Because this is stock art that exists in 2020. (Getty Images)

How to Dance in a Face Mask

By Helen Rolfe

There's a new must-have accessory for the dancers who've begun to venture back into the studio. Face masks are essential to protect your teachers and fellow dancers (not to mention their families) from coronavirus. But they definitely make dancing more complicated.

How can you prepare for—and adjust to—the new masked normal? Here's practical advice from Dr. Steven Karageanes, a primary care sports medicine specialist who's worked with the Rockettes and "So You Think You Can Dance," and Anna Dreslinski Cooke, a Chicago-based professional dancer who has experience dancing in cloth masks, disposable masks, N95 masks, and face shields.


What to Expect

There's no way around it: Dancing while masked is uncomfortable, especially at first. That discomfort will vary depending on how hard you're dancing and which mask you choose. Cooke recommends steering clear of the N95 style, which is restrictive (and should be reserved for frontline workers if possible). Instead, opt for a homemade cloth mask. "I knew the N95 mask would be difficult to breathe in," says Cooke. "But I'd done some indoor biking in a face mask and felt fine, so I anticipated that a homemade cotton mask wu be a little bit easier."

When you start to sweat and breathe heavily—due to a warm studio, your own exertion, or both—the mask fabric will cling to your face, making your breathing feel more labored. "Especially with disposable masks, moisture from my breath would soften the fibers, so the mask would start to break down and not hold its shape anymore," says Cooke. To relieve this sweaty situation, bring a spare mask that you can swap in halfway through class or between classes.

Colorful homemade cloth facial masks

Getty Images

How to Mask Better

Speaking of spares, you'll want to invest in several masks, so that you can wash them between each wearing. "The last thing you want is contact with virus that's on the surface of your mask," explains Karageanes. "Plus, sweaty masks can grow other organisms as well." Yuck!

Some good news: None of the masks that Cooke tried moved around or slipped much while she was dancing. If you do need to adjust your mask for whatever reason, try to touch only the elastic ear loops or the ties that fasten at the back of your head. "Every time you bring your hands to your face, even with your mask on, it's a risk," says Karageanes.

Speak Up While You Mask Up

If you have asthma, cystic fibrosis, or any other preexisting respiratory condition, it's essential to advocate for your own health and safety while masked. Cooke, who has mild asthma, is now making sure to hit her inhaler before each in-mask studio session: "You might think you can get get through it, but safety comes first." Even if you've never had trouble breathing before, you should stop immediately if you feel faint, dizzy, or start to hyperventilate while dancing in a mask.

Your studio might have already established rules about what to do when you need this kind of break. If not, "Put up your hand, walk off to the side, and rest for a moment—preferably without removing your mask," says Karageanes. He suggests taking child's pose, kneeling on all fours, or just sitting down until you feel better. Your teacher won't think you're weak or lazy—on the contrary, your feedback will help them set the right pace for class in this new era of dancing while masked.

Deep Breaths, Everyone

Those who cross-train on a regular basis may find dancing in a mask easier than those who aren't as well-conditioned, Karageanes says. If you're preparing to return to the studio, add more steady-state cardio to your routine now, which could help you acclimate to masked dancing.

While dancing in a face mask won't be comfortable or easy, it's also a must. "We're all going to get through this together," says Cooke. "We might even end up a little bit more fit—or at least better at dancing through it, no matter what 'it' is."

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Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

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Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

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Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

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