How many of us have collapsed backstage after a long or difficult variation trying to catch our breath before our next entrance? I have. Many times. Ballet is athletic, and you’ll need to practice and build strength to sustain longer and harder variation. But there’s a simple change you can implement now to get better quickly: breathe efficiently.
No one thinks about breathing: it’s natural. Yet, a deep active breath using your lungs full capacity will help you with your balance, leg height and stamina. Skeptical?
Your breathing pattern affects your whole body!
Obviously, breathing brings oxygen to your blood and muscles, and gets rid of the waste. We all know that, but there’s more to it.
When you breathe, your rib cage moves:
Your lungs are in your rib cage that attaches to your spine.
The shape of your spine impacts your balance and the fluidity of your movements.
Your shoulders are attached to your rib cage, so your rib cage can restrict your shoulder motion.
Your abdominal muscles attache to your rib cage AND your hips: oh!.
And last but not least, your psoas muscle attaches to your spine and is the only muscle that links your trunk to your legs (so it’s an important one)
When you breathe, you move your rib cage which, directly or indirectly, affects pretty much your whole body. So breathing right is much more important that it seems. That said, you should not fight breathing, but you want to be aware of how you breathe and get the most of it. Breathing is an aspect of your dancing that is often overlooked.
How are you currently breathing?
Let’s find out how you currently breathe. Do this experiment with us. There’s no right or wrong answer at this stage, just awareness.
Breathe in, allow the air to fill in your lungs.
How does your rib cage move?
Is your chest moving up?
Is your rib cage only moving through the sides?
Do you feel the back of your rib cage expanding as well?
Is your tummy relaxing a bit or expanding a lot?
Now exhale slowly and allow the air to leave your body.
Do you feel your tummy tightening and drawing in?
Is your rib cage collapsing down?
Does it feel forced or natural?
Do you feel your spine is shortening or are you still upright and tall?
Incorrect breathing is when your rib cage doesn’t move at all, or you hold your breath most of the time, or, more commonly among dancers, you breathe from your upper chest keeping your stomach very tight: your chest lifts up and open wide to the sides but there’s no movement of your rib cage in the back: as a result,
You dont get much air in because the gas/blood exchange really happens in the deep lower part of your lungs,
Your center of gravity is raised: it impacts your balance,
Your spine is very straight or in extension: it restricts your shoulder movements and can be problematic for partnering.
What does efficient breathing feel like? How should we breathe?
Breathe in: let the air flow in
Breathe in naturally: just allow the air to flow in as deeply as you can. You want to feel the ribs widening in all three directions: front, side and back. The chest expands to the side but also to the back, the chest lifts a little and your belly relaxes a bit. You direct your focus on the back of your rib cage expanding behind you. Think: my spine is reaching to the ceiling from my bottom to the crown of my head.
Breathe out fully
Breathe out naturally: allow the air to come out. Now try again as if you’re gently blowing through a straw to make small bubbles in your drink. Don’t think about how it will look like on stage, we are just experimenting new ways of breathing. We’ll add the style later.
You should feel a deep abdominal muscle activate. It’s your transverse abdominis: it wraps around your waist like a girdle and is essential to the stability of your spine (think balance, turns, jumps, partnering…). You should feel this muscle gently holding your organs and center together and wrapping around you like a belt. It’s not tight, it’s supported. Now focus on this muscle only and keep the same contraction level as you inhale. So you’re not squeezing your belly in like crazy. That’s the level of abdominal contraction you want to maintain when you move around. It’s not super tight. You don’t “close your abs in towards your midline”. It’s not “belly button to your spine”. It really feels like a gentle tight girdle or corset: supported, lifted, held together.
This is the first change you want to make in your ballet routine!
Use your breath to facilitate movement: anticipate
Now the trick is to be smart and align your breathing with the movement.
We keep it simple on purpose. Naturally when you breathe in, your rib cage goes up and out and it promotes spine extension (i.e. cambré). When you breathe out, your rib cage goes down and in, promoting spine flexion (i.e. penché en avant). For it to work, you need to anticipate the movement: be aware of the next movement and initiate your breath pattern just seconds before you move.
Let’s review some examples:
A classic spinal extension, you will love inhaling in this movement. The secret for a beautiful cambré is not to lose the gentle contraction of your girdle or corset supporting your waist and stomach. Remember point 2 and review our ebook Correct placement in ballet: a glance at a professional posture.
You want to keep your weight forward and lift onto your toes. You want to avoid spinal extension. So you got it: start exhaling a nano second before you start your relevé. Try a couple of times, then compare with a relevé on an inhale. The same principle will apply for your retiré and pirouettes. You start to understand how it works?
Favor an inhale in the glissade. You’ll resist collapsing in your plié and it will keep it light and lifted.
We want to avoid the banana shape jumps with your chest lifting up and back. How to avoid spinal extension? Exhale! And the good news is that it will make you inhale in the plié and avoid collapsing into it. Of course if you have a series of jumps you might not be able to inhale at each landing. So you inhale on the first plié, exhale with your first jump and try to match your next exhale with a jump.
The idea is to breathe consistently, not to hold your breath and adjust it with your movements as much as possible.Breathing is essential to avoid quick fatigue and it can be used to facilitate your movement. What matters is that:
you keep breathing all through your variation or combination,
you breathe in and out in 3 dimensions: side, front and back of your rib cage, and
you breathe deeply. Don’t allow for a shallow breath pattern, you’ll fatigue super quickly.
Next time you enter the studio, pay attention to how you breathe:
Do you hold your breath in those extensions?
Do you hold your breath during the allegros?
Do you breathe continuously?