Teaching Tips

Use These 7 Psychologist-Recommended Strategies to Conquer Recital Anxiety

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As teachers and studio owners, your lives are full of stressors—everything from harried recital weeks to curriculum overhauls to building-maintenance issues, not to mention addressing the needs and concerns of all your students and parents. How you view and cope with a stressful situation can have a direct influence on how you experience it.

You already know it's important to eat right, exercise and get good sleep to keep yourself from feeling run into the ground. You may even use deep breathing to calm or center yourself in tense moments. (If not, check out our breathing-exercise sidebar.) But Joel Minden, a cognitive behavioral therapist who works with dancers in California, says while physical coping strategies can be helpful, they alone aren't enough. It's even more important to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally. If you begin practicing psychological stress management as part of your routine, along with relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation, you will be better prepared for the crisis moments.


1. Anticipate obstacles—and success

If you know specific things stress you out, think about whether you can prevent those scenarios from occurring at all. For instance, if juggling parents' questions as a recital draws nearer has overwhelmed you in the past, let them know you'll be off e-mail during recital week, and all issues will have to wait until after the show. Or perhaps you could set an auto-reply directing emergency questions to a trusted staff member.

Jon Aaron, a certified teacher of mindfulness-based stress reduction in New York, emphasizes the importance of reflecting on past successes, as well. He recommends a big-picture view as you consider an impending crunch time. "Part of mindfulness is recollecting—the knowledge that this has been done before by [you] and it's been successful," he says.

2. Use a worry journal.

"Planning stuff in writing is really important," Minden says. Rather than letting your thoughts race from one concern to the next, get organized. If you feel there are hundreds of things that could go wrong—whether it's simply a busy day or the lead-up to a big event—set aside some time to make a list. That keeps the worries from stacking up in your mind. You may find the list isn't as long as you feared, and you can begin to address possible solutions.

3. Distinguish between what you can and can't control.

Some worries are productive, because they can help you make a plan to prevent a problem. Others, less so. As you go through your worry journal, pick out those things you have control over, like your approach to managing parents, leading classes and training staff. Also pay attention to things you can't control, like how other people behave, dancer injuries or weather emergencies. (More on those worries in a minute.)

4. When in doubt, plan the first step.

In his practice, Minden teaches clients instructional self-talk, which you can use to handle a stressful time period or troubleshoot a worst-case scenario—think electrical blackout at the performance venue during dress rehearsal. "Tell yourself in specific terms what you want to do and maybe provide a rationale," Minden says. "When a problem comes up, think about the very first thing you need to do and start with that. If you do that—and here's the rationale—then the problem might seem less overwhelming." In a blackout, for example, the first step might be to get everyone safely seated in the theater.

5. Practice active acceptance of things you can't change.

You can learn to tolerate discomfort, and doing so may help you better handle stressors. In many cases, Minden says, people want to push away negative thoughts and feelings to try to will them out of existence. But often that doesn't work and the feelings return, which can leave you feeling out of control or incapable of coping with the issue. Instead—and Minden notes this aligns with the popular mindfulness movement—acknowledge that you are stressed-out, upset or maybe even feeling depressed. "It's about turning directly toward our experience with a feeling of acceptance and patience," Aaron says. Then, try to get on with what you need to do.

Minden compares discomfort to having an uninvited guest show up at your party. You can spend your time trying to make the interloper leave, or you can accept that they're there and try to enjoy the party anyway.

6. Emotions don't have to drive your behavior.

Minden recommends letting your personal long-term values dictate your behavior, rather than succumbing to the moment-to-moment emotional changes. Values don't change, although they can be temporarily at odds with your emotions. "Tell yourself, 'I accept that I'm thinking these things and feeling this way, but the more important thing right now is, despite how I'm thinking or feeling, I need to focus on my values and the appropriate behavioral response," Minden says. During recital week that may mean showing up to the theater, talking with parents and helping the show go on.

7. Make physical and mental relaxation part of your routine, too.

Incorporate meditation, yoga or another relaxation practice into your daily life. Trying to draw on deep breathing or mindfulness exercises in the midst of a crisis will be easier if you already do it regularly.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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