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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.
Bales of hay, black umbrellas, bicycles—this Midsummer Night's Dream would be unrecognizable to the Bard. Alexander Ekman's full-length, inspired by Scandinavian solstice traditions and set to music by Mikael Karlsson, is a madcap celebration of the longest day of the year, when the veil between our world and that of the supernatural is said to be at its thinnest. The Joffrey Ballet's performances mark the seductively surreal work's North American premiere. April 25–May 6. joffrey.org.
"There's an ancient energy in Fana's movement, a deep and trusted knowing," says Jeff, director of the Chicago-based Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. "Because I witnessed the raw humanity of his dancer's souls, I wanted my dancers to have that experience."
When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:
"Dance isn't for everyone."
This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.
In his final bow at New York City Ballet, during what should have been a heroic conclusion to a celebrated ballet career, Robert Fairchild slipped and fell. His reaction? To lie down flat on his back like he meant to do it. Then start cracking up at himself.
"He's such a ham," says his sister Megan Fairchild, with a laugh. "He's really good at selling whatever his body is doing that day. He'll turn a moment that I would totally go home and cry about into something where the audience is like, 'That's the most amazing thing ever!' "
Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.
"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo asked the women auditioning for ensemble roles in his newest musical to arrive in guys' clothing—"men's suits, or blazers and ties," he says. He wasn't being kinky or whimsical. The entire ensemble of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is female, playing men and women interchangeably as they unfold the history of the chart-busting, Grammy-winning, indisputable Queen of Disco.
Have a scroll through Agnes Muljadi's Instagram feed (@artsyagnes), and you'll notice that in between her ballet shots is a curated mix of lifestyle pics. So what exactly sets her apart from the other influencers you follow? Muljadi has made a conscious effort to only feature natural beauty products, sustainable fashion and vegan foods. With over 500k followers, her social strategy (and commitment to making ethical choices) is clearly a hit. Ahead, learn why Muljadi switched to a vegan lifestyle, and the surprising way it's helped her dance career.
He may not be a household name, but you probably know Brandon Stirling Baker's work. The 30-year-old has designed the lighting for most of Justin Peck's ballets—including Heatscape for Miami City Ballet, and the edgy The Times Are Racing for New York City Ballet—but also Jamar Roberts' new Members Don't Get Weary at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a trio of Martha Graham duets for L.A. Dance Project.
He's been fascinated by lighting ever since he attended a public performing arts middle school in Sherman Oaks, California, where he had his first experiences lighting shows. He also has a background in music (he plays guitar and bass) and in drawing. Both, he says, are central to the way he approaches lighting dance.
Update: Due to an overwhelming response, the in-person audition has been moved to a larger location to accommodate more dancers. See details below.
For the first time in more than 10 years, Janet Jackson is holding an open audition for dancers.
Even better? You could land a spot in her #JTribe simply by posting a video on social media.
What does it take to become an international superstar? Carlos Acosta might have a few ideas.
At the Oxford Literary Festival earlier this month, the BBC sat down with Acosta to ask for his life lessons. His answers—which he says he will pass on to his kids one day—give incredible insight into how he's become such a beloved worldwide success.