If every time before going on stage you feel nervous, have performance anxiety, or are even ready to call the whole thing off, and you want to conquer this feeling, here are my thoughts.
The 3 basics
I have been performing on stage since the age of 6. Many people around me, my students, colleagues and audience think at this point of my life as an experienced dancer I should be calm as a buddhist entering the performance space. But every time I go to stage I am physically tortured by performance anxiety. It absolutely doesn’t matter if it’s a big one in front of 50 000 people or a little demo in front of 20 people. However with the ideas I share with you in this blog post I’ve learned to control and reprogram my performance anxiety.
Firstly, before we dive into some very beautiful and deep ideas, I’d like to quickly outline some basic tips that can help you feel confident and be less stressed before the performance.
Here we go:
- Be ready for whatever you are about to do.Prepare and practice a lot. Know your choreography, steps, words, have your music, shoes and all other bits ready. Just eliminate from the list this big chunk of stress.
- Project a bright process and result.
Imagine yourself having the best moment ever when you will be doing your thing on stage, feel that joy. This moment will never repeat again therefore it’s precious. Play in your “imagination screen” in your head how you are having the most wonderful show, the performance of your dream… it’s your time!
- Take care of yourself.
Make sure to sleep well and enough before, stretch, eat well and just as much as needed for you. Be in good shape.
Those first three points would make a big difference. However I’d love to share some of the deeper and more fundamental thoughts. To break free from the dark net of performance anxiety, doubts and worries weakening you, blinding your eyes, making your stomach go wild, let’s dive into the question of what is that feeling exactly, why is it there and how to tame and reprogram it.
Surf the excitement
I remember my first teacher of dance always told me, that “to feel butterflies” before the performance is actually good. It means you care about what you are doing, it’s excitement. I was confused because excitement is supposed to be wonderful feeling, but I felt bad, small, my whole being shrank and my thoughts were sporadic. The feeling of excitement in fact is balancing on the thin line between two oppositely charged states and actions:
- Bright side of excitement, adrenaline that calls “Yay, Let’s do this thing!”
- Dark side of it which is fear, anxiety and nervousness that says “Oh gee, I wish it would all be over now and I could just relax”
Just acknowledge those two faces of this feeling.
Realising that anxiety and fear is created in you and by only you, that it doesn’t exist outside of your head and body, can help you “surf” this feeling and get more control over your state.
What is your message? or deal with your Ego
Why are you so afraid and nervous? Maybe the reason is Ego. We think too much about ourselves. How will I look? What if the people don't love me? Will I do great? Will I be cool? and so on and so on. Me, me, me, me, me. The dance, music is a language. The same language that English or Spanish is. And we use it to say something, create stories. With any language we can say something beautiful and inspiring or something meaningless, useless and terrible. We choose what we say. Dance, music and any other art form is the same language. What are we saying with it? What are you saying with your dance?
This was one of the most powerful thoughts that really shifted the whole story of performance anxiety for me.
What am I dancing for, what am I transmitting?
I come out on stage in front of people who are right at this moment spending their time to listen to me, to hear, see, feel what I am about to deliver. Are they interested in looking at me worrying about me, seeing me trying to show them how cool I am? Is that really worth the time of both parties? Or maybe we can have a more nurturing for each ones story.
- the emotion you want to deliver
- the music you want to open up for people
- the fresh idea of moving to this or that music
- the story of one’s relationship if that’s a dance in a couple
- or maybe you actually have a drama story, character in a dance, deliver that story
Sometimes I cannot verbalise what is my message in fact, it’s more of an intuition of what I am about to share.
But what if I am just dancing and not having a dance “theatre show”?
Let me tell you my story. In the beginning of my Jazz dance life I did a lot of character dance shows (chicken, cowboy, archetype of a woman, puppet, doll, gangster, orphan etc). Every time before the show I was on fire getting into my character. My only worry was to deliver my story.
Later on I started doing quite a lot of performances, demos based on simple improvisation. Just me as myself, not a character, in my normal clothes, not a costume, expressing music with my dance. It felt really different. I started to worry to be good, to succeed, to wow people, to be better than someone else, to be appreciated and loved. And the anxiety to fulfil all those fear - requests really threw me off my axes. I had to reset this relationship with myself and remind myself of why am I dancing, what am I saying with my dance language. I think about it before each demo. It gives me power to be brave and daring when I dance, it puts me outside of myself, it takes away the need to be perfect, to be best, because this though is beyond Ego.
Giving is beyond Ego.
Is the dance performance and competition really about the “fancy moves” or the Ego? Does anyone in fact really care about “fancy steps” or your Ego? Will it actually make a difference? Only if that serves a stream of a message.
Performing just for the Ego and the “fancy steps” is demanding love and appreciation from the people rather than giving something to them. Movement for the sake of the movement is maybe more about sport. I do believe we have more to give when we talk about music and dance, the Arts and Entertainment.
Something even bigger, the arts are not here for the arts they are here as a mean of bringing people together and communication.
I think it is especially relevant for the popular culture of swing and jazz, the form of arts and entertainment formed and developed by people for people and not by elite art group for itself. Think about it, it’s the mean of communication, it’s the magma connecting the people, who find this communication valuable and important.
Get in the “zone”
To deal with the performance anxiety, which is as we discussed above the thought of “me” and “how am I looking” I as well turn to acting technique.
The great Konstantin Stanislavski, Russian theatre practitioner, the creator of the acting system described a state of “being in the zone”.
By being in the zone we understand being in the moment, character, space and circumstance of what you are doing.
The moment when we are not “in the zone” that is when we start to think about all the other useless things like how do I look, do they like me, am I doing this right, etc. Those thoughts are followed by getting physically blocked, having some parts of the body, muscles actually being locked. Actual muscle tension is when instead of, say 200 muscles, you will have only 90 functioning properly•, the rest will be semi contracted (i.e. you will find your neck or back tight or blocked, not free and available for movement). Being in the zone as well means being here and now.
If you are about to perform:
- get into the “vibe” of your show (i.e. lyrical, theatrical, rhythmical, playful, moody etc.)
- set your mind on the character if you have it
- tune into your music
- “arrive” emotionally to the place where you will do your dance…
- think of your “perspective”, what are you about to say, what are you about to do with your show. … in other words, get in the zone.
•this is just an example and not a medically specific data.
Connect with your “inner animal”
Anxiety and fear is something that brings all our being in the head and locks us in the mind castle. We loose the connection to the floor, our body, breath, surroundings. Fear disconnects us a little from reality and traps in the mind that worries and projects failure.
Reconnect with your body:
- shake and stretch
- feel your toes “grabbing “ the floor and feet standing firm on the ground
- feel the weigh of your whole body, especially in your belly
- connect to the gravity
- feel big, expanded, ready and brave to embrace the stage space and further
Deep breathing helps get into the body. Connect to your inner animal and wait to feel the sparkle in the eyes!
There were few performances in my life where I felt I became immensely big, like I actually went out of the borders of my physical body. Those were the shows with the biggest audiences for me 2 000 - 50 000 people like at “Violon Sur Le Sable”, Cork Opera House, I Love This Dance, WBF. My energy was stretching out far giving me freedom to occupy all the space on stage and almost “have it in my arms”. When the eyes of so many people were on me and I was so connected to my inner animal, I knew it’s the time to fly and spread the energy west, east, north and south to give the best performance I could.
Have a good one!
Whenever I am about to perform, standing on the side of the stage, these are the thoughts and sensations that are running through me. I breath deeply, connect to my body and shake it a bit. Always remind myself why and am I here and what am I about to say or deliver with my show, dance. I feel my weight on the ground and the readiness, that thirsty “animalistic” sparkle. I do it every single time before performing to settle my energy in the right way almost automatically.
As a closure I would like to say that; if you have performance anxiety and every time you are about to perform you are extremely nervous, - you are not alone. It’s normal to feel that. The truth is you are putting yourself out there in front of others. Certainly it can be scary and vulnerable. In some sense it’s good to “feel butterflies” a little bit, as long as they are the sparkles of bright excitement, means you care for what you do 🙂
Written by Ksenia Parkhatskaya