As dancers, we spend our whole lives stringently preparing for the stage. Being on that stage is a dream come true, the culmination of years of hard work and scrutiny. But, just before going on stage, have you ever felt dizzy, nauseous, or you go blank and can’t remember your choreography? Your mind is racing, your heartbeat is through the roof, and your hand goes cold. Does this sound familiar? Stage fright, nerves, jitters, butterflies…Whatever you call it, performance anxiety is a typical experience among dancers. All performers, no matter their discipline, age and gender, have felt at least one bout of performance anxiety in their lives. You are not alone in this battle of nerves. The great Mikhail Baryshnikov (arguably one of the most famous dancers of all time) has stated multiple times that despite being on stage for fifty-odd years, he still suffers from performance anxiety. An extraordinaire of the cinematic and theatre world, Dame Eillen Atkins dreadfully calls the first nights as “complete and utter miseries”. The internal struggle to vanquish stage fright and deliver a riveting, glorious performance is a predominant among all performers.
The nerves can kick in anytime. For some, performance anxiety is triggered when they are dancing solo in front of their classmates and teachers. While for others, it could be on stage when performing in front of hundreds of audience members. Some dancers suffer from such extreme anxiety that it becomes traumatic for them to perform in front of anyone. It takes the joy out of dancing. It becomes difficult to ground oneself and let go of self-doubt that engulfs us. This makes me wonder, why is performance anxiety so common among dancers? What can we, as dancers, do about it? This article intends to delve into the causes of performance anxiety, and how to tackle it.
The classical world of ballet is merciless; it’s not a place for faint-hearted souls. The extensive training exerts physical and emotional stress on the dancers. The draconian aesthetic and technical requirements of ballet can be taxing on the emotional health of dancers. It’s the arduous training and constant judgements that concoct feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, and inadequacy among ballet dancers. There is so much pressure to not fail, so much pessimism surrounding a dancer’s career, it’s hard not to crumble under it. It takes extraordinary dedication and perseverance to make it as a professional ballerina. Regardless of what stage of life you are in, performance anxiety is something that anguishes most of us. Conquering crippling anxiety is imperative to gain control of your calling and your life. Dance is a beautiful art-form, and it must be celebrated without fear. So let’s demystify the science behind stage fright.
It is believed that anxiety disorders such as performance anxiety are likely a combination of biological factors such as genetics and psychological factors such as insecurities and fears.
Some of the obvious symptoms of performance anxiety are:
- An increased heart rate
- Fear of forgetting
- Fear of disapproval
- Overly emotional
- Shortness of breath and dry mouth
Leading up to a recital, one may experience a single or a combination of these symptoms with varying degrees of severity, either before or during a performance. These reactions are a result of contemplating the act of performance as a threat instead of a challenge. As a social animal, humans tend to attach a lot of intangible value to their reputation. Thus, our fear of embarrassing ourselves in front of others becomes a potential threat. Our brain responds to this perceived threat by activating the evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ response. The body prepares itself to counteract the threat by releasing a hormone called adrenaline. The near-instantaneous gush of adrenaline can cause our body to overreact to stressors that are non-threatening, for example- a dance performance. The coalescence of adrenaline and other stress hormones restricts blood flow to the neocortex (the logical & problem-solving part of the brain), and invalidates us and incites jittery feelings. The convergence of our physiological reactions and psychological proclivity to the scepticism of our ability spawns the perfect storm for debilitating anxiety.
So now you know why your body retaliates so staunchly to being on stage. How can you overcome performance anxiety? Well, there are some techniques that you can follow when you experience an episode of stage fright.
- Accept and acknowledge – Acknowledge your anxiety. The more you fight it, the more it will overwhelm you. Telling yourself to calm down can be counterproductive as it apprises your brain that the threat is imminent, and sends your nerves into overdrive. Embracing your stage fright can help you channel that adrenaline into your performance. Diverting attention from negativism, and focusing on the positive can aid you to calm down. Before you go on the stage, think about why you love your artform, why you started doing it in the first place, and how it imbibes your existence with joy.
- Preparation – Preparation is key. Most dancers have a pre-performance routine that they follow religiously. This helps them to circumvent anxiety. Following the routine, prepares them for the stage, and calms their mind. Task repetition can be incredibly helpful in realigning focus on the end outcome…a great performance.
- A healthy diet – A healthy body can sustain a healthy mind. It’s important to be mindful of what you put into your body, especially before a recital. Crash diets can cause hormonal imbalances and may aggravate irritability. Limit sugar and caffeine intake before a performance. It can lead to a burst of energy followed by a steep crash. A healthy and balanced diet will ensure that you are on top of your game. Get plenty of rest, eat well, and keep yourself hydrated.
- Practice – Practice makes perfect. No phrase rings truer. Drill the routine into your consciousness and build muscle memory. Strive to know every movement of your choreography like the back of your hand. Even if your mind goes foggy before or during the performance, your muscles will carry you through the routine.
- Deep breathing exercises – As banal as this piece of advice may sound, slow and deep breaths can lower stress. It can decrease heart rate and alleviate anxiety. Focus on your breathing…Inhale slowly, hold your breath for 5 seconds, and then slowly exhale. Repeat this exercise until you feel grounded.
These tips are simple, but everyone can benefit from them. If your anxiety is severe, we recommend seeking professional help.
Charles Rosen described performance anxiety as “a divine ailment, a sacred madness”, and we couldn’t agree more. We must not let stage fright dampen our passion for artistic expression. Like they say…The show must go on.
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