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Pushing Past Performance Anxiety

Check out our podcast episode on this hot topic!

CWe’ve all been there. The lights shine brightly on the stage, you’re waiting in the wings. As you watch the dancer before you, your stomach drops, your breath gets ragged, and your body tenses. Performance anxiety. It happens to almost everyone at one time or another, that nervous feeling before you go on stage, or walk into an audition. It can affect your health, mental well-being, self-esteem, and of course, your performance. IDA judges Colin Shea Denniston, Samantha Litvak, Callie Schouten, and Max Vasapoli share their experiences and suggestions on how to combat performance anxiety in this week’s blog!

Callie Schouten, owner of Veracity Dance Project in Wisconsin, says, “Performance anxiety can mean a lot of different things! For some, it's a mild case of the butterflies right before hitting stage. For others, it is enough stress and emotion to keep them off stage permanently. The pressure of performance can be overwhelming. As dancers, we strive for personal perfection. We want to know we are measuring up to our "competition". During my professional career, I had my own unique anxiety. I would walk into a dance audition ready to book. I was confident, comfortable, and cool. I'd make it to the vocal cut and anxiety would set in. I knew I could sing, but I didn't have the confidence behind it. My voice would quiver. I'd forget to breathe. I'd sweat in weird places! It was awful. I knew I had to do something about it... and FAST.” Callie's experience was echoed by the other judges, who have all been there!

Max Vasapoli, dance instructor from Philadelphia, has an interesting perspective on performance anxiety: “I believe that performance anxiety manifests from the root of the most exciting part of live performance - the unexpected. As performers, we spend countless hours rehearsing, marking, and tech-ing every aspect of a production to ease stage fright. However, the unpredictable nature of live performance feeds the inevitable “what ifs?” that we all fear. This is why teachers and coaches strive to activate muscle memory and the motivation to “keep going, no matter what happens.” An integral part of learning to perform is thinking beyond what could go wrong.” As teachers, we always want to prepare students for any possible situation, and that in itself can be integral to combating performance anxiety.

Performance anxiety can take on many forms. For some, it can be a mild case of the jitters, butterflies in the stomach and shaky hands. For others, it can be mentally paralyzing, keeping them from ever setting foot on a stage. Teachers and choreographers can help ease performance anxiety issues by recognizing the different needs of different dancers.

Samantha Litvak, dance teacher from New Jersey, knows that her general approach to rehearsal is helpful for her dancers to feel confident. “Rehearse! Rehearse! Rehearse! I make my dancers perform facing away from the mirror. It turns them on their heads at first, but they are unable to rely on watching other people or themselves. It forces them to work together to feed off of each other's energy, listen, and COUNT the music! I also bring an audience in early on. When they have people watching it can feel intimidating, but if they are used to having an audience, then bringing a dance to the stage is not much different.” Another option to add on to facing away from the mirror is to rehearse routines facing any direction - the side of the room, or on a diagonal. The added element of the change in space will set the dancers up to be ready for any performance environment, no matter how small or strange!

Colin Shea Dennsiton, professional dancer and teacher in NYC, says, “Knowledge is power! Talk about performance anxiety and anxiety in general. If dance teachers get the conversation started and create a safe space with their dancers to have a dialogue about anxiety, it will help everyone feel more at ease.” Many young dancers feel as if they should be able to power through these feelings, and may feel embarrassed about even experiencing them to begin with. Simply acknowledging to young dancers that anxiety is a normal feeling can comfort them. Callie adds, “As performers, people automatically assume we are these confident beasts who cannot be phased. We can be much more fragile than people think! As actors, we learn to disguise our own insecurities well.” In addition to getting help from teachers, dancers should begin to recognize and harness their own anxiety in order to grow into confident performers and people.

Every dancer learns in a different way - some need the counts, others need the names of the steps, still others need the words of the song. In the same way, every dancer experiences their own form of anxiety, which then can be handled with their own unique process. “Write down what you're actually nervous about,” suggests Samantha. “If you can pinpoint actual feelings or worries, it is easier to tackle them.” It may help to have a dance journal, where in addition to keeping notes on choreography, goals can be written down, fears can be shared, and thoughts can be saved. Samantha also advises dancers to “envision themselves performing their dance to the best of their ability, every turn, leap, and movement. If you can get into your own head, it can simultaneously get you OUT of your own head. Focus on yourself.”

Callie has similar advice for dancers suffering from performance anxiety: “I have a rule for my soloists: If possible, they speak to no one 20 minutes before they go onstage. They don't talk to me. They don't talk to their teammates. They don't talk to their parents. They pop their solo music in their earbuds, put up the blinders, and focus on the task at hand. This simple pre-performance ritual will help students focus on themselves and will make a world of difference not only to their performance, but their psyche, as well. We must train our brains just as hard as we train our bodies.” The brain is a sponge, soaking up all the information we give it, from choreography to negative self-talk. In that 20 minutes before dancing, take the time to speak to yourself with kindness and encouragement, like you would speak to your best friend before he went on stage. Dancers are notorious perfectionists, so be gentle with yourself if you are nervous before you dance.

Believe it or not, there are ways that performance anxiety can actually benefit a dancer! For some, the adrenaline rush means “Go Time!” and actually enhances a performance. Colin agrees, “Once a dancer learns to tap into and acknowledge his or her own forms of anxiety, it is possible that they can benefit them. That anxiety can be the fuel, spark or adrenaline one needs to perform with excitement and fervor. But always remember, dancing and competitions should be FUN FIRST!” Callie’s final thoughts give a sense of peace to the subject of anxiety: “I've always felt a certain ease about feeling some form of performance anxiety. It reminds us we are human beings. We are flawed and that's ok. It keeps us humble and driven. When we overcome battles to achieve our goals, it makes success that much sweeter. What performers do is extraordinary. We push our bodies and minds to their limits. The best thing we can do for ourselves is take that anxiety and turn it into a beautiful, dynamic performance for our audience.”


Photos Provided by Callie Schouten

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