Just Breathe: 6 Tips for dealing with Performance Anxiety & Stage Fright as a dancer
No matter what style of dance you do, you will undoubtedly perform for others at some point in your dance life. For some, that might simply be dancing solo in a studio setting, in front of a teacher and classmates. For others, it could be onstage in front of hundreds. For a few, it could be to a broadcast TV audience of millions. If you suffer from performance anxiety, it doesn't matter if you're in front of a huge audience, or just one person. Nerves can kick in at any time, and instead of enjoying your moment, you could experience symptoms that rob you of the reason why you dance in the first place - your happiness. Most people will have at least one episode of stage fright in their lives - whether that's as a dancer, actor, vocalist, athlete, musician, gymnast, or simply while speaking publicly. It's therefore important to have the tools to acknowledge and effectively deal with an episode of performance anxiety, so you can get back to enjoying what you love to do - dancing. Read on for some tips on coping with this common issue.
Firstly, how do you identify an episode of performance anxiety or stage fright? Look out for the following symptoms:
- Sweating palms
- Nausea or just feeling 'not quite right'
- An increased heart rate
- Feeling light-headed, dizzy or faint
- A dry mouth, a lump in your throat or lost voice (particularly stressful for singers)
- Wobbling or trembling (particularly stressful for dancers who need to nail a triple pirouette en pointe!)
- Freezing at a key moment, or losing memory of what you are meant to be doing
- A general feeling of anxiety or stress before a performance
You may experience just one of the above symptoms, or several, to varying degrees of intensity. You might notice them in the lead up to a performance, immediately before, or during, as it affects everyone differently. The most important thing to remember is that dealing with this type of stress is normal. Performance anxiety is simply down to science. Humans are social beings, and we value our reputation in front of others. When you have to perform, whether you're dancing, singing, or doing anything else in public, the fear of not doing a good job or embarrassing yourself becomes a threat and triggers the body's 'fight or flight' response.
Charles Darwin identified this fight or flight reaction as a natural mechanism that has allowed humans to survive and evolve - by fleeing from danger or fighting to the death. Although your conscious mind knows that you won't actually die from dancing in front of others (of course!), your subconscious mind triggers a response as though you might. Adrenaline gets released, and the symptoms listed above are the result. Some people are more genetically disposed than others to suffer from it, and it has nothing to do with talent. Beyoncé, Adele, and even the ballet master himself Mikhail Baryshnikov have all publicly acknowledged that they suffer from stage fright, despite their incredible success.
So, what can you do about it? Here are six basic tips for dealing with an episode of performance anxiety or stage fright:
1. Don't focus on the negative. Accept that you are nervous, and then think about the reasons why you are doing this performance. Is it because you love to dance; because your audience will enjoy it; because your teacher and your peers will be proud of you; because you will learn and improve; because you will get the chance to demonstrate your skills? Whatever your reasons are for performing, focus on those and set your mind on a positive path.
2. Practice, practice, practice. The better you know your steps, the less stressed you will feel about the possibility of forgetting them or doing them incorrectly. Practice is also important because of muscle memory. If you drill your routine enough times, your body will carry you through even if your mind is foggy with nerves. When you are practicing, try to dance in unfamiliar surroundings, and if you rely heavily on using a mirror when you rehearse, you should also do plenty of practice sessions without one. If you have the opportunity to rehearse in your final performance space beforehand, for example in a tech or dress rehearsal, then do.
3. Don't neglect your health. Get plenty of rest, and try to reduce your caffeine and sugar intake. Both of these can cause a spike in energy followed by a crash, which can reduce your ability to focus. Instead, eat a balanced meal with good fats, protein and carbohydrates an hour or two before a performance to set yourself up for success. If you're stuck for ideas, try one of the yummy Ballerina Bites recipes featured on the blog.
4. Reduce your screen time. In the lead up to a performance, spend some evenings without technology, or at least set aside a 30 minute technology-free time slot immediately before bed. Read a book, or listen to a guided meditation as you drift off, instead of scrolling through Facebook or watching Netflix. The blue light from a TV or mobile phone screen stimulates the brain, contributing to stress and anxiety, and delaying the release of sleep hormones.
5. Stretch! It's important for dancers to stretch every day, but in the final five to ten minutes before your performance, you should take some quiet time to perform some simple stretches. Stretching will relax your body and help you begin a performance in the right mindset, so try some deep lunges and some slow side and forward stretches to prepare yourself.
6. Finally, remember to breathe. Take control of your breathing patterns (especially if you breathe rapidly when you're anxious), and as you do your pre-performance stretches, take several long, slow, deep breaths in and out. Inhale slowly, count to 5 as you hold, and then exhale slowly, releasing any tension in your body. Repeat your breathing exercises several times. And remember - you've got this!
Do you have any tips for how you deal with stage fright? Comment below and let us know!
If you're suffering with severe performance anxiety, we recommend speaking with your teacher, parent, or medical practitioner for further advice.
For more information on anxiety disorders, visit Beyond Blue.
Article by Emily Newton-Smith
Photographs by Elly Ford