Backstage Butterflies

The audience settles and the lights begin to dim. The music’s cued, and you prepare to make your entrance. Though you know your director and fellow dancers trust you, and you’ve worked your buns off rehearsing for your moment in the limelight, an unfounded fear suddenly floods your being. Rather than bounding onstage with joyful energy, you’re quaking in the wings, with your legs shaking and your heart racing so fast you could never dance to its beat! That, fellow dancers, is what’s known as stage fright. If you’re a victim of it (or if you just want to understand it), please read on.


Michelle Yard, a veteran of Mark Morris Dance Group says, “I get stage fright all the time!” Yard reveals that she’s slightly panicked every time she steps onstage, though not to the point of being frozen in her tracks. But her queasy stomach and pounding heart let her know she’s about to go on.


“Working with live music and different stages makes everything new all the time, so you get nervous,” says Yard. She also feels that handling difficult costumes contributes to feeling anxious, and that pieces where she’s featured are even more difficult to perform. “You’re out there by yourself, and if fear distracts you and your mind goes elsewhere for a second, you’ve got to come to your senses and figure things out fast!”


Yard’s been with the company for 10 years, and admits the fear was worse at the beginning. “When you’re new you want to show what you can do and why they hired you,” she says. She feels that having to prove yourself is nerve-wracking, and she believes it plays into the fear of going onstage. “Ultimately you want the company to think they made a good choice!” she says.


Tulsa Ballet demi-soloist Megan Keough doesn’t often experience stage fright, but she does remember having an episode when she danced in Bournonville’s Pas de Quatre. “When I first did the piece, I was so nervous I actually choked onstage,” says Keough. “I didn’t fall down, but the final diagonal of turns was nothing like it was in rehearsal—I was stumbling!”


Keough says she was terrified and that the experience “shocked the hell,” out of her. “I felt like I was standing about an inch off the stage, like I wasn’t connected to the floor,” she says. She was so afraid to “mess it up” that that’s exactly what she did!


She feels she’s learned from that one experience. “I saw that I needed to spend more time in pointe shoes beforehand. I wasn’t taking class on pointe, and I let my guard down,” she says. Keough also decided that she can’t approach every piece the same way. “Learning these things is part of growing as a dancer and as an artist.”


BalletMet Columbus’ Emily Ramirez finds that dancing solo is a nerve-inducing experience. “My stage fright developed over time as the choreography got more difficult, and I realized I had more of a chance of screwing it up,” she says. The anticipation of performing certain pieces gives Ramirez the shakes, and her heart rate escalates noticeably. “These symptoms can even start when the music comes on,” she says. “It’s ridiculous, because I’m a ham. But I’m a ham and a ball of nerves all at once!”


Ramirez’s heart rate has gotten so high when performing certain parts that she’s lost feeling in her legs. “It’s scary to go onstage when you can’t feel your legs,” she says. “That’s an extreme thing.”


But she has found that standing in the wings with her arms raised above her head helps calm her down. “I close my eyes and take deep breaths to lower my heart rate,” she says. “It’s relaxing. I can get into my own zone for a while.”


She’s also afraid of heights, so being lifted and tossed around in the air is fear-inducing too. “I did a James Kudelka piece where I ran into a treacherous lift right off the bat,” she says. “My partner knew how scared I get, so we’d do a funny little dance in the wings to shake the nerves off.”


Humor still helps her through tough stage fright bouts. “If I’m nervous in the wings, I’m going to lighten the mood,” she says. “I’ll be the one to say something irreverent. First I resort to joking, and then I do some trusty deep breathing and close off my surroundings. I say to myself, ‘I’m a dancer in a ballet and I have to make it work!’ ”


Audra Johnson has been with American Repertory Ballet for four years. During her first season with the company, Johnson says she was filled with fear. “I am classically trained but was doing contemporary movement,” she says. “I felt if it didn’t feel right, how could it look right?”


Johnson says even onstage she would battle her nonstop internal monologue. “I was in my head all the time,” says Johnson. “It was hard to stop worrying and get comfortable with the movement.”


The director of the company took Johnson aside and told her she needed more confidence and that everyone was rooting for her. Once she began to understand that, she could let go of some of her fear. “I tried not to be so worried about how I looked and felt,” she says. “Dance is not about the perfect pirouette; it’s so much deeper than perfection.”


Johnson doesn’t experience stage fright too often anymore. “Of course I get the jitters before a show, but I have to trust myself and my partners,” she says. “I tell myself to go out there and have fun.”


John Heginbotham, another member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, isn’t a victim of perpetual stage fright, but he has gotten it while performing I Love You Dearly, a highly aerobic solo. The first time he did it, he says, “I was alone in the wings and I felt my heart in my stomach. For about three seconds I entertained the idea of leaving the theater!”


As the piece began, Heginbotham felt like he was on a rollercoaster ride. Once he was accomplishing his landmarks, he began to enjoy dancing. But when he was asked to perform it for the company’s 25th-anniversary season, he found himself getting nervous again. As he was warming up, he felt he needed some words of wisdom to help him get through the dance. Morris happened to be backstage, so Heginbotham asked him to tell him something about the piece he didn’t know. “This piece is easy,” said Morris. “But I can’t tell you you’ll have a good life!” The humor helped him to relax, and when he thought of it as easy, it flowed better.


“There are always pieces that are more nerve-wracking than others, but you have to get through it,” says Heginbotham. “There are worse things that can happen in life than making mistakes onstage.”


So if stage fright is your constant or part-time partner, remember: Even the most accomplished dancers have experienced it sometime in their career, and most dancers do find ways of coping with their fears. Breathe, laugh, and enjoy your time onstage.

Nancy Alfaro lives and writes in Queens, NY.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

Keep reading... Show less
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at

Sylvie Guillem, via

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.

Keep reading... Show less
Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21.

Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

Keep reading... Show less
Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers & Companies
Joan Marcus

Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?

The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers & Companies
From left, Ethel Merman, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Debbie Allen. All Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.

Keep reading... Show less





Get Dance Magazine in your inbox


Win It!