Dancing in a Mask: Myths, Truths & Tips

Two women dance bachata while wearing medical masks

Close holds, laboured breathing, and significant physical contact: COVID-19 has brought a new meaning to “dangerous dancing”. It’s no longer just rough turns, dodgy dips, and poor floorcraft that can cause safety issues.

And so as dance classes and parties around the world are opening back up, new measures are often required. Class numbers may be limited. You might find yourself dancing outside with hats, scarves, and medical gloves. And in most places, all dancers have to wear masks.

So if you’re about to Suzie Q, spin, or chachachá in a mask, keep reading. We’ll look at some of the myths surrounding masks, how to limit the risks of cross-contamination, and practical tips for wearing masks in dance classes.

Is Dancing in a Mask Safe?

For the vast majority of people, yes. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) advises against exercising in a mask, this is because “sweat can make the mask become wet more quickly which makes it difficult to breathe and promotes the growth of microorganisms”. (We’ll look at how to handle damp masks later on in this article.)

Meanwhile, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing a mask while exercising, stating “Wearing masks is most important when physical distancing is difficult and when exercise type and intensity allows.”

Some dances are more intense than others. A salsa class will typically get you moving quicker than a kizomba one. And so while WebMD classifies dancing as a medium-intensity activity, you should apply common sense: if you feel short of breath, dizzy, or overly worn out, stop dancing until you feel better.

The CDC recommends speaking to your healthcare provider if you have respiratory conditions, but advises that people with asthma should wear a mask. That said, if you have any concerns, ask a doctor. Online advice is no replacement for speaking to a medical professional.

Woman wearing face mask on way to a dance class

Credit: Anna Shvets

Why It’s Important to Wear Masks While Dancing

Partner dancing is risky, especially if you are rotating partners. In Autumn 2020, more than 600 COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong were linked to salsa, ballroom, and tango events. Multiple videos showed dancers not wearing masks, and in La Prensa Latina, an anonymous interviewee said that “most do not wear a mask”.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen this happen. Early on in the pandemic, in South Korea, 112 people caught COVID-19 because of a one-day Zumba workshop for instructors. Epidemiologists concluded that the combination of heavy breathing and confined spaces meant that Latin dance exercise classes with more than four students were risky situations—and that’s without the physical contact inherent to a Latin partner dance class.

Meanwhile, in Europe, there were numerous reports on social media of people testing positive for COVID-19 after attending bachata festivals in the spring.

Not everyone can wear masks. But for those who can, study after study has shown them to be an effective way of reducing transmission. In an analysis of nearly 200 countries, places where mask-wearing wasn’t the norm early on in the pandemic saw an average per-capita coronavirus-mortality rate increase of 62.1% each week—compared to just 15.8% in ones where mask-wearing was encouraged.

Although the WHO recommends staying at least 1m away from other people during exercise to limit transmission, this is almost impossible to do while dancing salsa, tango, or swing. So if partner dancing is allowed in a place where this is ongoing community transmission, masks and hand sanitiser are essential.

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dancer's COVID-19 kit: face mask and hand sanitiser

Credit: Tai’s Captures

Does Wearing Masks Mean Partner Dancing Is Safe?

To quote the WHO, “the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide the adequate level of protection and other equally relevant measures should be adopted.”

Although wearing masks reduces the risk of catching or passing on COVID-19, it does not eliminate it. There’s a strong case to be made for not partner dancing at all while there’s ongoing community transmission. Even with masks, the WHO recommends “avoid[ing] the 3Cs: spaces that are closed, crowded or involve close contact”.

If permitted in your state or country, you could go to solo dance classes instead. Alternatively, you could only dance with the people you live with. Outdoors classes and contact-free dancing, e.g. with sticks, can further reduce the risk.

You should also follow other best practices. Use hand sanitiser frequently, don’t touch your face, and as far as is possible, avoid touching other parts of your partner’s body.

6 Tips for Wearing Masks While Dancing

Wearing masks can help keep you, your dance partner, and your loved ones safe and healthy. However, if worn incorrectly, they can be ineffective. And if you don’t listen to your body, it’s easy to overdo it in a dance class or social. Here are six tips to help you stay comfortable and limit the risks of COVID-19 transmission while dancing.

1. Wear Your Mask Properly

A incorrectly worn mask might feel more comfortable, but it’s just not as good at protecting you and others. Dispose of or wash your mask as required. Avoid cross-contamination when removing and/or putting it on. Make sure it fits you well and covers the nose and chin as well as the mouth. Don’t take it off or pull it down to speak. You can also view the WHO’s do’s and don’ts of wearing a mask here.

CorrecMan wears face mask correctlyt use face mask

2. Use the Right Kind of Mask

Some masks are more effective than others, and some are easier to dance in. Scarves, bandanas, masks with valves, and fabric masks with only one layer are not considered to offer sufficient protection. If you wear an eco-friendly fabric mask, make sure that it has at least three layers and that you wash it in between uses.

Meanwhile, a mask designed specifically for sport or dance could be more comfortable. Ideally, they’ll be made of a lightweight, moisture-wicking material. They should also fit closely without clinging to your skin. You might find you prefer ones with adjustable ear straps.

3. Bring Spare Masks

Your mask is damp with sweat? Your water bottle has leaked on it? It may no longer be as effective and should be switched for a fresh, dry mask. Plus, you’ll feel better for it. Remember to pack clean, resealable, plastic bags to store your masks in.

4. Pay Attention to Your Body

When dancing in a mask, especially a thicker one, you may become tired quicker. They can make you feel hotter, and some are less breathable than others. So if you find yourself going dizzy during spins or getting worn out from quick footwork, take a break. Drink some water, and sit down if you need to. Don’t wait until you’re exhausted before stopping: it’s much better to pause whenever you need to.

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5. Wear Lighter Clothing and Ask for Windows to Be Opened

Since wearing a mask can make you feel hotter, compensate for this by wearing lighter, more breathable clothing. If you’re still too hot, ask the teacher to open a window.

The WHO recommends ventilating indoor areas as a COVID-secure method, and this has the added benefit of helping you to stay cool while dancing. Bear in mind that depending on the level of filtration, air-conditioners may not provide sufficient ventilation. The WHO advises increasing filtration levels and the percentage of outdoor air to as high as 100% if using air-conditioning.

Dancer's kit: mask, gloves, earphones

6. Ease Into Dancing

A lot has changed since the start of the pandemic, and chances are you’re not ready to jump straight into your old habits. You might be out of shape, you’ve likely forgotten some moves, and you could even have been ill with COVID-19. Add a mask to this, and you may find you just don’t have the same stamina, speed, or clean technique as you did last year.

Be kind to yourself: dance less—and less intensely—than in pre-pandemic times. It won’t take you long to get used to dancing with a mask, and then you’ll be ready to return to your old dance habits. But until then, take it easy.

Around the world, we’re all working out how and when to dance again. A mask doesn’t eliminate the possibility of COVID-19 transmission, but it does make it far less likely. So whether you’re attending shines classes or dancing with your romantic partner at local events, make sure you’re wearing your mask correctly, following all guidelines, and prioritising safety.

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Tanya is a social dancer who adores role-swapping. A non-stop traveller, she loves how dancing allows her to meet people no matter where she goes.