How Breath Breathes Life Into Dance

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.

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