Have you ever wondered why you can nail your routine in your living room, but fall apart when doing it in front of other people? Has your dancing ever been effected by the physical manifestations of stress (shaking legs, shortness of breath, or lack of connection to your body)? Have you ever become agitated or nauseous before performing? Have you ever “frozen” on stage? Does the idea of publicly performing bring you more anxiety than joy? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, you may suffer from stage fright.
We have all experienced stage fright to some degree, and it is perfectly normal. But for some of us, stage fright can be extremely limiting, if not debilitating. If you suffer from any degree of stage fright I have some great news for you: you can train yourself to overcome it!
Let’s start by taking a quick look at the stress response. Unlike other mammals, humans have the ability to anticipate stressful events that are far in the future. Other animals generally feel stress when faced with danger, then the stress response goes away once they are safe again. Humans can have a stress response when there is no physical danger at all, which is exactly what happens when you are experiencing stage fright. Performing is not a life or death struggle, but physiologically speaking, your nervous system is reacting in exactly the same way that a gazelle would react if being chased by a lion.
Michelle performing with candles at a local restaurant. Having a regular restaurant show can do a lot to build confidence. Photo by Michael Baxter.
Michelle at a private party. Sometimes people do not want you to dance, they just want a photo opportunity! No need for stage fright at those gigs. Photo by RJD Photography.
Michelle performing at Club Med in Turkey. Sometimes it is a little easier to let go when no one in the audience knows you or will ever see you again. Photo by Michael Baxter.
Michelle performing at her workshop gala in Maine. Sometimes stage fright can be worse if you know that several other great dancers are in the line-up. It is best not to watch those who go before you and to just focus on your own performance. Photo by Jon Reece.
Michelle at a private party. It is easy to doubt oneself when performing for a stiff crowd. Affirmations and positive thinking are a must in this situation.
Anxiety disorders are characterized by an overreaction of the stress response, so in addition to dancer-specific advice, I will now touch on general tools for managing anxiety.
There are 5 things that determine how stressful an event will be:
Predictability – Do you know what is going to happen?
Generally speaking, events that are unpredictable are way more stressful. Imagine that you are at the dentist having your teeth drilled and you ask how much longer it will be. You would experience much more stress if she responded “Ummmm, I don’t know” rather than “This shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes”. If you know what to expect you have an easier time coping.
How this relates to dancers – Pre-performance stress can be reduced if you are well rehearsed. If you have the opportunity to run through your routine in the space where you will be performing, all the better! Practice in your costume, practice with the lights on you, practice in your stage make-up. Do everything you can to get yourself used to how it will feel when you perform.
Control – How much control do you have over the situation?
It is very stressful to feel like you have no control over your environment. Studies have shown again and again that feeling in control will contribute to much lower levels of anxiety and higher levels of confidence.
How this relates to dancers – Live bands and audience participation can be very uncontrollable situations, so it is best to start with shows to recorded music in tightly controlled environments. Avoid being rushed as you get ready back stage and make sure that you have ample time to warm up and go through your pre-performance rituals (which we will discuss later). Being rushed is a loss of control.
Frequency – How often do you do it?
One study observed the stress levels in army recruits as they went through their training. It found that although stress levels spiked when they went skydiving for the first time. But eventually they were able to jump out of a plane with minimal anxiety levels if they had done it several times before within a short period of time.
How this relates to dancers – In order to conquer your fear of performing, you need to perform! Get out there. It will become easier. Even though it might seem terrifying, volunteer to perform at every single hafla and festival that you can. It is good therapy.
Outlets for stress – What do you do with that stressful energy?
Because the body is gearing up to physically fight or flee, there is a lot of energy in the form of adrenaline coursing through your veins. It needs to be released through physical exercise.
How this relates to dancers – You need to do a little cardio before your performance to release some of the stress. Not only will it help to warm up your body, but it will dispel some of that nervous energy. If you just sit backstage paralyzed, you are more likely to have shakey legs and less control in general.
Social support – Are you in it alone?
People who feel supported and loved are much more likely to overcome anxiety, depression, and a host of other problems. Talking about your problems in general will help prevent them from feeling like monstrous and isolating secrets.
How this relates to dancers – Having a friendly face in the audience will help a lot. But be sure that you have run through your performance for that person before the event so that you feel comfortable dancing in front of them. Also, a dance coach can help you to feel comfortable with choreography and costuming decisions as you prepare for your show.
There are a number of things that you can do to physically and mentally prepare while you are back stage. Here are a few suggestions, but I encourage you to add to the list so that you can find what is just right for you:
Listen to your iPod. You can either listen to the music you are about to perform to, or something totally different.
Run through your routine… but not too much. You don’t want to freak yourself out. If dancing through your routine makes you nervous, just dance around to get your body moving.
Close your eyes and do a quick meditation. Visualize yourself succeeding and feeling good on stage can help a lot.
Do yoga or Pilates to get limber. Even push-ups, jumping jacks and leg lifts can help your body prepare.
Give yourself space and time to prepare. Don’t feel the need to be sucked into conversations just before you perform. Simply tell everyone that you need a quiet moment to prepare and that you would love to talk to them after the show.
Forgive yourself. You might make a mistake so just accept that as part of performing. It isn’t a big deal.
Remember that your audience wants you to succeed and that they are on your side.
Say affirmations such as “I dance from the heart and I am beautiful” or “The audience loves me and I feed off of their energy”… whatever resonates with you.
Relaxation and Meditation
Practicing relaxation and meditation can help you to control stress and anxiety in general. Here are some helpful links that I found on the Loyola University website:
Meditation - This free site provides some pretty terrific virtual relaxation experiences that range from 3 to 10 minutes for individuals seeking more serenity and calm. It includes soothing sounds, imagery, and deep-breathing techniques. This site is maintained by PGE.
Meditation, Guided Fantasy, and Other Stress Reducers -- This free site includes several virtual meditation slide shows of beautiful landscapes and scenes from nature, as well as other helpful information about stress reduction. The "Breathing" section is particularly helpful. This site is maintained by Selfhelp Magazine, on online mental health web site that is maintained by a licensed psychologist.
Relaxing Background Music -- This free site offers several visually relaxing scenes and several options for soothing background music. You can listen to the background music while you work on your computer. This site is maintained by e-help.com, which organizes online resources for various medical specialties.
Audio Sessions -- This free site includes some great relaxation exercise. A soothing voice leads you through your choice of several deep breathing exercises. This site is maintained by the Counseling and Psychological Service of the University of North Carolina.
Deep Breathing Meditation -- This free site offers 5 deep-breathing meditations ranging from 2 to 9 minutes. The meditations are offered in an audio format, so sit back, close your eyes, and enjoy. The first two are most recommended and some of the offerings have a Buddhist influence. This site is independently maintained.