As dancers, we are experts on our bodies. We can identify the tiniest amount of tightness in a hip flexor or predict a head cold when our balance is off. But are we really in-tune with what our bodies are telling us when it comes to managing the mental challenges of performance?
The growing field of dance/movement therapy can help you tap into that mind/body connection. There is a large body of research that shows that the majority of our communication as human beings is nonverbal, and dance therapists work with anyone who seeks a holistic treatment of their mental health—whether they're refugees dealing with trauma or teenagers struggling with anxiety. And while many dancers may write off DMT as a treatment reserved for nondancers, there's a lot to learn from the methods it uses to address mental wellness.
After all, dancers may not actually be as in-tune with their bodies as they might think, says Jody Wager, director of the Expressive Therapy Department and a senior dance therapist at Dominion Hospital in Virginia. She points out that dancers are very in control of their bodies, but perhaps so much so that they are missing messages.
"I don't necessarily equate being in control of my body to being aware of my body," she says. "Some dancers sort of disconnect from a really felt sense of their body."
For example, a dancer with disordered eating is controlling their physical appearance, but not listening to the messages their body sends in order to be nourished. Or, because their movement must appear effortless in performance, dancers will ignore pain, sometimes no matter how much it hurts. While these behaviors seem to solve an immediate problem, they do not serve dancers in the long term.
"In the world of dance therapy we are teaching people to be more authentic and not hide your feelings from the rest of the world," says Wager. "And in dance there are times when you really are hiding what you are feeling."
So whether you are on the audition trail, or simply managing the stress of daily dancing life, you might benefit from a little bit of therapy in your favorite language: movement.
Challenge: You're Feeling Nervous
When I was dancing, I would always jump up and down in the wings right before I went on. I wasn't sure why, but I did it every time. Chicago dance therapist Erica Hornthal says that my ritual was helpful to me not only because it increased my heart rate to get ready to go, but it also matched the intensity of the excitement and anxiety I was feeling right before going on.
"Interestingly, in movement analysis, when we are engaging in vertical movements like jumping we are actually connecting to ourself and to our core," she says. "So that can be a really great way to start a performance because you are connecting to whatever brought you to that moment."
When you're feeling nervous, Wager suggests performing a simple movement that releases energy and calms the nervous system. For some that might be jumping; others may shake or shimmy parts of their body or swing their arms. These are things that many dancers do naturally without understanding the impulse.
Wager compares the body to a pressure cooker when dealing with anxiety. "If you don't have that little spout on the top to release some of the pressure, your food is going to explode," she says. When you feel that your body wants to move in a certain way, let it.
Yet the solution to performance jitters isn't the same for everyone. While some may feel most comfortable bouncing away, Wager says that other dancers may benefit more from grounding themselves. If that sounds like you, she suggests going to a quiet place, closing your eyes and imagining your body as a tree trunk and your feet as the roots going down into the floor.
Challenge: You're Having Trouble Focusing
Whether you're having family problems outside the studio or worrying about how to pay the rent, any number of things can challenge your ability to be present. These distractions can cause stress and make us forgetful—of choreography, placement and everything else we juggle in performance.
"Direct movements can help reel in scattered or distracted thinking," Hornthal says. She uses a simple movement exercise to help her clients gain focus. "Pretend you blew a bunch of imaginary bubbles and then take your finger and pop the bubbles," she says. "It takes a lot of focus to do that and you can't really be thinking about all of those other things while you try to touch each bubble."
Moving forward with purpose can have the same effect: Walk briskly and deliberately around the block or through the theater halls backstage.
Engaging your senses is another way to become present. Hornthal suggests that you do some deep breathing and then ask yourself: What do I see in this room? What sounds am I hearing? Is there a smell? A taste? "Anytime we can connect with the present, it helps take our focus away from the things that are in the way of what we are trying to accomplish," she says.
Challenge: You Need to Reconnect Post-Performance
We tend to spend a lot of time in preparation for performance, but usually once the show is over, backstage becomes a flurry of activity and visitors and we hustle out the stage door. In some cases, dancers have been performing works with serious subject matter, or have had to make themselves extremely vulnerable onstage. Or perhaps things didn't go as well as you hoped.
"Honor yourself after the performance," says Hornthal. "Step back from the role that you just played to reconnect with who you want to be outside of those studio doors."
Hornthal suggests that dancers do body scans to notice how they are feeling: Close your eyes and then turn your attention to each part of your body one at a time. "How exhausted am I now?" she suggests asking yourself. "Am I ready to thrust myself into that cast party or should I really take a little bit of quiet time alone in my dressing room?" Your post-performance body scan will be even more effective if you started your day with one to find your baseline.
In movement analysis Hornthal says that the sagittal plane (forward and backward motions) is about reevaluating and slowing down. In the movies when something terrible happens to a character, we often see them rocking back and forth. "Rocking or tapping can be soothing, and often it comes back to how you were soothed as a baby," she explains. "It is a stress response to calm down the nervous system." The combination of moving backward and forward, and the vertical movement in yoga's sun salutation may help bring you back to a feeling of wholeness and connection to self.