All dance, all movement, all human life, begin the same way: with a breath. Whether we are aware of it or not — the rise and fall of the chest caused by our breathing informs everything we do. We often take it for granted.
Young dancers are so involved with larger, flashier movements that they underestimate the power of the breath in dance. Understanding the importance of the breath can help dancers experience a full dynamic and expressive range as well as a heightened kinesthetic experience. And it can help teachers bring their students past the level of mere technical proficiency into the level of true artistry. But first, we have to understand how the breath effects dance.
Holding the breath creates a stifled, lifeless dancer. By connecting to the breath, dancers reaffirm their most basic human ability and connect with fellow dancers (as well as their audiences).
Traditional classical ballet strives to create the illusion that the dancing body is something otherworldly: a princess, a swan, a fairy, a sylph. Physical exertion is camouflaged; the breath is hidden. Contemporary dance — be it ballet, modern, jazz — rejects the fantasy world of classical ballet and embraces the human form with all of its potential for movement.
Contemporary dance does not deny or hide the breath; it embraces it, using breath as impetus for movement. The gentle flow of the inhale and exhale carries us along, much like waves carry a boat on the ocean. We gesture with an arm, articulate with a leg, all while our bodies rise and fall upon the shape-flow support of our breath. Fighting this natural rhythm creates a dancing body that is unnatural, not of this world (or at least not comfortable with it).
Below are four ways to begin the investigation of how the breath is vital to dance performance. Simply by bringing our awareness to these points, we can find a full, more satisfying experience for both the dancer and the viewer.
Anchor the Mind
By consciously focusing on the inhale and exhale, we can anchor our minds in the present moment. In contemporary life, we often brag about our ability to multi-task. In fact, our school systems teach it as a vital ability. The result: a generation where people think about one thing while doing another.
For the dancer, this is disastrous. The dancer on the stage that is not fully present, seems distant, detached, and robotic to the audience. The student in the dance class that is not fully present misses important corrections and opportunities for improvement.
However, by bringing awareness to the inhale and exhale during dance, we bring presence to this moment in movement. Martha Graham said “All that is important is this moment in movement.” This ‘presence’ connects us to our bodies, our teachers, our fellow students, and our viewers.
Our breath, whether we are aware of it or not, informs and supports all of our movement. Go ahead and try to stand completely still…you can’t, at least not for long. The rise and fall of the diaphragm and chest goes on in the background of all our dance moves. Even more interesting is that the same move done on an inhale or done on an exhale creates a different expression.
Try this experiment with a a friend. Have your friend hold their arms out to the side at shoulder level. Then, on an inhale, have them slowly lift their arms overhead. Next, have them repeat the arm movement with an exhale instead of an inhale. Notice a difference in the subtle expression of the movement? Does one seem more aspiring? Does one seem more resigned? Now try the same movement while holding the breath. Do you find it lifeless?
Becoming aware of how breath informs and gives organic shape to our movement can help the dancer develop a finely tuned and sensitive instrument.
Beyond the subtleties of shape-flow support mentioned above, breath-phrasing textures our dance by shaping, enhancing, and enlivening our movement phrases. The highs and lows, the sustained inhale, the sudden exhale, and the quick staccato bursts of a cough are natural phrasings to which all our bodies have instant access.
However, dancers who ignore the organic pattern of their breathing perform movement with a monotonous, dehumanizing quality. Using the breath as a phrasing tool, dancers can reach new heights and depths of expressiveness.
Not only does the breath provide mental and expressive advantages, but it also provides practical advantages. The breath, by providing oxygen to working muscles and the brain, aids the body to work at its optimum level. Without that vital oxygen to supply our muscles and brains, we cannot function at our best ability.
Dancers who breath shallow or, even worse, hold their breath, deplete their bodies oxygen supply and quickly weaken physical stamina and slow down mental processes.
In this age of super-connectedness where a thousand miles are traversed in fractions of a second via cell phones and the internet, we secretly desire real human connection. Dancing with a full awareness of the breath resonates deep within the viewer’s subconscious–creating that connection.
Our longing to escape to the theatre and television and literature to see fantasy worlds has changed to a desire for the real, to affirm our day-to-day experience. We want reality T.V., true stories at the theatre, factual memoirs to read, and living, breathing human beings dancing on the stage.