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Behind the Curtain Blog

NDEO's "Behind the Curtain" Blog features articles written by NDEO members about dance and dance education topics as well as periodic updates on NDEO programs and services. This is a FREE resource available to ALL.


Breath: Gateway to Expressivity in Movement

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 Nancy Romita and Allegra Romita. 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.

One thing is constant from the moment we enter this world as humans until the day we leave.

We breathe.

We breathe automatically and unconsciously.

We also breathe in intricate and sophisticated ways. For example, singers, horn players, actors, and athletes often train in breathing patterns to improve technique. Breath training is a useful strategy to enhance both musicality and performance.

In many forms of dance the breath support for movement is not an integral part of training. It is not perceived to be important in the same manner that stretching, strengthening, and balance warrant focus. Little coaching and training time addresses breath support in most Western dance forms. We propose breath support is at the heart of expressivity and artistry in movement phrasing.

Teachers may verbally coach students to hold the abdomen in so tightly the action impedes optimal performance. A traditional verbal cue often used in ballet training asks students to ‘pull up’ or ‘pull in’ the abdomen to gain motor control. These are useful verbal cues if the student does not overdo the instruction. If the dancer overexerts in this command, the action actually impedes movement, impairs breathing, and reduces efficiency of action. Recent research delves into the role of breath and motor learning in acquiring ballet ‘skills.’ Over exertion of abdominal support muscles does not ensure efficacy in movement. To the contrary, it can elicit unnecessary stiffness and tension that can impede range of motion and fluidity of action.

Deepening an understanding of the relationship between the muscular support for breathing and central support can help a student discover the necessary recruitment needed to support the pelvis and lower back for stability while maintaining mobility in the breathing apparatus. The diaphragm, seen in the image provided, is a primary muscle involved in the breathing process. It is responsible for approximately 75% of the action of breathing (Calais-Gemain, 2006). Similar to other muscles it can be chronically tight or have a limited range of motion Dancers spend many hours stretching the hamstrings and other leg muscles, but think little about this important muscle that has myofascial connection from the pelvic floor to the floor of the mouth.

Dana, a colleague and professional dancer with whom we have worked, began her interest in dance during college. Prior to discovering dance she was a synchronized swimmer. This involves swimming in formations and often holding the breath for long periods of time. As she trained more intensely to prepare for a professional dance career, her teachers asked her to stop swimming. Within one year the circumference of her ribcage when measured around the chest reduced from 38in to 36in— a difference of two full inches! The muscles of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles between the ribs no longer maintained the capacity to stretch as far. The muscles of breathing require attention for resiliency of action just as the muscles of the leg require both strength and stretch activity to enable expressive movement.

Try this movement exploration:

  1. Quietly notice your breathing.
  2. How long is your inhale? How long is your exhale? Use a personal counting system to create a relative measure of time. Breathe in as fully as possible expanding your torso.
  3. Now, hold that breath for a slow count of 8. While holding the breath, let go of unnecessary tension your body. Check in with your neck, jaw, fingers, shoulders, and lower back.
  4. Exhale for a slow count of 6.
  5. Repeat this several process times.
  6. Return to breathing in a natural way without any particular expectation. In what way has the breathing pattern changed?

Breath is both autonomic and muscularly controlled. As we have musculoskeletal habits such as standing on one leg more than another or chewing more often on one side of the mouth, we also have unconscious habits for breathing. Training the breathing mechanism should be as important as training the legs and core. Exploring functional principles for respiratory action in relation to breathing habit provides new possibilities to improve respiratory function, reduce excess tension and stress, and improve expressivity in movement. Employing breathing practices within dance training can shift the breathing mechanism for the student and improve performance.

Breathing, emotions and movement are normally strongly interwoven, with each influencing the others. Young dancers often hold their breath, interfering with their movement’s integrity and precluding expressivity. In a sensory context, exploring various relationships between breathing and moving may enhance expressive potential and release physical and psychological tension (Brodie and Lobel, 2012).

The breathing mechanism supports neuromuscular stamina and cardiovascular health. In the dance studio, conscious use of breathing patterns can enhance the phrasing and expressivity in movement. Beyond the dance studio, conscious awareness of breathing function can enhance our choices for creating ease in daily life, to release unnecessary tension, and restore the body towards balance.

By permission of Oxford University Press”. URL OUP Material:

Interested in learning more?

If you're curious about exploring more about Functional Awareness, register now for NDEO's Online Professional Development Course (OPDI) - Functional Awareness: Mindfulness Practices in Embodied Anatomy for the Dance Educator with professors Nancy Romita and Allegra Romita.

This 6-week course curriculum is an opportunity to reinvigorate teaching practices and renew personal movement practices for self-care. This mini course utilizes engaging lectures, readings, and active movement explorations that present current research on motor learning skills for core strength, improving standing leg balance, and other dance skills.

As a past course participant described, "This class deepened my appreciation of the interrelatedness of technique and anatomical understandings of the body. I liked the open spirit of creative engagement that both professors brought to the material. There was a dialogue between moving and reflecting that I found extremely useful. I saw weekly opportunities to reframe my teaching and to apply this material to students of all ages. Amazing Course!"

This course runs from January 1st - February 11th 2024.  Register Here!


Bordoni, Bruno., Zanier, Emiliano. Anatomic connections of the diaphragm: influence of respiration on the body system. Journal of Multidiscipliary Healthcare 2013; 6: 281–291

Brodie J. A., Lobel E. E.. Dance and Somatics: Mind-body Principles of Teaching and Performance. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.

Calais- Germain, Blandine. Anatomy of Breathing. Seattle: Eastland Press, Inc., 2006.

Kahn, Janet. Recontextualizing Dance Skills: Overcoming Impediments to Motor Learning and Expressivity in Ballet Dancer. Frontiers in Psychology Volume 7 2016

Photo of Allegra and Nancy standing next two each other smiling at the camera.  They are standing against a gray backround and both wearing blue sweaters.  Allegra has dark brown hair, and Nancy has light brown to blonde hair.

Allegra Romita (pictured left) (MA, CMA, EdM, RYT) is co-creator of Functional Awareness: Anatomy in Action®. Allegra has presented workshops and keynote speeches on the Functional Awareness approach worldwide from New York City to San Diego, from Helsinki to Hong Kong. She has presented sessions at the American College Dance Association (ACDA), the National Dance Education Organization (NDEO), and the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) and as a keynote speaker at the Somatics and Dance Conference. Allegra serves as the Program Administrator and Faculty for NYU Steinhardt Dance Education program. Since 2011, Allegra has been performing regionally and nationally with Sydnie L. Mosley Dances and is the Artistic Visioning Partner with the collective. Allegra graduated from the University of Michigan with honors with a BFA in Dance and a minor in Movement Science. She received her MA in Dance Education from NYU Steinhardt and EdM in Motor Learning and Control from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her passion for somatic investigation led her to certification (CMA) in Laban Movement Analysis through the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies. Allegra teaches at Brooklyn Yoga Project and Heatwise Yoga in Brooklyn, NY, and co-teaches in the teacher training programs at both studios.

Photo of Nancy and Allegra standing aginst a green curtain smiling away from the camera.  Both are in black tank tops.

Nancy Wanich-Romita (pictured left) (MFA, RSME, M.AmSAT) keynote speaker, dance educator, somatic practitioner. Romita is Senior Lecturer at Towson University (, director of Alexander Technique Midatlantic Teacher Training & co-founder of Functional Awareness® ( She is former Artistic Director of NanDance (1981-1985) and The Moving Company 91993-2003), and has choreographed over 50 professionally presented work at such venues at DTW/New York Live Arts, the 92ndStY, The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Kennedy Center, Her research in dance science and somatics has been presented at the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, NDEO, CORPS de Ballet International, AmSAT ACGMs, Alexander Technique International Congress. She is co-author, along with Allegra Romita, of several books published by Oxford University Press including Functional Awareness: Anatomy in Action for Dancers 2nd edition,recently released June 2023.


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