NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Meg Garofola, M.A.T., CYT-250. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.
My first and greatest dance teacher has been my breath. Following my body’s curiosities, sensations, feelings, and impulses has been powerful, connective, and healing. Spending hours in the studio moving for movement’s sake, for prowess, for living a more beautiful life has greatly informed my understanding of dance, as a mover, observer, and choreographer. My studies in yoga and somatic dance have always been intertwined over the past thirteen years. As an elementary school, yoga, and dance educator it has been my goal to develop my personal pedagogy surrounding the breath. How can we teach children to move with their breath? How can we teach them to be curious about its strength? Can we help children employ the breath to connect inwards and to others? The following is a reflection on these questions.
I currently work in Richmond, VA at a Title I elementary school with a diverse population. Students have experienced a lot of trauma. One of the greatest lessons that I’ve learned is that when students’ behaviors are escalated or they’re upset it is important to help them calm down before any comprehension or change in their behavior will take place. With trauma, physiologically, their brain chemistry has been altered. They are more vigilant. Their nervous systems are often stuck in the fight-flight-or freeze mode, which makes them more sensitive and unable to focus on learning. Research shows that we can retrain the brain to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, to move into relaxation so that learning, comprehension, and relationships can take place and flourish. Enter the breath.
The breath is a meditative tool to bring us into the present, to allow us to press reset so that we can dance in our body most fully. In every class, we begin by spending just a few minutes paying attention to the breath. I use kid-friendly breathing imagery to help them connect to the breath, fostering centering, relaxation, and empowerment:
- For a felt-sense of the breath students place their hands on their belly and practice “balloon breath,” imagining that there is a balloon in their belly that is emptying and filling each time they breath.
- We also practice sensing and feeling the breath by lying down and using beanie babies on our bellies. I ask students if they can feel the beanie baby rising and falling or “getting a ride” with each breath.
- Another breathing technique that we’ve explored is shape breathing. Students pick a shape, a square for example. I say, “Imagine that the square is in front of you. See it in the air. Trace the first side as you inhale. Exhale and trace the next side. Inhale and trace the next side. Exhale and trace the last side.” Crown breath is an empowering and focusing breathing technique.
- When students are seated, I say to them, “Imagine that your beautiful crown is sitting in front of you. What does it look like? Imagine all its beautiful jewels. Carefully pick it up and place it on the top of your head. Remember to sit up tall so that your crown doesn’t fall off.” In the classroom, I notice that many children struggle to sit, criss-cross for short periods of time. This breathing technique strengthens students’ spine and back muscles. I also use positive affirmation to start the class off with this “breath.” “You are important. You matter. You are strong.”
Many of these curiosities about the breath have surfaced in a unit on myth that I’ve been exploring with my dance students who are ages six to nine in first through 3rd grades. We’ve been exploring the Pacific Northwest Native Americans and their reverence for animals, as well as the story of Thunderbird. In our collaborative dance-making, my students have embodied jelly fish and star fish, fiercely curious about how these animals move in the water. Inspired by Doris Humphrey’s “Water Study” and movement choirs, students have danced with both a slow breath and a fast breath. We’ve also played with Irmgard Bartenieff’s Basic six, contracting and expanding, rising and sinking, exploring kinetic chains through which the breath can flow. We’ve been able to create a dance of both slow, gentle moving water, and rocky, waves-crashing water, which is in the Thunderbird story. The immediacy of the breath has brought students into the present. They are able to stay engaged longer in the dance-making process. They have also seemed more willing to work together.
One of the games that I’ve used to get students to slow down enough to be able to focus on their breath is the game "Fast Land, Slow Land," which I learned through Dance Education Laboratory, which was first created by Anne Green Gilbert. The game divides the room into halves. Students begin in a frozen shape. They can begin moving at any time and must dance in each land three times. They keep track of their own experience in each land and end in a frozen shape. This contrast has been highly pleasurable for my students, and I have seen a huge increase in concentration and engagement. Some may balk at using the breath as a meditative movement technique, but my students have expressed that it “feels good,” “relaxing” and “fun,” as they’ve grown before my eyes.
Some of my goals as a dance educator are to show students that everyone can dance, that dancing can be a liberating laboratory unto the self, and that it never gets old to dance with the breath.
Meg Garofola, dance and yoga educator, earned her M.A.T. from Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA. Meg currently teaches 2nd grade in a diverse, urban, public school in VA. She graduated magna cum laude from Allegheny College in 2008, earning a B.A. in Political Science. There, she also studied in the Dance and Movement Studies Department. Meg has done work at Integrated Movement Studies in Salt Lake City, UT, the Creative Dance Center in Seattle, WA, and Sempreviva Yoga in Vancouver, BC. Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, Meg has been teaching yoga and creative dance to young and old alike since 2009, as she is committed to sharing somatic practices with others so that they may live a fuller life. Her professional memberships include the NDEO and ISMETA.