After many hours of physical and mental preparation for your next big performance, you head backstage… and freeze. The little butterflies in your stomach that fuel your adrenaline and excitement have turned into heavy ramped dragons that are bouncing off the walls of your stomach and hauling fire all over the place. The heat they spread is rising into your face and the pounding of your heart echoes in your head. Anxiety has made its appearance and now you are trying to keep it together before you head on stage.
Performance anxiety is no stranger to dancers of any age. With the demands of abilities and performance outcomes escalating to new heights, it is no surprise that most young dancers I work with experience some form of performance anxiety prior to dancing in front of an audience, even members of their family. How has performance anxiety been able to wreak havoc in our field? Has our need to meet certain expectations surpassed our art form's purpose for cultivating self-expression?
Based on recent studies of human behavior and psychology, Social Anxiety Disorder influences 7 in 10 Americans. Performance anxiety is a form of social anxiety in which a person fears not performing well or failing, and the influence it will have on how others see them. Concerns of being embarrassed or ashamed of abilities to perform can lead to anxiety and even panic attacks. The common performance environments in which we see young dancers are almost too perfect at encouraging performance anxiety, with high stakes, high expectations, reward focus, and competitive natures. It is time for dancers to take ownership of the stage without the weight of anxiety holding them back.
Dancers, you are not alone in your experience of performance anxiety! You should feel proud of each performance and grateful for each moment on stage. Here are some things to remember to help you get there and enjoy your performances.
Let your passion guide you!
Remind yourself why you want to go out on stage in the first place, YOU LOVE TO DANCE. Don’t let yourself get bogged down by worry. Take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to remember why you choose to continue dancing and what inspired you to take your first steps on the path to performing. For me, dance has always brought a freedom that I haven’t been able to find in any other sense or outlet. Whatever your reason is for pursuing dance, let it inspire you to be courageous, strong, and proud.
Your audience wants you to be successful
I think this is something we tend to forget, especially if we find ourselves consistently performing in competitions or audition settings. Even when you find yourself anxious about the outcome of your performance, let your audience support you. Family, friends, teachers, and even the judges and staff of the events WANT YOU TO DO YOUR BEST! Forget about any one else. Being successful takes on so many different definitions for your audience, but at the end of the day if you fill the room with your joy and passion for dance, your audience will be delighted with your performance and proud of your efforts.
A little exposure goes a long way
Not every performance is going to feel like your best, and that is completely okay. Sometimes you will run into situations that are not so pleasant during a performance and you will do your best to manage and recuperate from them. I have quiet a few memories of managing some unfortunate situations while performing and had to cope with their effects on my self-esteem. While onstage I have personally been tangled in the stage balloon decorations (a fond memory I giggle at the thought of now. I was so tiny and there were many balloons), kicked and kneed in the nose and jaw, tripped, dropped, and probably many more that I have blocked out of my memory. But I live to talk about them all. After these instances occurred I was embarrassed and ashamed. I never wanted to perform again... but I did. Little by little I would build up my confidence and realize that regardless of how much I trained and practiced, I was only human and mistakes, albeit some pretty humorous now, will happen while dancing. What matters is that I keep allowing myself to get back out on stage with fellow dancers and believing in myself. So when incidences happen give yourself any needed space and EMPATHY to build back your confidence and don't let unreasonable worries hold you back from performing again.
One-on-One helps build confidence in your performance
In my time working privately with dancers I have come upon a new understanding: working one-on-one with someone that you can develop a trusting relationship with helps to improve abilities AND confidence at a increased rate. This is one of my favorite things to observe in growth when I work with young dancers. For most of my students, when we start working together they can be struggling with developing technique or abilities and suffer from loss of confidence in themselves as a dancer. It is often easier to help dancers develop their physical abilities than it is to guide a dancers to regaining their self-confidence. Oy, the stubborn dancer mentality. You are all that you are meant to be! It is where you are now that will allow you to reach the person you desire to be, but you must allow yourself to take the journey to get there. Can you tell I am avid Yoga practitioner yet? It all applies! Practicing was actually a great way for me to learn about managing my anxieties (and for managing injuries and weaknesses in my body but that's a story for another time).
It is well worth battling a dancer to discover her worth when I am able to watch him/her come to life in their performances. It's a bonus when they have also developed their technique and abilties to be supported by the movement have their body support them in telling a story and expressing themselves. Through my work I have learned to never underestimate the power of support and encouraging self-love. This is especially important for young dancers who are just beginning to discover who they are and have been drawn to dance by it’s ability to help them explore and express. I believe their does need to be a sound boundary establishing the difference between supporting and hand-holding, and dancers will find that balance with me. Training as a dancer is a self-involved journey where a dancer must learn about and cooperate with their body. That is the hard work to be done. At no point will I ever be able to do that difficult work for any of my students. What makes the difference is the nurturing, honest, and authentic way they are guided through their process, with belief that they CAN do the hard work and improve.
There is always next time
Dance is an art form, and like any good art form, it offers the opportunity to study and revise at your own will. As a dancer, you are constantly able to get back into your training, class, and choreography to make edits and improvements as necessary. That is where your true artistry and development exists. Following those improvements will come more opportunities to perform and shine. I always remind my dancers that with each performance comes an opportunity to be better, whether that means demonstrating stronger technique and awareness or finding healthier ways to manage emotions, engagement, or response to their performance. That is the beauty of performing arts. The opportunity for growth exists on and beyond the movement. Everything you experience in each performance can be brought into future performances. Appreciate your experiences and let them guide you to be better.