Health & Body

7 Ways To Cope With Performance Anxiety

Your mindset can make all the difference. Photo via Unsplash

You're standing backstage, and your mind won't stop racing.

What if, after weeks of rehearsal, you suddenly forget the choreography? What if that terrible critic gives you yet another embarrassing review? Did you remember to sew your pointe shoes correctly? Why won't your partner stop cracking his darn hip joint? Why can't you stop freaking out?


Audiences might assume that by the time a dancer is professional, they're used to the pressure of performing. But according to Dance/USA's Taskforce on Dancer Health, most dancers have experienced at least one incident of performance anxiety a.k.a. stage fright.

More serious than minor backstage butterflies, performance anxiety can include symptoms like:

    • catastrophic and negative thinking
    • fear of forgetting
    • fear of disapproval
    • distractibility
    • irritability
    • procrastination
    • self-sabotage
    • emotional volatility
    • feeling out of control

Why does this happen? The Dance/USA task force reports that anxiety disorders are likely a combination of biological factors like brain chemistry and genetics, as well as psychological factors like the ways we learn to think about situations, our fears and the amount of control we feel we have.

Fortunately, there are several strategies dancers can use to cope.

Don't Fight It

Embrace your pre-performance nerves. Photo by Jim Lafferty

Telling yourself, "Calm down" can be counterproductive. In Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout and Thrive With the New Science of Success, authors Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness explain that when you try to suppress your nerves, you're telling yourself that something is wrong. Research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that the most successful elite athletes embrace their anxiety: They see it as excitement, and channeling that energy into their performance.

Find a Second Love

Outside interests and hobbies can give you perspective. Photo by Fritz Bielmeier/Unsplash

Dance can feel all-consuming. But developing hobbies and friends outside of your job can help release tension by reminding you that there's more to life than this one show. According to the Dance/USA task force, dancers who have positive support systems experience less performance anxiety.

Practice Deep Breathing—Before You Get Backstage

Rehearse a deep breathing technique regularly. Photo by Natalia Figueredo/Unsplash

One of the biggest mistakes performers make is forgetting to rehearse their relaxation techniques, writes Athletes and the Arts. Practice releasing tension through your favorite deep breathing pattern before you get backstage. Long, deep breaths can calm your sympathetic nervous system—but a familiar technique will be far more effective than one you've never done before.

Distract Yourself

Think about something other than the performance itself. Photo by Rachel Papo for Pointe.

Ever realized that once you step onstage, your nerves typically fade away within a minute or so? Psychology Today points out that we get most anxious in the moments leading up to the performance—it's called anticipatory anxiety. You can minimize this by 1. Reminding yourself that the feeling will fade once you're out there and 2. Changing your focus: Start planning what you're going to eat after the show, or chat with a friend about the latest episode of "Westworld."

Control What You Can

Following the same backstage routine can calm your mind with the comfort of predictability. Photo by Jayme Thornton for Pointe.

Anxiety often comes from feeling like you don't have enough control. Prepare for your performance in every way possible. Give yourself enough rehearsal. Assemble everything you'll need for the show—from your favorite sports drink to extra bobby pins—ahead of time. Develop a go-to warmup routine that gets you in the zone.

Skip The Pre-Show Latte

Caffeine can make it worse. Photo by Thomas Vimare/Unsplash

Anxiety symptoms can be exacerbated by caffeine, so experiment with limiting your coffee intake on performance days. Alcohol and drug use—obviously never a good idea before performing—can also induce anxiety.

Don't Rule Out Medication If You Need It

Medication can help. Photo by Unsplash.

If pre-performance anxiety is getting in the way of your career, speak to a health professional. They can prescribe medication that targets the neurochemicals that get altered in anxious states. However, the Dance/USA task force warns that beta-blockers (which are commonly prescribed for anxiety) may not be recommended for dancers since they can interfere with muscle tension.

Show Comments ()
What Wendy's Watching
PC Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet is celebrating the Jerome Robbins Centennial with twenty (20!) ballets. The great American choreographer died in 1998, so very few of today's dancers have actually worked with him. There are plenty of stories about how demanding (at times brutally so) he could be in rehearsal. But Peter Boal has written about Robbins in a more balanced, loving way. In this post he writes about how Robbins' crystal clear imagery helped him approach a role with clarity and purpose.


Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
92Y Harkness Dance Center is hosting the first festival dedicated to dance films captured on mobile devices. Photo by Adam Grannick, Courtesy 92Y

Who says you need fancy equipment to make a festival-worthy dance film? Right now, two New York City–based dance film festivals are calling for aspiring filmmakers to show their stuff—and you don't need anything more cumbersome than a smartphone to get in on the action.

Here's everything you need to know about how to submit:

Keep reading... Show less
News
The inimitable Alicia Alonso, now 97, remains at the helm of Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Photo by Leysis Quesada, Courtesy BNC

On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.

Dance in Pop Culture
Participants show off their plié. Screenshot via YouTube

We all know that the general population's knowledge of ballet is sometimes...a bit skewed. (See: people touching their fingertips to the top of their head, and Kendall Jenner hopping around at the barre.)

Would your average Joe know how to do ballet's most basic step: a plié? Or, more to the point, even know what it is?

SELF decided to find out.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Lisset Santander is adding more contemporary works to her repertoire. Here with Jarrett Reimers in Christopher Wheeldon's Fools Paradise. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet.

When Lisset Santander bourréed onstage as Myrtha in BalletMet's Giselle this past February, her consummate portrayal of the Queen of the Wilis was marked by steely grace and litheness. The former Cuban National Ballet dancer had defected to the U.S. at 21, and after two years with the Ohio company, she's now closer to the dance career she says she always wanted: one of limitless possibilities.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
James Samson in Three Dubious Memories. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy Paul Taylor Dance Company

For 17 years, James Samson has been the model Paul Taylor dancer. There is something fundamentally decent about his stage persona. He's a tall dancer—six feet—but never imposes himself. He's muscular, but gentle. And when he moves, it is his humanity that shines through, even more than his technique.

But all dancing careers come to an end, and James Samson's is no exception; now 43, he'll be retiring in August, after a final performance at the Teatro Romano in Verona, where he'll be dancing in Cloven Kingdom, Piazzolla Caldera and Promethean Fire.

Keep reading... Show less
News
via Instagram

The wait for Alexei Ratmansky's restaging of Petipa's Harlequinade is almost over! But if you can't wait until American Ballet Theatre officially debuts the ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House on June 6, we've got you covered. ABT brought the Harlequinade characters to life (and to the Alder Mansion in Yonkers, NY) in a short film by Ezra Hurwitz, and it's a guaranteed to make you laugh.


Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
The power dynamics and working environments in dance can leave women vulnerable. Photo by Soragrit Wongsa/Unsplash

When an anonymous letter accused former New York City Ballet leader Peter Martins of sexual harassment last year, it felt like what had long been an open secret—the prevalence of harassment in the dance world—was finally coming to the surface. But the momentum of the #MeToo movement, at least in dance, has since died down.

Martins has retired, though an investigation did not corroborate any of the claims against him. He and former American Ballet Theatre star Marcelo Gomes, who suddenly resigned in December, were the only cases to make national headlines in the U.S. We've barely scratched the surface of the dance world's harassment problem.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Wayne McGregor in rehearsal at The Royal Ballet, where he is resident choreographer. Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy Royal Opera House

Many choreographers have been defeated by Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. However, one dancemaker whose stridency, rhythmic daring and sheer inventiveness could possibly match Stravinsky's is Wayne McGregor. For his first commission from American Ballet Theatre, McGregor has taken on this earth-cracking music in AFTERITE, to premiere at ABT's Spring Gala. Also on the May 21 gala program are excerpts from Alexei Ratmansky's restaging of the comic ballet Harlequinade, the full version of which will premiere next month, and a pièce d'occasion by tapper Michelle Dorrance. May 21–26. abt.org.

Style & Beauty
Marilyn knows what's up. Via Giphy

If diamonds are a girl's best friend, it's safe to say that faux-diamond earrings are a dancer's best friend. A fixture onstage at just about every competition weekend, these blinged-out baubles are also the surest sign that recital season is upon us again. And what better way to get into the sparkly spirit than by drooling over these 5 diamonds in the rough? (Sorry not sorry!)

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Viral Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways