At Pacific Ballroom Dance, our aim is to build character in our students, and we use dance as a vehicle to achieve that goal. Though our classroom time is often focused on character development, some might not fully appreciate our dancers’ performance time as an opportunity to build valuable life skills. After all, you might ask, how often does your average adult need to dance in front of a few hundred people? How does that experience help them to become more balanced adults?
The reality is that though relatively few of our students will pursue a full-time professional career as a performing artist, many similar situations are central to adult life. We are “on stage” when we give presentations at school or work, when we play a central role in a pivotal soccer game, appear in court, or start a difficult discussion with a loved one. Adults are frequently in situations when anxiety can run high, because we feel that people are watching us and expecting us to perform in some way or another. We prepare our students to embrace these situations head-on, so they can learn to feel confident under pressure.
Anxiety is a normal part of life, as is the fight-or-flight response that our bodies experience when we are suddenly thrown in front of an audience. Very few people lead lives that are free of anxiety, and you’d be surprised how nervous even seasoned performers can be in the moments leading up to a critical moment. Here are a few practical principles and techniques that you can use to combat performance anxiety:
1. Strengthen your confidence through preparation
The more you practice and prepare (whether alone, as a partnership, or as a team) the more you will feel comfortable on stage. One of the primary goals of rehearsal is to program our bodies to respond to the music in such a way that our bodies operate more or less on autopilot. With the dance itself tucked away in our brains and muscle memory as an automatic response to the music, we can turn our thoughts towards the higher functions of performing, such as interacting with the audience, our partner and the team, which helps us more fully enjoy the experience.
2. Take care of yourself
Make sure to eat healthy food and get plenty of sleep during performance periods. Your body needs to be in top form in order to function well. When we are sleep-deprived or haven’t eaten well, our bodies can struggle with even basic tasks of coordination and memory, which will make any performer struggle.
I once had a long conversation with a retired bullfighter as we rode a ferry from Spain to Morocco. He told me that bullfighters need to be at 100% when they walk out into the ring, because the moment the bull comes running, the body’s natural responses to that fear make your capacity drop to half of what it was just moments before. “If you’re at 100% that day, you’ll suddenly be at 50%,” he said, “which is barely enough to be successful. If you are at 80% that day, you’ll suddenly drop to 40%, which might be low enough to get you killed.”
Though the threat of stage fright isn’t as physically present as a charging 2,000-pound bull, the physiological effects of that anxiety are very similar to what we experience when we are faced with the more abstract fears associated with performing arts.
Make sure you take care of yourself so you’re at 100% on performance days, because the moment you step on stage under those bright lights, some degree of anxiety is going to hit you and you’ll need all of the strength you have in order to pull off a successful performance.
3. Silence the inner heckler
A heckler is someone who shouts demoralizing comments at performers on stage. Thankfully, I have never seen that happen at any of our shows (though sometimes parents yell their kids’ names and it causes a similar, unintended disturbance), but often our inner voice is the worst heckler of all. “You’re not good enough to be here,” that inner voice may say, or “wow, you just messed up big time! You might as well just stop dancing now, because everyone is laughing at you.”
When you hear that negative voice, choose to ignore it.
Better yet, practice replacing that inner voice with a positive one: “You’re doing great!” “It’s okay that you made a small mistake! Most people probably didn’t notice, and they wouldn’t care even if they did. They’re just enjoying your talent and are impressed with how well you recovered from the stumble!”
Shape your inner dialogue into a positive one. It makes a world of difference.
4. Don’t be anxious about being anxious
Anxiety is normal! You’re not a bad or broken person if you feel it. In fact, if you’re experiencing anxiety then that means you’re a very normal person, experiencing one of the most common aspects of the human experience.
Everyone gets the jitters, but not everyone learns to deal with them. Your efforts to deal with anxiety will pay off huge dividends throughout your life. The more you practice overcoming it, the more skilled you’ll become, so even a temporary failure can be a huge victory in the long run.
5. Think of the good you are doing by performing
We often feel like everyone is staring at us, accusatorially, waiting for us to fail. That simply isn’t true! Performance is an act of service, and by dancing your heart out on stage you can completely turn someone’s day from a horrible one to an unforgettably joyous one.
We bow at the end of performances, much like a servant bows before a king, as a symbol that we are serving the audience. Focus on that that relationship and many fears melt away.
6. Embrace your emotions
When we enter the spotlight, our adrenaline flows, our hearts start pounding, our palms start sweating, and our emotions reach a heightened state. That is normal. Rather than trying to suppress those emotions, express them! Learn to focus those emotions into a higher level of performance quality and you will become a performer that the audience will never forget.
Often, when our bodies enter into an anxious state, we cut short our breathing and deprive our bodies of oxygen. You’d be surprised how many performers attempt to go for minutes on end without taking a real breath, but you probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear how badly it affects their ability to perform when their brains are oxygen-deprived
When you’re feeling the jitters, take a moment and breathe in and out, slowly and purposefully. Make sure that your lungs are filled with fresh oxygen before you go on stage, and check in on your breathing throughout your performance. Better yet, purposefully build breathing cues into your choreography, so you have regular moments to exhale and inhale. Your body will thank you, and so will the audience.
8. Focus on what you enjoy
There are terrifying aspects of any performance, but don’t forget that we usually enjoy far more aspects of the experience than those that we fear – after all, something brought us to that stage to perform in the first place!
Rather than letting your fear eclipse your joy, choose to focus on the things you love about performing, whether it’s dancing, spending time with friends, listening to music, or bringing enjoyment to your audience.
9. Keep coming back
The more time you spend under those stage lights, the more you’ll feel at home there. The same principle applies to competitions, sports, public speaking, and most other experiences that can lead us to feel performance anxiety. As the experience becomes more familiar to you, your body will stop responding with its physiological fight-or-flight responses, and you’ll feel much more level-headed. With each successive performance, the fears will gradually dissipate and you will be able to take more and more control of your performance, despite the many pressures you’ll experience.
Now that you have these nine techniques to help you fight your stage fright, make sure to practice them and talk about them with your friends! Your skills will increase as you master these principles and put them into practice!