How to become the kind of performer audiences can’t take their eyes off of.

Lesley Rausch, here in Swan Lake, uses visualization techniques backstage. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet.

After countless hours in rehearsal, the stage can sometimes feel like a foreign country. Mirrors are replaced with blackness, your periphery is filled with light, and the floors, spacing and even the rosin feel different. Suddenly the variation you’d mastered in the studio is shaky and your performance falls short of everything you’d accomplished in rehearsal.

Performing is a skill of its own, and great dancers are not always great performers. It takes a particular kind of confidence to share yourself onstage and relax into your body when the pressure is on. But by working on their performance skills, dancers can grow beyond what was possible without an audience.

Shake Your Nerves 

Dancers who flourish under the spotlight typically focus on the work itself rather than outcomes like audience reactions, reviews or possible promotions. Because such results are beyond your control, fixating on them can zap your confidence and exacerbate nerves, explains Dr. Jim Taylor, psychologist and co-author of Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence.

When those thoughts take over, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Demetia Hopkins-Greene practices deep breathing to calm down and slow her heart rate. “I focus on my goal for that performance: What’s my role? What am I trying to convey?” she says. She forces herself to stay in the moment and shifts her mind-set to revel in the blackness of the fourth wall, rather than worrying about all the people on the other side.

Other dancers learn to use their nerves to their advantage: If you can channel that adrenaline into controlled energy (while staying present), it can give you an extra boost. “Enjoy the butterflies,” suggests Houston Ballet II ballet master and coach Claudio Muñoz. “It’s the best part of the performance.”

Discover Your Ideal Prep

Whether you always listen to a certain song backstage or a put on a “lucky” pair of mukluks, there may be more power in your backstage routines than you think. “Great performers and athletes are meticulous in their preparation,” Taylor says. That means your makeup, hair and warm-up are all thoughtfully done on a schedule that makes you comfortable. “Consistency of preparation leads to consistency of performance,” he says.

Hopkins-Greene, here with Glenn Allen Sims in Chroma, uses the fourth wall to help her focus. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy Ailey. 

The trick is finding what makes you feel comfortable enough to open up and be vulnerable onstage. Dancers with an internal-focus style often need space and quiet to get into that zone—you’ll find them off in a corner with earbuds in, avoiding eye contact. But others, says Taylor, will begin to stress and self-criticize if they overthink things, so they might need to spend their prep time blasting silly pop music and laughing with friends.

Either way, get into performance mode from the moment you start warming up. “Don’t wait until you’re onstage,” says musical theater choreographer and performer Al Blackstone. “Immediately during pliés, be as present as possible, actually look at your hand, engage with the space around you, project energy. Then you won’t have to make a huge shift once it’s time to perform.”

Positive imagery should also be part of every dancer’s backstage prep. Studies have shown that visualization can have a real effect on how our muscles behave. Imagining your ideal performance can help embed it in your muscle memory before you go on. “I’ll visualize doing the steps successfully rather than focusing on the time that I fell out of the pirouette,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Lesley Rausch. During the rehearsal period, go through your choreography mentally at least three times per week so that visualization feels natural come opening night.

Watch Your Body Language

The way you hold your posture can affect how an audience perceives you on a subliminal level, says Jennie Morton, an osteopath and former dancer. For example, by curling your stomach inward while pushing your chin up in a slumping position, you are communicating that you are afraid, whether intentionally or not. Similarly, elevated shoulders or tension in the neck and arms can denote a lack of confidence. “The audience will be waiting for something to go wrong because they don’t feel comfortable watching you,” says Morton. “For an audience to connect to a performer emotionally, trust has to be established.” Of course, these postures can be a choreographic or dramatic choice. But otherwise, Morton suggests aiming for neutral alignment—particularly focusing on your pelvic position—to give your body language greater authority.

Find Your Way Into the Role

When Hopkins-Greene was cast in the title role of Matthew Rushing’s Odetta last year, she was intimidated to depict the iconic singer known as the voice of the civil rights movement. But once she found herself in the role, she shined. “I can’t be Odetta,” she says, “but I can tell you what I feel from Odetta. I can show you how I see this woman.”

Claudia Muñoz coaches dancers to approach performances the same as rehearsals. Photo by Cameron Durham, courtesy Houston Ballet Academy.

Blackstone says that performers who struggle with being expressive onstage can improve by digging even deeper into the material. “Talk to the choreographer, ask yourself questions about the character and how you want the audience to feel,” he suggests. “Performance is about communication—how can you have a great conversation if you don’t know what it is you’re trying to say?”

Based on your interpretation, discover places in the choreography to play with your energy and focus, and find those moments when you can feed off other performers onstage by making eye contact. “Take those moments when you’re not engaging straight out to the audience to look down or over your shoulder or at your partner,” says Blackstone. Not only will this give your dancing more nuance, but it will leave you more energy to give to the audience when you are sending it out in their direction.

Don’t Aim For Perfection

Because the stakes are high in performance, dancers tend to put more pressure on themselves. “When I was younger I felt this sense of needing to be perfect technically in my performance,” says Rausch. She’s not alone. But this approach can backfire, aggravating stage fright and leaving dancers unprepared to bounce back from the inevitably imperfect moments in a performance.

When coaching dancers for competition, Muñoz tells them to approach it just like they do every day in the studio. “If they’re good, they’re going to win anyway.” A performance is not the time to try for an extra rotation in your turns; simply execute what you know you can do and remain open to what comes onstage. Strive for excellence rather than perfection, advises Taylor. “Excellence still sets the bar incredibly high, but it takes away the pressure of having to be perfect.”

Be Human

So what is that sparkle? The je ne sais quoi that makes certain dancers seem magical onstage? Simply put, it’s you. “The dancers that I enjoy watching the most are the ones who are very comfortable with who they are outside of the studio because they allow themselves to be that person onstage, too,” says Rausch. Watch other dancers to see what it is about their performances that you respond to. And replay videos of yourself performing to see how you’re coming across, whether you look comfortable in your own skin.

“With performers, their whole identity can be wrapped up with their label as a dancer,” says Morton. “It’s those who manage to retain their humanity, that connection with the self, that find it more natural to be expressive.” Make time for activities and friends that help you stay in touch with all the quirks and oddities that make you uniquely you. And once you’re in front of the footlights, don’t hold anything back. n

Kathleen McGuire is a contributing writer to Dance Magazine.

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