job of breathing has to shift further down to the diaphragm.
You can strengthen your respiratory muscles and increase breathing awareness with a simple exercise. Lying on your back in bed or on a floor mat, rest your palms on your lower abdomen. Relax and feel your body sink into the mattress or mat. Inhale slowly through your nose for a count of two, letting your abdomen gradually expand. Watch your hands rise. Hold briefly and then slowly exhale through your nose for a count of four. Try constricting your throat slightly to slow down the release of air. If you prefer to breathe out through your mouth, try to make a soft hissing noise as the air passes between your lips. As you exhale, work on consciously flattening your abdomen, but don't forcibly expel air at the end; doing so denies your body the oxygen it needs. If you feel tense and jittery before your next class or performance, Dance Spirit Magazine suggests breathing through one nostril at a time. While standing, use your thumb to press on one nostril while slowly inhaling and exhaling from the other. Repeat on the other side.
Some dancers opt for a more formal approach to breath training. Dancers have long ventured beyond the dance studio to dabble in yoga and Pilates, both of which lead to strength, flexibility and balance gains that are highly beneficial for dance. Yoga and Pilates also help dancers relax, focus on breath and develop awareness of how proper breathing enhances movement.