Backstage Butterflies

October 31, 2007

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.