Career Advice

Become a Better Performer: 7 Strategic Ways to Prime Your Mind for The Stage

Jim Lafferty for Pointe

You're standing in the wings, moments from entering the stage. You've done your planks to warm up your core, pliés to feel centered and dynamic stretches to loosen up. But your mind won't stop racing through all the ways your performance could go wrong.

Sport science strategies can get you in the right headspace. Photo by Thinkstock

Ideally, a warm-up should be more than just a physical preparation to dance. Because if you want to unlock your full potential, you need to get in the right headspace. "Your mentality is going to dictate which version of you comes out on any given day," says performance psychologist Dr. Jonathan Fader, who serves as director of mental conditioning for the New York Giants football team. These top strategies from the sports world can help you reach the state of mind that will serve you best.


Find Your Energy

The vibe you want before stepping onstage is a calm, relaxed confidence, says Olympic running and performance coach Steve Magness, co-author of Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. Figure out what will help you get there. If you're feeling sluggish, you might need to jump up and down or talk to a friend to amp up your energy, says Fader. Or maybe you need to quietly focus inward and think about how grateful you are for the opportunity in front of you.

"It can be any variety of things that say, 'This activity I'm about to engage in is something I love,' " says sports and performance psychologist Dr. Kate Hays, who works with both athletes and dancers in Toronto. Experiment in rehearsal to find out how different approaches affect you.

Experiment to find what gives you the right vibes. Photo by Thinkstock


Minimize Decisions

Just like our legs grow tired after petit allégro, our minds get fatigued after making too many decisions. Make the hours before curtain as rote as possible. "What you tend to see before major performances are these freak-out moments, like 'Do I wear this?' 'How do I get ready?' All you're doing is mentally fatiguing yourself beforehand, and then when it comes time to go on, there's nothing left," says Magness.

Develop a pre-performance routine that becomes automatic: For example, you might always put on the same lipstick, then warm up with the same set of exercises, then sip the same sports drink. Having a ritual will relax your mind with the comfort of predictability.

"You can be on the biggest stage of your life," says Dr. Alan Goldberg, sports performance consultant and author of many books on mental toughness, "but your pre-performance ritual is always the same."

Magness adds that developing a go-to routine also primes your body by teaching it that after you follow steps X, Y and Z, it's time to be physically alert and psychologically zoned in.

Following a routine will relax your mind and body. Photo by Quinn Wharton


Choose Your Companions Wisely

Surround yourself with people who put you in the right mind-set. "Emotions, nerves, anxiety—all of that is contagious," says Magness. That might mean needing to tell your overly anxious stage parent you'll need to wait until after the performance to see them, or walking away from your unmotivated dressing room partner when she starts complaining yet again.

"Think about who is going to give you the vibes you want," says Magness. Even looking at or hearing nervous dancers could rattle you, warns Goldberg. "Control your environment," he says. Close your eyes, put on headphones or socialize with more confident colleagues.

Headphones can help you ignore anxious colleagues. Photo by Jim Lafferty


Don't Freak Out Over Nerves—Use Them

Over the past couple of years, research has shown that how we perceive stress can actually change our biological response to it. "If you see anxiety as a sign that 'Hey, this means I'm excited, it means I'm prepping to go to battle,' you get positive stress hormones that prepare your muscles to work better and your mind to be more clear," says Magness. But if you see nerves as something negative, the body will send stress hormones that make you even more anxious.

Magness coaches his athletes to look at pre-performance nerves as your body preparing you for what you need to do. "Try to harness it," he says, pointing out, "The reason that certain people take their game to the next level in performance is because of all the good stress that you can't get when you're just at practice."

Think of nerves as "good stress." Photo by Thinkstock


Practice Mental Reps

Backstage, visualize each sequence of your choreography with as much detail as you can. Fader calls these "mental reps," as in the mental version of repetitions athletes do in workouts.

"If done vividly enough, our brain doesn't know the difference between a physical rehearsal and a mental rehearsal," he says. "You are actually connecting neuromotor behaviors, creating a closer bond between what your mind wants and what your body does." And, he adds, you're inoculating yourself against stress because once you're onstage, you'll feel like you've already performed the choreography once that day.

Have you tried mental rehearsals? Photo by Thinkstock


Just Breathe

If your sympathetic nervous system gets so amped up that you start to feel jittery, you can bring your heart rate back down by focusing on your breath, says Fader. There are several different breathing strategies you can use, so find what pattern works for you. It might be breathing in for two counts and out for four, or simply focusing on taking breaths from deep in your diaphragm.

The right breath can calm your nervous system. Photo by StockSnap


Find the Right Goal

Focusing too much on the result of a performance, like a promotion or a great review, can actually sabotage your dancing: You'll be more likely to force and muscle the choreography, instead of letting the movement come to your body naturally. "You need to be completely absorbed in the moment to perform your best," says Goldberg. Concentrate on simply enjoying the movement. It can help to find a mantra that centers your mind on the present, like "Here, now," or "This is what I love."

The right goal can make all the difference onstage. Photo by Rachel Papo for Pointe

Show Comments ()
Advice for Dancers
If your parents are overly supportive of you pursuing dance, it may become difficult to gauge your own interest. Getty Images

I don't understand why I've lost my motivation to dance at 20 years old. My parents have always encouraged me to have a life plan and ask continuously how my pre-professional training program is going. I feel crushed by their expectations. I'm actually relieved when I get injured and can't dance, even though I miss it.

—Confused, Nashville, TN

Keep reading... Show less
Giveaways

It's contest time! You could win your choice of Apolla Shocks (up to 100 pairs) for your whole studio! Apolla Performance believes dancers are artists AND athletes—wearing Apolla Shocks helps you be both! Apolla Shocks are footwear for dancers infused with sports science technology while maintaining a dancer's traditions and lines. They provide support, protection and traction that doesn't exist anywhere else for dancers, helping them dance longer and stronger. Apolla wants to get your ENTIRE studio protected and supported in Apolla Shocks! How? Follow these steps:

Keep reading... Show less
Style & Beauty
Natalie Gilmore (center) with the Man of the Woods tour dancers. Mark Nguyen, courtesy of Gilmore.

With limited space for luggage on the tour bus, Justin Timberlake dancer Natalie Gilmore makes sure her beauty routine can pull double duty. "Most of the stuff I use day to day I also use onstage," she says, adding that the dancers do their own hair and makeup for every show. "They give us a lot of freedom to use what we want, and I really enjoy getting to play with new products and experiment with different looks." That same freedom she has with her look carries over into her performance. "There's a lot of freestyle in the show," Gilmore says. "We have certain places we need to be, but we're able to map out how we want things to flow—I have a lot of fun with it."

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Most dancers feel too scared to speak up about mental health issues. Photo by Gift Habeshaw/Unsplash

As a dancer going through a mental health challenge, loneliness can feel like your only companion. Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Steven Loch has managed obsessive-compulsive disorder since middle school, and for nearly a decade felt too scared to speak up. "We feel like if we say something people will be horrified by some of the thoughts that we are having," he says.

But according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in the U.S. experiences a mental illness each year. Psychologists say that in competitive environments like the dance studio—where perfectionism can make you feel like you're never good enough, and an injury can suddenly strip you of your identity—this likelihood may increase.

Last summer I shared my own story of quitting dance due to untreated depression on the Dance Magazine website. It was met with an outpouring of support and camaraderie that I found both affirming and terrifying. A few weeks later, the magazine published an online survey to learn more about dancer attitudes around the need for mental health support. Readers submitted more than 1,000 comments, demonstrating that these struggles are very much a shared experience.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun
Dancer Allison Walsh is married to the bassist in the alt rock band Deer Tick. From left: Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Walsh; Photo by Tuyet Nguyen, Courtesy Ryan.

Considering the demands of a career in dance, it isn't surprising that many professionals find romance in the rehearsal studio. With taxing schedules, perfectionist tendencies and quirky habits, it can be challenging to find true love outside of the art form. We spoke with three non-dancer spouses to hear what it's like sharing their life with professionals from ballet to Broadway.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Petra Conti in "L'Altro Casanova," choreographed by Gianluca Schiavoni. Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy of Petra Conti.

As a very shy little girl, my happy place was my room, where I would wear improvised costumes and giggle with happiness while dancing for an imaginary audience. I was raised in a family where dancing was "normal." My mom and sisters graduated from the national ballet academy in Poland, and I, of course, wanted to follow their steps. But I was never forced to. I am proud to say I discovered the magic of ballet all by myself.

Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy of Petra Conti

Keep reading... Show less
Dance As Activism
Dancers want you to vote! Screenshot via Dance for Democracy video.

The midterm elections are less than three weeks away on November 6. If you're registered to vote, hooray!

But you can't fully celebrate before you've completed your mission. Showing up at the polls is what matters most—especially since voter turnout for midterms doesn't have a fabulous track record. According to statistics from FairVote, about 40 percent of the population that is eligible to vote actually casts a ballot during midterm elections.

Many members of the dance community are making it clear that they want that percentage go up, and they're using social media to take a stand. Here's how they're getting involved:

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
The right tools can keep your body in peak shape. Photo courtesy Hugger Mugger

Dancers will do just about anything to increase their odds of staying injury-free. And there are plenty of products out there claiming that they can help you do just that. But which actually work?

We asked for recommendations from four experts: Martt Lawrence, who teaches Pilates to dancers in San Francisco; Lisa-Marie Lewis, who teaches yoga at The Ailey Extension in New York City; physical therapist Alexis Sams, who treats dancers at her clinic in Phoenix; and stretch training coach Vicente Hernandez, who teaches at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet.

Keep reading... Show less
Editors’ List: The Goods
via capezio.com

As of today, there are only 13 nights until the spoOoOokiest evening of the year—and just 1 week left, if you're planning to dress up over Halloweekend. Do you have your costume(s) yet?

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Eduardo Guerrero is currently touring the U.S. with Gaditanía, his first work utilizing multiple dancers. Photo by Paco Lobato, Courtesy Guerrero

With a contemporary air that exalts—rather than obscures—flamenco tradition, and a technique and stamina that boggle the mind, Eduardo Guerrero's professional trajectory has done nothing but skyrocket since being named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" earlier this year. His 2017 solo Guerrero has toured widely, and he has created premieres for the Jerez Festival (Faro) and the 2018 Seville Flamenco Biennial (Sombra Efímera). In the midst of his seemingly unstoppable ascension, he's created Gaditanía, his first work utilizing a corps de ballet. Guerrero is currently touring the U.S. with this homage to Cadiz, the city of his birth.

Keep reading... Show less
Playlists
Bobbi Jene Smith, photographed by Jayme Thornton

At our cover shoot for the November issue, Bobbi Jene Smith curated one of the best lineups of YouTube music videos that I've heard in a long time. From Bob Dylan to Tom Waits, they felt like such perfect choices for her earthy, visceral movement and soulful approach to dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
STEEZY's web player has options for tempo and viewpoint. Photo by Sam Caudle, courtesy STEEZY

Dance technology has come a long way from ballet variations painstakingly learned by watching fuzzy VHS tapes. Over the last few years, a dizzying number of online training programs have cropped up, offering the chance to take class in contemporary, jazz, ballet, tap, hip hop and even ballroom from the comfort of your own living room or studio.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Paul Taylor choreographed a solo for Alex Clayton in his March 2018 world premiere, Concertiana. Photo by Paul B. Goode, Courtesy Paul Taylor American Modern Dance.

Usually, it takes new recruits a few seasons to make their mark at the Paul Taylor Dance Company. But Taylor wasted no time in honing in on the talents of Alex Clayton. Only a few months after Clayton joined in June 2017, Taylor created an exciting solo for him in his new Concertiana, filled with explosive leaps and quick footwork. Clayton was also featured in new works by Doug Varone and Bryan Arias. At 5' 6" he may be compact, but onstage he fills the space with a thrilling sense of attack.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Scottish Ballet in Cinderella. Photo by Andy Ross via Scottish Ballet

Scottish Ballet is turning 50 next year, but they'll be the one giving out the gifts.

In 2019, the company will make five wishes from fans come true, as a way of thanking them for their loyalty and support over the years. "It can be anything from the dancers performing at a birthday party or on the banks of Loch Ness, or even the chance to get on stage and be part of a Scottish Ballet show," according to the company.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Many of the dancers of 10000 Gestures weren't wearing much clothing when they started climbing on audience members. Photo by Ursula Kaufmann via nyuskirball.org

Some of my favorite experiences as both an audience member and a dancer have involved audience participation. Artists who cleverly use participatory moments can make bold statements about the boundaries between performer and spectator, onstage and off. And the challenge to be more than a passive viewer can redefine an audience's relationship to what they're watching. But all the experiences I've loved have had something in common: They've given audiences a choice.

A few weeks back, I had a starkly different experience—one that has caused me to think deeply about how consent should play into audience-performer relationships.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
How many times have you been questioned for not pursuing something "more serious"? Photo by Nadim Merrikh/Unsplash

People have a tendency to think of dance as purely physical and not intellectual. But when we separate movement from intellect, we limit what dance can do for the world.

It's not hard to see that dance is thought of as less than other so-called "intellectual pursuits." How many dancers have been told they should pursue something "more serious"? How many college dance departments don't receive funding on par with theater or music departments, much less science departments?

Keep reading... Show less
News
Ramasar and Catazaro, photos via Instagram

New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)

The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:

"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."

Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Precious Adams performing Harlequinade pas de deux for English National Ballet's Emerging Dancer competition 2018. Photo by Laurent Liotardo via ballet.org.uk

Recently, English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams announced that she will no longer be wearing pink tights. With the support of her artistic director Tamara Rojo, she will instead wear chocolate brown tights (and shoes) that match her flesh tone.

It may seem like a simple change, but this could be a watershed moment—one where the aesthetics of ballet begin to expand to include the presence of people of color.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
"This type of creative work is not just about waiting for the duende to arrive, but rather a lot of work with fantastic people," says Rocío Molina of her process for Caída de Cielo, which is documented in the new film IMPULSO. Photo by Javier Fergo, Courtesy Jerez Festival

Flamenco dancer and choreographer Rocío Molina created her first full-length production, Entre paredes ("Between Walls"), at the age of 22. At 26, the prodigy received Spain's National Dance Prize, the most coveted dance award in Spain. Now 34, her rupture with tradition makes her no stranger to controversy. But it, and her fiercely personal and contemporary style, means that each new project is a fascinating voyage.

Molina is the subject of French filmmaker Emilio Belmonte's first feature length documentary, IMPULSO. The film, which makes its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum on October 17, follows Molina for two years as she tours Europe presenting a series of improvised works. These improvisations ultimately inspired the creation of one of Molina's masterworks, Caída de Cielo ("Fallen from Heaven"), which premiered in 2016.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Joseph Gordon, here in "Diamonds," is New York City Ballet's newest principal dancer. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

In a move that was both surprising and seemingly inevitable, New York City Ballet closed its fall season by promoting seven dancers. Joseph Gordon, who was promoted to soloist in February 2017, is now a principal dancer. Daniel Applebaum, Harrison Coll, Claire Kretzschmar, Aaron Sanz, Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Peter Walker have been promoted to soloist.

Newly promoted soloist Peter Walker has been showing his abilities as a leading man in ballets like Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

The announcement was made on Saturday by Jonathan Stafford, the head of NYCB's interim leadership team. These seven promotions mark the first since longtime ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired in the midst of harassment allegations at the beginning of this year. While Stafford and fellow interim leaders Rebecca Krohn, Craig Hall and Justin Peck have made some bold choices in terms of programming—such as commissioning Kyle Abraham and Emma Portner to create new works for the 2018–19 season—their primary focus has appeared to be keeping the company running on an even keel while the search for a new artistic leader is ongoing. Some of us theorized that we would not be seeing any promotions until a new artistic director was in place.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Members of RIOULT check out the construction site. Photo by Penelope Gonzalez, Courtesy RIOULT

For over a decade, husband-and-wife team Pascal Rioult and Joyce Herring, artistic and associate artistic directors of RIOULT Dance NY, dreamed of building a space for their company and fellow artists in the community, and a school for future dancers. This month, their 11,000-square-foot dream opens its doors in the Kaufman Arts District in Astoria, Queens, a New York City neighborhood across the East River from Manhattan.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Photo by Ed Flores/MFA candidate Kara Madden rehearses undergraduate dance majors Gregory Taylor and Joe Ogren

In the final years of her decade-long career with the Lewitzky Dance Company, University of Arizona Associate Professor Amy Ernst began to develop an interest in dance injury prevention. She remembers feeling an urge to widen her understanding of dance and the body. Soon after retirement from the Company, she was hired by the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Inglewood, California as a physical therapy assistant, where she worked for the next three and a half years. This work eventually led her to pursue an M.F.A. in dance at the University of Washington-Seattle. She remembers growing into the role of a professor during her time pursuing her degree. That incubation phase was critical. Ernst joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in 1995, and now as director of the M.F.A. program, mentors the new generation of dance faculty, company directors and innovators.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

You Might Also Like

476,651 likes

Sponsored

Viral Videos

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways