Become a Better Performer: 7 Strategic Ways to Prime Your Mind for The Stage
You're standing in the wings, moments from entering the stage. You've done your planks to warm up your core, pliés to feel centered and dynamic stretches to loosen up. But your mind won't stop racing through all the ways your performance could go wrong.
Sport science strategies can get you in the right headspace. Photo by Thinkstock
Ideally, a warm-up should be more than just a physical preparation to dance. Because if you want to unlock your full potential, you need to get in the right headspace. "Your mentality is going to dictate which version of you comes out on any given day," says performance psychologist Dr. Jonathan Fader, who serves as director of mental conditioning for the New York Giants football team. These top strategies from the sports world can help you reach the state of mind that will serve you best.
Find Your Energy
The vibe you want before stepping onstage is a calm, relaxed confidence, says Olympic running and performance coach Steve Magness, co-author of Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. Figure out what will help you get there. If you're feeling sluggish, you might need to jump up and down or talk to a friend to amp up your energy, says Fader. Or maybe you need to quietly focus inward and think about how grateful you are for the opportunity in front of you.
"It can be any variety of things that say, 'This activity I'm about to engage in is something I love,' " says sports and performance psychologist Dr. Kate Hays, who works with both athletes and dancers in Toronto. Experiment in rehearsal to find out how different approaches affect you.
Experiment to find what gives you the right vibes. Photo by Thinkstock
Just like our legs grow tired after petit allégro, our minds get fatigued after making too many decisions. Make the hours before curtain as rote as possible. "What you tend to see before major performances are these freak-out moments, like 'Do I wear this?' 'How do I get ready?' All you're doing is mentally fatiguing yourself beforehand, and then when it comes time to go on, there's nothing left," says Magness.
Develop a pre-performance routine that becomes automatic: For example, you might always put on the same lipstick, then warm up with the same set of exercises, then sip the same sports drink. Having a ritual will relax your mind with the comfort of predictability.
"You can be on the biggest stage of your life," says Dr. Alan Goldberg, sports performance consultant and author of many books on mental toughness, "but your pre-performance ritual is always the same."
Magness adds that developing a go-to routine also primes your body by teaching it that after you follow steps X, Y and Z, it's time to be physically alert and psychologically zoned in.
Following a routine will relax your mind and body. Photo by Quinn Wharton
Choose Your Companions Wisely
Surround yourself with people who put you in the right mind-set. "Emotions, nerves, anxiety—all of that is contagious," says Magness. That might mean needing to tell your overly anxious stage parent you'll need to wait until after the performance to see them, or walking away from your unmotivated dressing room partner when she starts complaining yet again.
"Think about who is going to give you the vibes you want," says Magness. Even looking at or hearing nervous dancers could rattle you, warns Goldberg. "Control your environment," he says. Close your eyes, put on headphones or socialize with more confident colleagues.
Headphones can help you ignore anxious colleagues. Photo by Jim Lafferty
Don't Freak Out Over Nerves—Use Them
Over the past couple of years, research has shown that how we perceive stress can actually change our biological response to it. "If you see anxiety as a sign that 'Hey, this means I'm excited, it means I'm prepping to go to battle,' you get positive stress hormones that prepare your muscles to work better and your mind to be more clear," says Magness. But if you see nerves as something negative, the body will send stress hormones that make you even more anxious.
Magness coaches his athletes to look at pre-performance nerves as your body preparing you for what you need to do. "Try to harness it," he says, pointing out, "The reason that certain people take their game to the next level in performance is because of all the good stress that you can't get when you're just at practice."
Think of nerves as "good stress." Photo by Thinkstock
Practice Mental Reps
Backstage, visualize each sequence of your choreography with as much detail as you can. Fader calls these "mental reps," as in the mental version of repetitions athletes do in workouts.
"If done vividly enough, our brain doesn't know the difference between a physical rehearsal and a mental rehearsal," he says. "You are actually connecting neuromotor behaviors, creating a closer bond between what your mind wants and what your body does." And, he adds, you're inoculating yourself against stress because once you're onstage, you'll feel like you've already performed the choreography once that day.
Have you tried mental rehearsals? Photo by Thinkstock
If your sympathetic nervous system gets so amped up that you start to feel jittery, you can bring your heart rate back down by focusing on your breath, says Fader. There are several different breathing strategies you can use, so find what pattern works for you. It might be breathing in for two counts and out for four, or simply focusing on taking breaths from deep in your diaphragm.
The right breath can calm your nervous system. Photo by StockSnap
Find the Right Goal
Focusing too much on the result of a performance, like a promotion or a great review, can actually sabotage your dancing: You'll be more likely to force and muscle the choreography, instead of letting the movement come to your body naturally. "You need to be completely absorbed in the moment to perform your best," says Goldberg. Concentrate on simply enjoying the movement. It can help to find a mantra that centers your mind on the present, like "Here, now," or "This is what I love."
The right goal can make all the difference onstage. Photo by Rachel Papo for Pointe
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
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 swandreamsproject.org
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."
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.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
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
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.
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. laphil.com.
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."
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.