“I Can Breathe or Improvise…Not Both.” These words, uttered by my dear student this morning, ring true for so many budding dancers. I take that back, it’s not just applicable to dancers. It applies to most human beings who are nervous to do something. In almost every skill I can think of, there’s doing something well and then there’s the art of appearing relaxed while you do it. Appearing relaxed = relaxed breathing.
I recently started rock climbing and I can tell you that there are points, especially when I’m 30 feet off the ground, when my breathing becomes more shallow and my muscles seize up. I can grab the same holds and feel infinitely more relaxed when I’m 5 feet up. Why? It’s literally the same activity! My nerves are making it so much harder.
WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH BREATHING?
The primary muscles of inspiration (inhalation) are the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles (which increase or decrease the spaces between the ribs). The diaphragm contracts first, followed by the intercostals, and then you’ll engage some accessory muscles in the neck, chest, and abdomen. Here’s where things get interesting. When you’re relaxed, you pause briefly after an exhale. It’s called an “expiratory pause.” The longer the pause, the more relaxed you are. The shorter the pause, or no pause at all, means your body is perceiving some type of threat. . .or, a bear is literally chasing you. So, try moving in a smooth, rich and juicy way when your sympathetic nervous system is ready to pop.
Fear is Excitement without the Breath – Robert Heller
This is not the same as when we’re concentrating on something and our split attention temporarily favors the task instead of the breathing. You should see me when I’m putting on false lashes. I’m not even aware that I’m holding my breath until my body kicks it back on and I realize it when I hear a louder than usual exhale.
Activity + breathing go together like…
Breathing for a specific activity switches it from an automatic metabolic process to a behavioral one. Certain conscious techniques can make you better at whatever the activity is. Check out this video on breath work for clarinet. And when you’re done with that, this master of Pranayam is really something to see. Whether it’s Yoga, meditation, clarinet playing or circular breathing for the didgeridoo, you have to learn how to consciously alter your breath to improve performance.
When you’re new to improvising, you’re thinking about what to do next. You feel like you’re dancing without the safety net of a prescribed set of moves. It’s like climbing without a harness. Tack on the need to concentrate for certain moves and your split focus chooses that omi or, in my case, the tricky barrel turns to the dreaded left. This is something each person has to cultivate because there is no one technique that works all the time for every dancer in every style. Generally speaking, smooth and relaxed breathing is always a benefit because I can see it immediately when dancers seize up. I actually stop breathing when I watch them. Take this stunning clips of Nesma and notice how you breathe when you watch her. Even though I’ve seen it 50 times, I still find myself slowing down my breathing down to match hers.
WHEN YOU DANCE
When you dance to music without the safety of following the instructor or learning a choreography, start with your breath. Consider “drawing” the song in their air with the dips, pauses, tempo changes, etc. Settle on one or two moves to repeat and modify based on what the music is doing. When you freeze, just stand still and breathe for a while. The bellydance police won’t come banging on your door if you start with music that you know and love — even if it’s Prince, Vivaldi or Metallica. Perhaps, improvisation to Farid al-Atrash is a “next step.” That does bring me to another important point. Develop your musicality!
You can’t truly improvise and slink into the pocket of the music if you aren’t familiar with it. I highly recommend taking workshops, buying DVD’s and anything else you can do to understand what makes music sound/feel Turkish, or Moroccan…or Egyptian…the list goes on and on. What is the structure of the song? What are they singing about? I like to imagine the musicians. Are they in bow ties sitting in an orchestra or out on the street wearing jeans? There’s so much more to write on this topic that it has to be another blog post.
So, let’s recap. Listen to your song of choice (repeatedly) and just breathe to it. Crawl deep in to the song and put your musician hat on. Then start with just a few moves to repeat. Before long, you will surprise yourself with the risks you take. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake because there are none. I’ve jumped to hit an accent that wasn’t there and morphed it into something gooey. I’ve fallen and turned it into beautiful floorwork. Once I got my bracelet stuck in my hair and just kept my arms lifted while I worked on deep pelvic movements. Let it all happen. All of it.
Enjoy the ride!
Tava is a highly regarded professional bellydancer, instructor and choreographer. She performs regularly throughout Connecticut and the NYC Metro Area. Equally at home performing at galas, family occasions, cultural events, theaters or in music videos, she prides herself on having a career with as much variety as possible.
In addition to the “sparkly bits” of her life, Tava has a Masters in Counseling from Fordham University and uses the dance as a tool for building self-esteem and healthy body image for women.