You're standing in the wings and your entrance cue is getting closer and closer. You feel butterflies in your stomach, a quickened heart rate (and not from dancing, yet), and weirdly sweaty palms (again, you're not even dancing yet).
Sound familiar? Yes, it’s stage fright. It’s quite common, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Stage anxiety can emerge in the moments leading up to performing, but also in longer spans of time leading up to a performance date (or in the hours leading up to it, et cetera – it's variable). Through the fight/flight/freeze part of the nervous system, your body is gearing up to face a stressor: in this case, the stressor of being onstage in front of an audience. In many cases, our rational brain knows that we've performed tons of times before, and that it'll be fine (great, even) – but our bodies, and/or subconscious mind, don't necessarily get that memo.
When we take a step back and take a look at what actually is, we can learn to leave behind thoughts connected with what isn't
What can we do about it? Like with anything, different tips and tools can work in various cases – because we're all different people, with different personal histories, who face different situations. Mindfulness exercises can be helpful for many, and that's what we'll focus on here – through three distinct approaches.
Do note, however, that there are other techniques out there, those that might work better or worse for you. If performance or stage anxiety is impacting your dancing, your enjoyment of dance, or even your life outside of dance, it might be advisable to seek the support of a performance coach or even a mental health professional. Yet for milder cases, or even as proactive approaches, the following tips to overcome anxiety could go a long way – so that you can dance with confidence and dazzle your audience.
A Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Approach for Stage Fright
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a popular talk therapy and dance psychology approach. At its essence, it guides people to question their assumptions and the ways they might jump to conclusions. It asks us to look at the provable facts of the situation. Over time, mood and behavior can improve from there – so that people can experience more positive emotions, have more fruitful connections with others, and more smoothly move towards their goals.
Interestingly, this fact-focused, objective perspective actually closely aligns with mindfulness; they both ask us to simply notice what is, rather than what we might think something is or what we wish it were. When we take a step back and take a look at what actually is, we can learn to leave behind thoughts connected with what isn't – which, in the end, aren't helpful (because, you know, reality is reality).
So, you might wonder, how might this connect with stage fright? Here are some sample questions you could ask yourself to challenge your assumptions and fears about what could happen onstage (fears which the facts of the situation might help ease).
- What's the worst thing that could happen onstage? What would really be the consequence of that happening?
- In reality, given how hard you've worked and how well you know your pieces, how likely is it that you'll completely blank out ("deer-in-the-headlights" style)?
- Even if you were to blank out, what horrible, terrible thing would happen then? (Said in jest; you're still alive, breathing, and the people who love you will still love you!)
- In all of the times you've performed, how often have you blanked out, or something else bad happened? Even if that did happen, was it really so terrible? (Again, you're still alive, breathing, and the people who love you still love you!)
- Short of any of that, even if you fall out of a turn or don't get that extension as high as you know you can, will the audience still enjoy your committed, heartfelt performance? (Hint: most likely yes!).
- Even if you don't give what you would see as your best performance, dancing to your full potential (and who knows, you just might), does that alone mean that you're not a "good dancer"? (Hint: no, it does not mean that!).
- Do you usually, or even always, love performing? Is it even a magical experience? (Hint: probably yes!)
You get the idea, astute reader – it's all about challenging your negative assumptions and fears by pushing yourself to acknowledge the objective truth of the situation. You can come up with similar questions of your own that might fit you and your situation better.
If you're experiencing performance anxiety in the days or weeks leading up to a performance, it could be helpful to use such questions as journaling prompts – if journaling appeals to you and works for you. If you're experiencing performance anxiety in the moments before an entrance, you could do a little mental monologue with yourself through such questions.
Visualization: Mindfulness Exercises for Stage Fright
Visualization is a common mindfulness technique, one that a variety of athletes, artists, and professionals from a variety of industries use to perform at their best. Yes, it’s also entered dance psychology! It can help both body and mind get in a mindset of full possibility: that reaching your potential is 100% possible. Believing it is the first step to achieving it!
That might sound a little "New Agey" to some, but modern science is actually beginning to show these concrete effects on our bodies and minds – those that can boost our performance. Apart from performance, visualization can help ease nerves and shift fearful, negative thoughts to more positive ones (which feel a whole lot better!). Visualization involves simply seeing something in your “mind’s eye” (most often a desired outcome) – so you can use it anywhere, at any time! As you visualize, close your eyes to reduce outside stimuli, or – if it feels better for you – simply gaze softly ahead.
Here are a couple of sample visualizations for performance anxiety, those that can be used whenever you might feel a need for them. They can also be adjusted to fully resonate with you and be helpful for getting you in the right performance headspace (and body-space, for that matter!).
Mindfulness exercises can shift our mindset by moving us into a sense of the positive that is possible.
In the Lights Visualization
- See yourself under the lights, performing at your best. You’re hitting every count, at your technical potential, and truly being in the work in a way that is more than the steps. You’re feeling the music and the movement in your bones and flesh. You can feel the audience absorbed in your every movement and breath. You take your bow, or exit, and they leap to their feet in excited applause. Truly see this in your mind’s eye, and feel it in your bones.
- Try to maintain this visualization for at least thirty seconds, but any amount of time can make a difference!
- As you finish, note to yourself that this is possible. All you need to do is breathe deep, focus on the work of performing at hand, and believe that it’s in you!
- Open your eyes, if you had them closed, or fix your gaze if you had them open. Notice your breathing. Notice how your body feels. You’re ready to go wow them!
- Notice the butterflies in your belly. Picture them. Feel them flutter. What color are they? How many of them are there? Can you think of them as beautiful friends rather than something that makes you anxious?
- As you breathe in, feel them fly around. As you breathe out, feel them fly out of you.
- Picture yourself dancing with those butterflies. Can they give you energy and help you dance to your best? (It really is adrenaline that you’re feeling, and you do need that to dance at your best!)
- Continue this visualization for a bit longer. When you’re ready, open your eyes or fix your gaze. Now go wow them!
Affirmations: Mindfully Reminding Yourself that You Can
Affirmations (or mantras, in the yoga/meditation tradition), are short, simple statements meant to be repeated. Similar to visualizations, these mindfulness exercises can shift our mindset by moving us into a sense of the positive that is possible. They are structured in the present tense: this is, and I am, right here and right now.
It's all about challenging your negative assumptions and fears by pushing yourself to acknowledge the objective truth.
With these short statements repeated over and over, your body and mind can begin to shift from fear and doubt to joy and confidence. In terms of stage fright, that can begin to shift your mindset from thinking that you'll "bomb" (at worst, let's say) to believing that you can leave your audience in awe. Here are some sample ones to try. You can of course also come up with similar ones of your own!
- “I can soar high, but also ground deep.”
- “I breathe in confidence. I breathe out excess.”
- “I breathe in ease. I breathe out anxiety.”
- “I can dance at my best.”
- “I can wow the audience!”
- “I know this, and I can do it. It’s in me.”
- “Hi, belly butterflies. Thanks, I got this.”
- “Belly butterflies, fly free and dance with me!”
You Got This!
Performance anxiety is common, but that doesn’t make it any easier. The hopeful thing is that you’re not doomed to dread the stage (even if you love dancing…strange, right?). There are tools that can help you get to a better place – tools that can help your nervous system understand that really, truly, you got this. Because you do!
You also don’t have to face it alone. Talk to trusted friends (especially dance friends), teachers, and coaches about what you’re experiencing, to the extent that you feel comfortable. They might have useful advice – and even if they don’t, it can be immensely helpful to simply talk about what you’re thinking and feeling.
As noted, if performance anxiety is getting in the way of you thriving as a dancer, and even as a person (outside of the studio), it also might be best to seek professional help. Whatever you choose and however you address what you’re encountering, you have people and approaches to help you feel ready to get on that stage and shine.