Even though breathing is the natural process of bringing oxygen into the lungs, most dancers are unclear about exactly how to breathe! Okay, you know how to breathe, but can you use your breath efficiently to reduce tension and improve core strength? How many times do you receive cues to pull your tummy in and up? Typically, you will suck your belly inward, throw your ribs and chest upward, and elevate your shoulders. Now you have increased the tension in the upper body and have actually made it more difficult to breathe! How can you possibly move with ease and grace? Breathing is part of dance and movement. If you’re instructing a class, you might want to add breathing exercises into the dance combinations. You could choreograph breathing into the exercises with the music so the dancers become more aware of their breathing patterns. This organized, rhythmic breathing can be a great tool for instilling better breathing habits.
Breathing consists of two phases: inspiration, the period when oxygen flows into the lungs, and expiration, the period when carbon dioxide leaves the lungs. Every part of your body needs oxygen. Oxygen allows cells to release needed energy for the muscular work of dancing. Both phases can be either passive or forced. While reading this book, you are probably unaware of your breathing. At the beginning of your warm-up or technique class, you focus on organizing your body and are unaware of your breathing mechanism. These are examples of quiet, passive breathing. Holding a beautiful balance in relevé would require passive, quiet breathing as well.
The active process of inhalation and exhalation is a more forced act of breathing. This can be described as deeper breathing and uses more musculature for inspiration and expiration. You may find yourself breathing deeper while executing jumping combinations or when the choreography requires more challenging muscle work. Organizing the process of breathing will reduce tension in the upper body, improve oxygen flow to your muscles, and engage your core muscles. All of the exercises in this chapter will help you organize your breathing.
Your lungs are soft, spongy, elastic organs that provide the passageway for air. They are surrounded and structurally supported by your ribs. This chapter is not about overanalyzing every detail of the respiratory muscles, but an overview of this process can assist you in becoming a better dancer. Some of the muscles we focus on first are the diaphragm, the transversus abdominis, and the pelvic floor muscles.
The diaphragm is the most important muscle of the respiratory system. As the primary mover, it is a large, dome-shaped muscle that lies within the rib cage (figure 3.1). It might help to visualize an open parachute inside your rib cage. All of its muscle fibers run up and down, which determine how it contracts. The diaphragm is attached to the lower end of the sternum (chest bone), the lowest six ribs, and the spine. This muscle is responsible for causing the three-dimensional shape changes in the thoracic and abdominal cavity. As you inhale, the diaphragm contracts, moves downward, and flattens out. This contraction allows the lungs and ribs to expand a small amount in all planes, which increases the volume of the thoracic cavity. This expansion moves your ribs in a three-dimensional pattern.
The abdominal wall is made up of four layers; the deepest of the layers is the transversus abdominis muscle, which supports your trunk like a corset. The transversus abdominis muscle fibers run horizontally—the diaphragm weaves into the fibers of the transversus abdominis. On forced exhalation, the transversus abdominis muscle begins to contract, increasing abdominal pressure. Typically, forced exhalation can help you on the downward phase of some movements by enhancing the control of the landing. Try a slow grande battement (high kick); inhale on the preparation and into the leg lift; then actively exhale on the way down. Notice how the exhalation supports the downward phase—you have more control over your leg. The importance of the abdominal wall in supporting the spine and core is discussed in detail in chapter 4. But remember that forced exhalation has a direct relationship with the deep transversus abdominis muscle contracting.
Several layers of muscles support the pelvis, which are also involved in forced exhalation; they connect between the ischium (sit bones), the pubic bone, and the coccyx (tailbone). These muscles are the pelvic floor muscles. Visualize a diamond shape—the sit bones along the side points of the diamond and the pubic and coccyx bones along the front and back points. During forced exhalation, the muscles that align and attach along the points of the diamond engage, pull together, and provide support for the position of the pelvis. This muscular contraction becomes more apparent while practicing the breathing plié exercise (page 48). Now, when practicing efficient breathing with plié, the upward phase of the plié coordinates the exhalation with engagement of the deep core and the pelvic floor.