Audition Mind Games

Strategies to take the anxiety out of auditions

Elena Bello’s positive audition approach resulted in a job at Richmond Ballet. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, courtesy Richmond Ballet.

During one of her first auditions, Richmond Ballet dancer Elena Bello was a nervous wreck. “It was for the Rockettes’ Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and I wanted it so bad,” she says. “My whole nervous system was tight, my movement didn’t flow and I just knew I could do better.”

No matter how many times you’ve pinned on a number, auditions are always a high-pressure situation. In order to be successful, you don’t just need solid technique—you have to be on top of your mental game. “At the highest levels, what makes the most successful performers rise to the occasion is mostly between their ears,” says Dr. Charlie Brown, a performance psychologist who works with dancers from Charlotte Ballet. But getting into the right mind-set for an audition isn’t always as simple as “I think I can.”

Fright and Fight or Flight

First, make sure to acknowledge—not just suppress or dismiss—your nerves before an audition. “It’s important to realize that anxiety is normal. It’s the brain’s way of turning the body on for fight or flight, and a little is better than none at all,” says Dr. Steven Julius, a clinical psychologist who has worked with Cirque du Soleil performers and the Chicago Bulls. “Even if the tension means you don’t sleep as well the night before or technique isn’t coming to you as easily that morning, it’s a sign that you’re ready. So, let jitters occur, and then pass.”

Goals Within Your Control

Before an audition, take stock of your goals, which typically fall into three categories: outcome goals, performance goals and process-oriented goals. The first type, goals that focus on the outcome of the audition (“My goal is to get the job”), will usually lead you to compare yourself to other dancers, which is distracting, energy-zapping and unhelpful, since you have no control over what a competitor can do. Performance goals (“My goal is to knock out three pirouettes and nail the petit allégro”) are a step in the right direction. However, it’s possible that a slippery floor or an overly crowded room can get in the way. Process-oriented goals deal with what is under your control (“My goal is to perform to the best of my abilities”), regardless of what your competitors do or what the choreographer wants. Aside from calling on your technique and staying in the moment, says Brown, “this means going in well rested, hydrated and fueled.”

Settle Mental Struggles

Dancers can develop a routine for dropping into what Brown calls their “ideal performance state”—the way you feel when your technique is at your fingertips and you’re dancing your very best. It requires understanding how your brain works. The prefrontal cortex, known as the “top-down” part of the brain, is what allows us to think, learn and correct mistakes, says Brown, and it uses words—like the kind you hear in your head when you worry. Performance comes from the “bottom-up” part of the brain that consists of subcortical areas, the amygdala and basal ganglia. This is the part responsible for fluid motor movements, and it is highly influenced by images, rhythms, sensations and emotions. “This is the part of the brain you must engage, while the other part auto-fires to perform all the technique you’ve already learned,” explains Brown.

Beginning about an hour beforehand, focus on images or sensations you’d like to experience in the audition. “Picture the way you want to carry yourself through the door,” says Brown. “See yourself learning a new routine.” When negative self-talk arises, use what he calls the “hello–good-bye” technique: Say “hello” to the voice that says you can’t do it, then say “good-bye” to it and direct your attention to mentally rehearsing what you want to do and feel. If you miss a step and panic, take a deep breath from the abdomen “and turn right back to the music or imagery that helps you connect to the choreography,” says Brown.

Reframe Your Approach

How you view an audition can also change your mind-set. While it’s important to take things seriously, lowering the stakes might actually help. When Bello auditioned for Richmond Ballet in 2010, she says she never expected to make it past the first cut. “I didn’t meet the height requirement, so I thought I had no shot,” she says. “I thought of it as just another class.” She came in prepared with her headshot and the right attire, but she danced for herself and didn’t feel limited by the nerves that had taken over in previous auditions. “Not only did I pull off four turns—which I’d never done in class before—but the artistic director also saw the enjoyment on my face, and I got a spot as an apprentice.”

After the Audition

You may feel the most anxiety afterwards, whether you were cut first or you’re waiting for a callback. This is when you can use self-talk to elbow out negative thoughts, says Julius, and learn from the experience: “Tell yourself, ‘This was an important audition, but no more or less than the last one. I can only control myself.’ ” Recognize the level of talent you were up against and how great you must be to be able to compete with those dancers. If you aren’t offered the job, honor the emotions that come with disappointment—“cry, cuss, blow off steam”—but don’t dwell on it forever, says Brown.

One or two days after the audition, take inventory and make a plan for improving an area of technique where you felt weak or identify when and why you got distracted. “Mentally dealing with rejection is as important a part of becoming a professional dancer as getting offered a job,” says Julius. “If you never fail, you’re not taking the risks you need to grow.” 

Quick Tip:

Strike a Power Pose

If you’re struggling to quiet your worries right before an audition, performance psychologist Dr. Charlie Brown suggests striking a power pose. “When people feel vulnerable, they get small. But when we take up as much space as possible, cortisol levels, which are associated with fear and panic, start to decrease and testosterone levels, associated with confidence and self-assurance, start to increase.” Take a deep breath and stand up straight, with your feet apart and hands on your hips like Wonder Woman. —KB

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