Performance Jitters

Posted on November 8, 2009 by

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Picture this: A vast crowd sits staring blankly at you. Bright lights temporarily blind you. Your costume begins to itch and your palms start to sweat. You’ve forgotten all the steps. Feelings of panic begin to envelop your entire body.
Walking into the spotlight can be an intense, and sometimes overwhelming, experience for students. As a teacher, it is important to understand why dancers experience these fears and how you can help them overcome them. We’ve gathered tips for successfully guiding students from studio to stage.

Why do dancers experience stage fright?

“The stage brings up many issues,” says Joshua Estrin, dance teacher and licensed psychotherapist, “including fear of failure, body image issues and basic fear of public humiliation.” If the dancer does not feel prepared, if she is not comfortable with the choreography or if the stakes of performing are high—a large audience, for example, or a reviewer in the crowd—she may develop feelings of fear. In addition: “If the performer is worried about handling factors that may be beyond her control, such as costume-change problems or a problem with the music, the level of anxiety can increase,” says Rebecca Gose Enghauser, associate professor of dance at the University of Georgia.

How does stage fright affect the body and the mind?

Dancers certainly experience physical symptoms of stage fright—the “fight or flight” reactions, which include sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, dry mouth and shortness of breath. But students may start to react mentally, too, showing an inability to concentrate and a hyper-internal focus. “Anxiety is often accompanied by negative thoughts or an unrealistic assessment of one’s performance, which continues the vicious cycle of anxiety,” Gose Enghauser says. Unless the dancer is prepared to handle this stress, the unwanted symptoms will persist.

How can I prepare my students so that they’re less likely to experience stage fright?

Dancers need to be supremely comfortable with their routine, so rehearsals for performances should begin months ahead of time. “I drill technique and choreography so they don’t even have to think about it come performance time,” says Katya Virshilas, founder of Katya’s School of Dance in Vancouver, Canada. (However, beware of over-rehearsing, which can lead to injuries, as well as tired, burnt-out students.)

The next step is getting students comfortable with people watching them dance. “About two months before a recital, we invite other classes to watch,” says Stephanie Prosenjak, artistic director of Cherry Creek Dance in Denver, Colorado. “Because it’s their peers, the students are comfortable. We also cheer so they get a feel for performance.” This is especially helpful with teenagers, who tend to be particularly insecure. “I will invite parents into the classroom so students know that people are there to support them, not criticize,” Prosenjak says.

Closer to performance time, make sure to visit the theater and allow students to walk through the wings, become familiar with the backstage area and note any irregularities in the flooring. A dress rehearsal is always a good idea and the perfect time to allow students to explore their performance venue.

Creating a team environment, which allows individual dancers to feel that they belong, can also help ease anxiety. “They are less inclined to feel alone or scared when they are a part of something bigger than they are,” says Fenton Fulgham, co-owner and choreographer at Revelation Dance Studio in Plano, Texas. Encourage camaraderie by setting up a “Big/Little Sisters/Brothers” program with the competition team, in which older students take younger ones under their wings, mentoring and cheering them on with kind words, cards and small gifts. And make sure that dancers know your door is always open, Fulgham says, if they want to discuss their concerns about a show. “They need to know their feelings are valid,” he says.

Finally, teachers should taper off critical comments as the performance date approaches, according to Gose Enghauser. “It can create extra stress on dancers as they deal with additional factors, like spacing issues, lights and costumes,” she says.

What about the day of the performance?

On the big day, it is important that dancers have a well-thought-out schedule. Many young students are surprised to find that there is a lot of waiting time on show days, and if this downtime is not managed properly, it can increase anxiety. Start by setting a consistent warm-up routine that students can do on their own. Playing movies and providing cards and board games backstage—so that younger dancers, especially, never feel that they’re just sitting around—are also good strategies.

Mental exercises are just as important as physical ones. Help students develop and use positive cues, like a comforting phrase they can repeat to themselves. (“Calm, centered and persistent” is one useful mantra.) Also, the regular use of mental imagery has been shown to be effective for many dancers. Have your students close their eyes and picture themselves going through their routine onstage with no mistakes and a smile on their face, or receiving hugs and praise after their performance. Another idea is to instruct dancers to look out over the audience when they first step onstage. “Tell them to survey the space from one side to the other,” says Susan Biali, PhD, and professional flamenco dancer. “That way, dancers ‘own’ the audience, which is empowering, rather than trying to avoid looking at the audience.” Finally, Mariana Diskes, director of Mariana’s Dancing in Ipswich, Massachusetts, tells her students that performing is about “giving.” “Someone who has stage fright may feel the audience is ‘taking away’ by watching them,” Diskes says. “But reinforcing the idea that the student is the one ‘giving’ places the power on the dancer and gives her a purpose.”

“For severe cases of stage fright, which may occur in younger, less experienced dancers, having an older buddy in the wings can be helpful,” says Alexia Adcock, theater dance director at Boleros Cultural Arts Center in Jacksonville, Florida. It can also be reassuring to have an instructor just out of sight of the audience to offer silent support and direction. DT

Stage Fright Quick Fixes
Jennifer Edwards, who teaches stress reduction to dancers through New York University Tisch School of the Arts and Gina Gibney Dance Co., shares exercises teachers can use to help students calm stage fright symptoms.

Butterflies in the stomach:

Place your hands on your lower abdomen. Breathe in so that your stomach fills your hands, releasing the muscles in and massaging the tension away from the gut. Feel heaviness and breath in your belly and pelvis; ground yourself by dropping the weight of the shoulders, chest and head into your center.

Trouble breathing:

Gently massage the front of your neck with your fingertips. Start just under your chin and draw the hands down toward your collarbones, exhaling as you go. Once the throat feels open, begin to massage and tap the area around your collarbones. As you do this, breathe into the upper chest and sternum.

After the Show

Performance skills are developed even after the big day. Help your students analyze their performances in a supportive but objective way. Suggest that dancers watch their recital videos as soon as possible and pick out things they like and dislike about their individual performances. That way they can see what their strengths are and what they should improve on for the following year. Rebecca Gose Enghauser, associate professor of dance at the University of Georgia, says: “Students who see their mistakes as an opportunity for growth, rather than devastating occurrences, will be more successful in future performances.”

Brianne Carlon is a freelance writer based in Youngstown, OH.

Photo copyright istockphoto.com/Sebastien Bergeron

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