When former MOMIX dancer Rebecca Rasmussen was cast in "Dreamcatcher"—a duet involving a rolling, 250-pound metal sculpture—she was intimidated. Rehearsals caused nasty bruises, banged knees, smashed ribs and even a trip to the doctor when, while flipping around the bars, her hands slipped, dropping her sideways. "I knew I was a strong dancer, and that I was capable of doing this piece, but it was a mental challenge," she says.
So, how did she manage those concerns? The same way daredevil dancers everywhere do: She took physical and mental steps to dilute the danger.
"For a long time in rehearsal, I would have to stop once we got to that point in the piece and make sure my hand grip was okay before we could go on," Rasmussen says. As she built up strength, and devoted herself to an awareness of potential injury and how to avoid it, she was able to move past any apprehension.
Successful dancers everywhere have to find ways to manage their safety concerns so they can dive into choreography without holding back. Because, as Rasmussen points out, the people who take risks are the ones who go really far in dance. "They're willing to not get things right in the beginning," she says. "They're willing to say, 'Yeah, I'll jump on that sculpture. Teach me how!' "
Know That Fear Can Be a Liar
According to Liv Massey, a New York–based mental health counselor who has worked with New York City Ballet, one of the first steps toward becoming a brave dancer is recognizing that fear isn't necessarily truthful. "Most of the things people fear when it comes to taking risks aren't accurate to the situation—they don't support reality," she says.
Fear can stem from trauma caused by injuries, former insecurities or critical judgment. When a dancer is injured, they experience something similar to betrayal. "You trusted your body to do the movement or bear your weight, and it couldn't do it—so you lost trust, and space opened up for fear to come in," Massey says.
She recommends setting mini goals that unsubstantiate your fears of bold movement over time. For example, if your previously injured ankle can't do the big move you want it to, but it can do little jumps that your doctors have approved, start there. "Then, you level up as you go," she says. "As you follow this pattern of exposure-based work, your fear starts to shrink."
Tip: See risks—and mistakes—as an opportunity to improve.
In order to combat emotional barriers of insecurity or fear of judgment, Massey recommends approaching your work with a growth mindset. "See any risk as an opportunity," she says. "Either you nail it and it's amazing, or you don't and you learn something that will make you better." On the other hand, dancers with fixed mindsets often avoid challenges altogether because they're a threat to their ego and may make a negative statement about their talent.
"Wendy Whelan once told me that when she would miss her timing, make a mistake or stumble, instead of letting it derail her, she would see it as a gift," Massey says. "She knew she could learn from the experience, and that the next performance would be better as a result."
Trust in Safety Precautions
Though fear may be unreasonable in many instances, in others it's necessary. "Fear informs my safety, and proves to me that I love my life," says Bandaloop artistic director Melecio Estrella. To mitigate this fear, the company (which has danced vertically off the sides of cliffs, buildings and bridges for 30 years) takes several safety precautions. "Daredevils aren't people who just go for it," Estrella says. "We are very calculated and redundant in how we manage risk." Bandaloop embeds master riggers—with experience in rope-access/high-angle professions, like industrial or theatrical rigging—within its team.
Tip: Acknowledge your fears as protective tools. Speak up when you have concerns.
Bandaloop has also developed a culture of safety within the company. "What allows me to take risks is that I'm in a supportive community watching out for me as I watch out for myself," Estrella says. "There are no bad questions about safety. Anyone can speak up if something doesn't seem right. It's a collective act."
Expand Rather Than Ignore Your Limits
The courage to push physical boundaries stems, in part, not from ignoring your limits but, rather, expanding your already established skill sets. "It's not like jumping off of a cliff and praying everything will be alright," says U.S.-based Gaga teacher and former Punchdrunk dancer Annie Rigney. "But knowing you're capable of a bigger range of possibilities—for me, that has more to do with virtuosity than risk taking."
This expansion of limits starts with a baseline of airtight training. "It comes from putting in the hours," Rigney says. "I would never tell someone to stand on someone's shoulders and flip backward if I didn't feel like their instrument was prepared to do so safely. There's no shortcut."
Tip: If you're asked to try something you don't feel ready for, consider breaking it down into smaller steps or requesting extra training time.
Risk taking requires an incremental buildup, working step by step, adds Estrella. "When you're at that height of risk, you've built a foundation of confidence in your own abilities," he says.
Use Visualization and Meditation
Though dancers may reason through safety precautions and trust in their training, nerves can still hold them back. "Taking risks is ultimately about confidence," Massey says. "Confidence is the sum of thoughts that you have about yourself. If your thoughts are fear-based, you won't feel confident. Visualize your ideal performance, and remind yourself why that best-case scenario is realistically possible for you." Massey says that brain scans of performers imagining a performance versus actively performing are very similar, suggesting that visualization can be a powerful form of rehearsal.
Similar to imagery, mindfulness training can also curb anxiety. As Lady Macbeth in Sleep No More, Rigney performed movement at high speeds surrounded by a moving audience in a dark space. "What I found most helpful was an awareness of my edges, my fingertips, toes and the top of my head," Rigney says. "Sensing that was a way of accessing a total-body connectivity and control. In such an unpredictable, chaotic space, you don't want to leave anything behind, no body parts unaccounted for, no 'dead flesh,' as we say in Gaga. I always knew where my toes were pointed. I rooted myself and listened to the organization of my body. I was fully present." Rigney feels her Gaga training has been powerful in helping her unlock this sensory awareness. "The more we strengthen that sensory conversation, the safer we are and the more we are able to do."
Tip: When you're distracted, bring your mind back to the task by recognizing your breath, or the way your feet feel on the ground.