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Teaching Dancers to breathe as singers


Many thanks to all who responded to my question about dancers and breathing.
The replies follow.

Noel Piercy, 1st Pres, Caldwell, NJ

I'm glad someone else has noticed this 'problem' with dancers. It doens't
seem to be just ballet, but most types of dancers, ie, jazz, modern, etc
that have the rigid torso and all movement is with the extremities...lay the
student on the floor, and put a bowling ball on their stomach. Have them
take in a deep breath while expanding the lower rib cage (they understand
that) so that the ball rises, then release the breath and hold the ball
constant so that it doesn't move down during the exhalation of air. They can
see the ball move and feel the lower ab muscles work and with dancers it
seems to be a muscle-brain connection that works well...The good news about
dancers is that they seem to be very disciplined about practicing and
Dancers learn to breathe in a very shallow manner, filling only the top
quarter-third of their lungs. They have to understand the concept of
filling the lungs all the way to the bottom and the physiology of the
diaphragm lowering as the lungs fill. The things that have worked for me
(although they take constant reminding and a long time) are to:

1) explain that it's like having an inner tube around their waists and, as
they inhale they are filling up that inner tube and can feel it all the way
around; often they can feel it better on another person as that person
inhales deeply

2) have them lie on their backs and draw air in through a straw, holding
their hand on their abdomens; when they're lying down, they must breathe
deeply; feeling it with their hands helps them get the concept

3) have them be "mimes," sitting tall in front of and imitating you,
pretending they have an accordion in front of them; your hands expand as you
breathe in very noisily, push abdominal muscles out (sometimes with girls
you have to say "pretend you're fat" -- they understand that) as you inhale.

The hardest thing seems to be to help them understand that "support" for
singers is different than for dancers, and the abdominal muscles must be
pushing out as you inhale and stay there as you exhale.
My daughter has been studying ballet for the past 5 or 6 years and although
she has gained much in the way of discipline, she doesn't fight me on
breathing. Perhaps they don't quite understand the difference between
breathing for sports and for singing - have you had them keep their hands on
their bellies and fill them up? And the sssst thing to help them feel the
muscles working there? Do they know about the muscles involved in
diaphragmatic breathing and how they work? And that the goal is to conserve
breath, not use it all up? Some people need more details than others to
learn - remember in that philosophy book it said that "Water is for fish,
air is for man, Natures differ, and with them needs". Whatever you do, don't
give up on them. Have them bend at the waist, put their hands on their
bellies and tank up in that position - it is difficult to chest breathe in
that position.
You might contact some of the ballet people who teach Alexander Technique.
They have had to combat this problem in their Alexander work.
I first came across this problem with a university student who is a dancer,
and a dance instructor. We were working on breathing at her lesson when she
said, "You realize this is just the opposite of what a dancer does." I now
work with her daughter who is a strong dancer as well. The way dancers are
taught to hold themselves is in conflict with good breathing for singing.
They simply must learn to allow their bodies to open.

A basic yogic breath may help. Have them lie down in bed at night, and then
do a "balloon" breath... inhale from the bottom part of their lungs first,
then the middle of the lungs, then the very top under the clavicle (all on
one inhale), and then exhale the opposite direction. Because they are used
to counting, you could have count: (inhale)1-2-3-rest, (exhale)1-2-3-rest,
and repeat. You may also want to give them some understanding of the lung,
location, size, functions, etc. so they may a mental concept to underscore
the exercise. The inhale and exhale are as long and slow as they can make
them.... and are the same length. Gradually, the inhale and exhale will get
longer. Not to be hard on themselves, whatever they can do at this moment
is just right for them, and that as time goes by, they will increase in
length quite naturally. Have them do 10 balloon breaths before going to
sleep. This work is good on several levels!
I once had a woman come to choir practice to join, but left after the first
rehearsal with an odd explanation. She said that everyone in her family had
poochy tummies, and that she had vowed never, ever to have one, and would
not under any circumstances relax the muscles in her stomach.

The reaction from the other choir members was that she was an uptight person
with a rigid outlook on life. It made me wonder what the relationship could
be drawn between someone's stomach muscles and one's outlook on life!! At
any rate, she found abdominal breathing and her pride in her appearance
mutually exclusive, so off she went.
Ask help from your local ballet school or private teacher.....basic
breathing technique for ballet varies greatly from singing........
First, go get Larra Browning Hendersen's _How to Train Singers_, which
describes most clearly how singers (and breathers) breathe. Really, the
breath singers need is the breath the autonomic nervous system already knows
how to do. Getting people to conciously breath properly is the stuff
made for inhalation therapists.

I go into exacting detail how the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles work
together (the chest has nothing to do with breathing). When you inhale, the
abdomen "pops" out and down (relaxes) which creates a momentary vacuum in
the chest cavity which is them filled by the physical law that a vacuum will
be filled.

As one exhales (sings of speaks or breathes) the abdomen is pulled in, the
diaphragm rises and controls the breath as it passes through the vocal
cords, setting them into motion producing sound.

I ask the hesitant to lie on their backs and relax while I ignore them. When
they are relaxed, I put books on their abdomens and then ignore them again
until I ask," what do the books to when you take a breath (They go up). When
you exhale? (they go down) This is what happens when you stand up and sing.

I will also have the singer place their hands on their navel and imagine a
ping-pong ball in their mouth. Now, push the ball out by pushing in your
abdomen. Pop! out comes the ball (you could actually get balls if this is
really pernicious!) Hold a candle at arms length. Blow it out by only
pushing you navel (this takes a lot of energy and concentration and good

Get a bellows and demonstrate. If you punch them in the abdomen
(figuratively, of course) you knock out their air. To get more air, they
must pop out the abdomens (what goes in, must come out)
They're probably unwilling to "look fat" -- there is great pressure put on
ballerinas to maintain a slender profile at all times. I think they're also
taught to keep their chests very high, which is counter to good
diaphragmatic breathing. As you know, when you take a really good
supportive breath for singing, you must expand your belly and ribcage. My
teacher actually used to say, make yourself "fat and proud." She also used
to put her hands on either side of my ribcage (from behind me) and make me
breath in and try to literally expand my ribcage. That was tough.

Have your student lie on the floor, on their back, with a heavy book resting
perpdendicular to their midsection, right around where the diaphram expands
when you breathe correctly. They should breathe in deeply and slowly (maybe
give them a slow count of 10) with the goal of making the book actually
RISE, and then hold it in the risen position for another count of 10, and
then release, again slowly. It'll probably make them giggle, but maybe
it'll work! I think this works best if the student has their knees in a
bent position, not lying flat on the floor -- better for their backs, too.
(Note: there is a ballet exercise where they make students lie on their
backs, knees bent, and press the smalls of their back into the floor --
maybe you could use this to give them basic, solid muscular support before
they then try to raise the book -- this would keep them from achieving it by
arching their backs instead, which isn't your goal.)

If they're really good sports, and if they take their lesson together (or
are friends and could do this at home), they could also play the "ha-ha"
game. This is where one person lies with their head resting on the
"stomach" of the next one (there are usually a group of people playing this
game) and the first person utters a single "ha" -- as heartily as possible,
preferably heartily enough to make the other person's head bounce up off
their tummy a little. Then the second person is supposed to utter TWO
"ha's," and make the next person's head bounce up a little -- but in your
case, you would have to adapt it by having the first person maybe do 1 ha,
then 2 ha's, then 3 ha's, etc., and then they would switch positions and the
second person would do a series of their own. (Hope that made some sense!)
(Warning: what usually happens is that people collapse into giggles in this
game, but that's okay, too! In the real game, that you play with a group,
the goal is to keep it going, and it gets really hard to keep track of how
many ha's you're supposed to do, and then you have to start over. It's very
silly, but it really applies to this diaphragmatic breathing you're trying
to teach.)

Speaking of "bellies," another thing my teacher taught me, which I haven't
used in awhile, but when I need it, it's good to know: if you're very
nervous about a performance, take a deep breath in and hold your belly and
shake it rhythmically as you exhale slowly. It's an amazing tension
releaser, and also puts you in touch with that "belly breathing" that helps
support you so much when you sing. In this case, it is your lower belly
you're manipulating, not your diaphragm area -- it sounds weird, but it
really works! (Although if these girls have "zero belly fat", it may be
less effective!)

Here's another thought -- an imagery approach this time -- tell the girls to
breathe in as if they are sucking the air all the way from their TOES.
(Ballerinas are very in touch with their toes -- could work.) Maybe they
could try this one "en pointe"!

My teacher also used to describe the proper breath support as a "column of
air" upon which the voice "floats," or "sits." This "column" imagery might
appeal to the girls, since they are trained in proper posture.

Have you also tried the "ts ts ts ts tssssssssss" exhale exercise? You take
a really deep breath, as deep as you possibly can, and then let it out in 5
hisses, like a snake, holding the last "tssssssss" for as long as you can,
until you're completely of air.

Rhythmic "Hmmphing" puts you in touch with your diapraghm, also -- with
mouth closed, just vocalize short "hm's" -- should make your diaphragm
bounce. And singing exercises using the syllable, "Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho
ho" are good, too. I also do a singing exercise where I do a downward
arpeggio on "Hung-EE-ee-ee-ee" (holding the first EE longer than the rest),
that's a good support exercise, too. I move the "Hung-EE" arpeggios down
the scale, and then when I get to the bottom, I change it to
"Hung-OH-oh-oh-oh" and start moving it back up the scale. As I approach the
higher end of the scale, I finally change it to "Hung-AH-ah-ah-ah."
I gave private lessons to a singer who had the same problem. First, I had to
convince her that it was OK to let her belly "flop out." We talked about
using the abdominal muscles differently for singing vs dancing, i.e.,
relaxing vs controlling. You probably couldn't do with these girls in a
choral rehearsal, but I actually had her lie down on a table and breathe
with a book on her belly so that she could see and feel what natural
breathing is like.
I would have them lie on the floor on their backs and breathe. If that
won't work, see if you can get them to laugh in that position (say something
funny). Sometimes when they are not thinking about it, a natural relaxation
of the abs will occur, after which, they will support a laugh or breath. If
they do it, then ask them to place their hand on their stomach and laugh
again. If it works on the floor, assign them breathing practice on the
floor at home.

Another possibility is to have them sit in a chair, hunched over, with
forearms on the knees. Sometimes the abs will release for a low breath, and
they will be aware of the breath because they will feel their stomachs
against their thighs or lower bodies.
The basic difference is that they are told to roll the rib cage in when they
dance, so their entire torso musculature is tense.

What has worked for me: acknowledging to them there is a difference. Ask
them to explain how they "roll" their rib cage, and explain to the class how
and why it is done. This validates their art as dancers.

I usually then explain that for singer it is a completely different set and
contrast the singers' set with the dancers' set. Most dancers are so body
aware (especially with their isolation exercises) that the "singers' set" is
no problem, once they understand the musculature and that there is a
Your young ladies with the breathing issues certainly did not get those
habits from Ballet instruction, or professional instruction I should say.
The professional dancers I've dealt with have the same breath function of
any athelete. Two of the company here sang through high school and college,
and a third is just starting privately with me. so, to make a long story
longer, any rigidity in the rib cage or non-relaxable torso stems from their
dance instruction... If they can't hook up with their breath they won't be
dancing very long.
My adult daughter is a dancer. I asked her about this and here is her

"Well, I don't know how much training they've had, but it's possible that if
they've had a lot of good ballet training that they are using what dancers
do to appear to not be breathing hard onstage. Insterad of allowing the
diaphram to let the stomach rise and fall and therefor "pooch out" they may
be breathing from their back. Imagine trying to breath with a very solid
heavy weight on your abdomin while laying on your back. You would feel your
stomach actually sink with each breath and your back seems to be expanding.
The front of your ribcage goes unchanged, but the lateral ribcage will be
moving. Dancers are usually quite well aware of how to breath - it's not an
easy art physically after all. They may be using their deeper abdominals in
a way the author doesn't quite understand."
As an 'old' ballerina AND a singer AND a choir director, maybe I can help.
Tell them to think of their breathing apparatus as a bellows--their
shoulders can be straight and rigid, but the diaphram and belly must 'seem'
to go in and out. That is one thing in your favor, at least they won't
collapse when they take a breath. Slow breath intakes, like taking a slow
sip of water through a straw, might help them breath. And, good dancers
'breathe' when they dance--which is subtle phrasing. Get them to think of
how they would phrase a piece while dancing-- it might help with breathing
for singing. What have you tried? I have choreographed HS musicals and it
is always a fight with singers and dancers for correct singing technique
while dancing and correct dancing technique while singing. We usually
compromise .

on October 21, 2003 10:00pm
If you can stand one more response, I'd like to add my two cents. I have several dancers and former models (they have similar problems) in my voice studio. I try not to overemphasize the "pooch out" aspect of breathing, putting more focus on feeling the downward motion of the diaphragm on a good inhalation. They should be made aware that it is that downward motion that causes the tummy pooch, not the other way around. (Sometimes it helps them to know that part of the pooch is all of those displaced internal organs, NOT their lungs.) It's entirely possible for them to push out the lower abdomen, just to get their teacher to stop pestering them, without ever achieving the good low singer's breath they need. (This is my primary issue with the "books on the abdomen" trick.) They should be shown that a rigid posture with the lower abs held in will inhibit the lowering of the diaphragm. I sometimes ask my singers to hold in their abdomen as tightly as they can, and then try to take a deep breath. They see right away that they can't. Then it becomes easier to convince them to release the lower abs so that the diaphragm can drop. It helps some of them tremendously to sing sitting down in a chair, with a slight slouch either to the front or the back. (If they try to sit with good posture, they will likely continue to hold the stomach in.)

It makes good physiological sense that if they completely use up the air they have taken in, the resultant vacuum in the lungs will cause them to take a good breath automatically, if they can allow themselves to get out of the way of the process. I will have my singers hiss or sing a pitch as long as they can, going to the unhealthy extreme of feeling the diaphragm very high and the abs very tight. This way they are completely out of air. I might make them pause in this uncomfortable physical state for a moment. Then I instruct them simply to let go of all the muscles in the belly which feel tight. Generally the muscles move, the diaphragm drops, the belly expands, and air goes whooshing into the lungs. The look on the singer's face is almost always one of "Oh, I see what you mean!" If you repeat the exercise twice in a row, you can really help them locate the action. On the second time through, you can explain how to use the air steadily and slowly on the exhalation. You should expect, though, that the very first breath they take, before they begin hissing, will not be a very good one. The ones they take after they've completely run out of air, however, should be exactly what you're looking for, provided they really do let go of all of the tight muscles around the middle. I like to think of the inhalation as being a result of the exhalation, rather than the other way around.

I almost never use the word "support" in talking to dancers. (Or anybody, really, but that's another story...) When they dance, their support comes from that core of tight abdominal muscles. I speak instead of the stability of the diaphragm as it is lowered and then returns smoothly to its resting place.

And, of course, I explain to my singers that if they invest themselves in their character and acting as they sing, the audience will be looking at their faces, not their pooching tummies.

Good luck!