You feel your heart start to pound. Maybe you start to sweat. Sometimes chills may radiate through your body, or you feel dizzy and off-balance. Sometimes you feel paralyzed, or don’t feel anything at all, numb limbs and delayed reaction time taking over. Anxiety takes its toll in many forms, and performance-induced anxiety is no different. For a dancer, performance anxiety can really hinder technique and performance quality, and can be especially damaging if one dances professionally.
To be clear, we aren’t talking about pre-show jitters, that normal little burst of nervousness before performing. Most dancers feel that, and sometimes being a little hyper-aware of your performance can even help. But full-on anxiety, that crippling and overwhelming worry, is a whole other monster to tackle altogether.
What is anxiety? Anxiety is a feeling of worry or feeling apprehensive about something. At its core, it is not inherently malevolent; it’s just your body’s way of knowing when to worry. Throughout history, it has often proven useful, keeping us alive in situations of survival with its ‘fight or flight’ dynamic. Even now, a healthy dose of anxiety now and then keeps us on track and on task.
Within the large context of anxiety, however, anxiety disorders can pop up, such as panic attacks, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and even Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Now, if you have performance anxiety, it does not necessarily mean you have these disorders. Anxiety is just more complex than most people tend to believe, and can have many causes.
“When I was a trainee as a junior in high school,” says Kate Webb, dancer with contemporary ballet company Verb Ballets, “I had to perform Nutcracker Snow Corps with dancers several years my senior. The trainee program director told me I had to prove to him from my dress rehearsal performance that I was worthy of sharing the stage with the other dancers, and that if I didn't display a certain caliber I would be pulled from the shows. My stomach was in physical discomfort the entire day leading up to the dress rehearsal and I could barely sleep the night before.”
Racked with nerves, she also noticed a loss in appetite. Luckily, Webb managed to pull through, and she even managed to work that anxiety in to extra performance energy, securing her spot with the Snow Corps.
Some dancers feel the effects of anxiety in other ways. Matthew J. Keller, a modern dancer from Cincinnati, experienced something called dissociation (a feeling of being completely disconnected, sometimes from your own body) during one particularly stressful performance, “I was in a trio in High School and it required a lot of technical vocabulary that was still new in my body. I felt as though I was disassociating before going on stage, unable to recall what happens in the dance; however, when I got on the stage, my body took over and it was an early experience of being present and in the moment.”
Like Webb and Keller, many professional dancers can move forward and combat their anxieties. However, it can still be a miserable experience, and can also be unhealthy (loss of appetite and sleep can increase chance of injury). Triumphing over performance anxiety is quite a feat, but don’t be ashamed if you find yourself struggling to do so.
Say you always feel severely nauseous before a show, and you find yourself being irritable or distant with your colleagues. You try every show to be as prepared as possible--and you are--yet fear always makes you second-guess yourself. It’s self-sabotaging. What do you do? How do you move forward?
Webb finds taking class or doing a smart warm-up can help quell any nerves, “[I take] a good warm-up class where I focus on finding my core, breathing deeply, and acquainting myself with the floor on the stage and depth of the theater. If a group class is not provided, I am sure to give myself a solid solo warm-up.”
“[I give] myself ample time to do hair and make-up and get into costume” Webb says, “If I am ready with extra time, it gives me a chance to visualize choreography or do a few last minute ab exercises to reconnect with my core.”
While rituals can sometimes throw dancers off, rituals can also be of benefit. For Webb, eating some “good-luck chocolate” helps remind her that performing is a gift, and helps her express gratitude for performing, “Gratitude can be a very humbling force and can do wonders to keep [anxiety] in check. The chocolate reminds me that every performance I get to experience is a treat!”
Keller finds connecting with breath to be a smart way to center himself before a show, “[I] just release into the moment. Just simple deep breaths, and trusting my body to know the material--I have gone through rehearsal at this point. This helps me get into the ephemeral moment of live performance and let go of any worries: my mantra is ‘well it's going to happen, regardless’ and I release any tension.”
Going Over Choreography
“I go through the piece to give myself [a] sense of the whole, [and] rehearse parts with fellow dancers if they want,” Keller says. Going over tricky parts can help warm up the body, and remind you that you’ve done it all before.
Keeping Yourself Busy
“I try to occupy myself,” says DesJaVae, a burlesque dancer from Dayton, Ohio, “After getting ready, I offer to help others as much as I can. I try to relax and joke with other performers. If I can watch other performances, I do and congratulate them and take note of what captures me.”
Understanding the Source
Though tricky, DesJaVae also finds that taking time to understand what her anxiety is can help her overcome it, “I can feel sick but I take time to understand it's more mental than physical,” she says.
With practice, and finding what works best for you, performance anxiety can be alleviated. Everyone has tricks and quirks that helps them get into the right mindset. It’s also good to understand that what works for one person may not work for you, and that is okay. The most important thing is to remember that you aren’t alone, and talking about your worries with friends can help build a support system to share ideas and coping mechanisms with. When in doubt, remind yourself why you love dance in the first place, and do your best to work from there. Remember that dance is a wonderful way to express yourself, convey ideas, and create fantastic environments.