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
Everything we do in solo jazz dances is an improvisation, unless it’s a performance or choreography. We are going to look closer now on how to actually practice it. There is an ocean of things to practice in solo jazz dance styles. Again, limit yourself. Don’t practice everything. Everything means you won't really improve significantly in any element of your dancing. You will most likely just repeat what is already habitual and in your muscle memory. This of course is still great to do, and fun, but not practice in the true sense.
Limit yourself to:
- a musical phrase (a phrase of 2 bars, 4 bars or 8 bars…watch the “Pillow” section in “Secrets of Improvisation course”)
- a particular step
- a style (say if you want to work on ragtime or bebop). Within that limit yourself again to footwork, rhythms, or phrase lengths
- a part of the body (say, arms, isolations etc.)
- a type of step (say slides or turns or floor footwork, areal steps, tricks, breaks etc.
My whole course “Secrets of Improvisation” deals with just that. How to limit yourself and how to develop each limitation. Here are a few examples of limiting yourself.
Example 1. Limit your solo jazz dance improvisation to a particular step
You want to practice being creative in the basic footwork you already know. For instance limit yourself to a basic Charleston step only. In this case I would like to think of the Charleston basic not as a step, but more as concept. When you think of that as a concept it is more open to be modified. I created a 4 volume course that is fully based on this idea of limiting yourself to only one solo jazz dance step, it's called "Variation Lab".
Remember, that within each step we can work with:
- Form (Visuals. How this step looks: maybe you add crosses, you turn this step somewhere, you make any segment a split, etc. )
- Time (meaning musicality, rhythms)
Then you go ahead and dance Charleston basic step playing let’s say with rhythm only, searching for what is called variations of the step. While doing it don’t worry about other elements. You are practicing, you are focusing on a particular task, this is how you will improve.
Remember that when we talk about time, we can look at the cake of subdivisions: from the whole note to its smallest divisions. You can use all of this range to “rhythmise" your step. I like to think about it like that: every step has it’s 0 or default rhythm. For instance, with Charleston basic step you hit on every beat, every quarter note 4/4 and it lasts for 2 bars (or one 8 in dancers terms). From every 0 or default timing you can play with the time to - “minus” (less steps, more space) or + “plus” (More footwork, less space)
(Minus) “ - “ means we decrease from quarter notes, and create pauses with half and whole notes.
(Plus) “ + “ means we increase the amount of footwork inside basic step to triplet of a half, 8th note, triplet of a quartet.
With this idea of minus and plus we do not change the length of the step, we change the time within the step. Charleston basic will remain to be an 8 count step, but what we do inside it with the time and with the footwork will change.
Here is an explanation of the Subdivision Cake:
6/4 triplet of a half (6)
Triplet of a quarter (12)
I am going to demonstrate that to the metronome. You can go ahead and practice with me.
Try to play with this step to it’s limits, until you don’t know how to variate it anymore. Find your variations, repeat it, get comfortable, try it to different tempos. Make it yours!
Then put on a favourite tune, start improvising (just dance whatever you want, no limits) and at some points insert this new variation of yours into your improvisation. Next practice don’t forget to use this variation again.
Et voila! Your unique new creation is in your pocket, in your system.
Here is a demo of "Time Plus" improvisation within Charleston basic step from my course Secrets of Improvisation. I came up with those variations playing with subdivisions, spotlighting more notes, adding more footwork.
Example 2. Limit your solo dance improvisation to a jazz form
Practice feeling AABA
This is something bigger than an 8 count step. Let’s talk about standard jazz form: AABA or the »American Popular Song Form. Most jazz standards or songs we commonly know are 32 bars long. As swing dancers we think most of the time in 8s, than a full form would 16 8s. Which steps do we know that are 8 counts? Charleston basic, swing out, break. In this case AABA in total is 16 swing outs or 16 Charleston steps.
Pretty much all the A’s in a standard swing tune have the same melody, with small variations at the repeat of each section (Musicians often say A1, A2, B, and Final A) Take a look at super common standard tunes like: Sweet Sue, I’ve found a New Bay, Blue Skies, Bye Bye Blackbird, Jumping at the Woodside, Esquire Bounce and so many others. Just take a quick listen to "Honeysuckle Rose" by Ben Webster Quartet. Released: 1944.
- A (of 4 8s)
- next A that is pretty much the same (of 4 8s)
- then we come to a bridge, B part (of 4 8s). Bridge is different, contrasting. You can hear it. It’s a sort of a break from the main A theme. A release. A dive into something different.
- wrap it up with A (of 4 8s)
And in total 32 bar unit, or AABA!
Dramaturgy of AABA jazz music form
AABA has a certain dramaturgy: tell a story, support, suspense/ tension/lead up, finale. Each part, each A and B has a dramaturgy as well within the four 8s. I like to think of it like that:
- first 8 - set a tone
- second 8 - repeat the tone (maybe with a little twist)
- third 8 - suspense, tension, lead up to …
- fourth 8 - release, grand finale! break
After the theme AABA, musician take turns to play solos. When we say play solos over the form, we know that the form is 32 bars and it means they play a solo over AABA.
How can we practice it and how it helps improvisation?
To feel AABA is to know where you are in the music, where are your breaks, high and low points. To feel it means to know pretty much from the first note how to frame, place and ornament your improvisation.
I always use the idea of dramaturgy within AABA and within 4 8s. I know I will be on the wave with the music if I do:
- Charleston basic (set a tone)
- Charleston basic with variation (repeat with the modulation)
- cross over (suspense)
- break (grand finale)
Here is your practice if AABA is a new info to you:
Listen to different tunes (you can use the examples i gave above) and count out loud bars or 8s.
Sing the phrases together with the melody. You will see a phrase is also one 8 count.
- Dance 3 8s of some step (can be basics step, box step or any other) and SCAT the 4th 8 which is a break. Do that several times with different tunes.
- Dance 3 8s of some step, than SCAT and DANCE exactly what you scatted for the 4th 8
- Dance first 8 some step, second 8 variation of that step, third 8 think of a different “suspense” step, scat & dance the break for fourth 8.
Use this formula for the whole tune to practice your AABA feel. Sometimes you will here that some tunes have “injected” 2 or 4 bars bridges/ pedals in the middle of nowhere, or sometimes common an extended “tag” at the end of the form, which may or may not be repeated at the musicians discretion “I got rhythm” being an example. Don’t be scared, move on. Just recognise them.
If you are familiar with AABA jazz form, use only exercises 3, 4 and 5. Go ahead and try other forms.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you are interested in more detailed examples with demonstrations, I explain all of this in my 3h online course “Secrets of Improvisation”. There I talk about:
- how to start improvisation or back to basics
- cake of subdivisions
- use of all the subdivisions in the jazz footwork
- explain how to limit yourself to a step (with the example of Charleston basic step, Fall of the Lod, cross over/ behind)
- how to phrase your improvisation
- give few exercises to use in practice and on the dance floor (ex. Pillow)
- arrange practice with a live musician
Written by Ksenia Parkhatskaya
My students very often are interested if I practice solo jazz dance: what, how and how often.
I am a solo jazz dancer, that’s my life, love and profession. Oh yes, I practice. It’s the best way to discover things and improve. I practice solo jazz dance physically and mentally. As often as I can. Normally I work on the weekends: jazz festivals, swing dance festivals, dance intensives. That leaves me 2 - 3 days during the week when I dedicate 1-3 hours per day for my self-practice. Love it! I can develop new ideas, do some new exciting stuff, just be always in form. In addition, I go to other dance classes: afro, tap, house. It is a practice as well. That gives me a gigantic source of inspiration and a different point of view! In this blog, I share some general practice tips with you.
Before I thought that practice can happen only when you are in the studio, physically dancing. Though mental practice is a way as well. Watching videos, listening to music and rhythms, imagining yourself dancing this or that way is a great way to improve. They say that mental practice is almost as effective as physical.
Let’s talk about some general practice tips for physical practice for I am sure we all can do the mental part very well :
Book a space, schedule your solo jazz dance practice!
When you are self-employed it’s so easy to change your mind. One second ago you want to practice, another second you see it’s sunny and decide to go out for a swim (well. if you are in Barcelona like me :). When you book a studio, schedule it, will be harder to change. Usually, I book or find a studio. Sometimes I do it at home. But the act of dedicating time and going somewhere for a specific amount of time where you can do nothing but dance is motivating and organising to me. Number one of the general practice tips.
My solo jazz dance practice plan looks like this:
- Warm-up & get in the zone
- Little improvisation to get in the mood and feel my body
- Do the task• (will talk about that below)
- Finish with improvisation
- Quick cool down / stretch
I come to the studio and start by warming up. Maybe 10 -15 min will go just for stretching and feeling my body. Where am I today? What body am I working with for the next hours? Some days you are more stiff or tired than other days. It’s good to take this in consideration and to respect that. I have my own little selection of exercises for warming up, I am sure like every dancer. I make sure to breathe deeply while stretching to warm up from the inside. Put on my favorite tunes to get in the mood always helps.
Set a task!
Once I am warm I go straight away to practice tasks. Some important things while practicing, that I learn from other great people: musicians, dancers, artists. Kenny Werner made a big change in my life with his lecture on practicing in jazz. It's more 1h+ but it's one of my top lectures on jazz. Here is the link: A Master Class in Jazz Performance and Creativity with Pianist Kenny Werner
Here are some of them I always use or try to remember as a guide:
1. Have a focus in your solo jazz dance practice
I find it quite important to set the goals of my solo jazz dance training in advance. I book my studio for ca. 2h usually. It’s not much time to allow to bounce off the walls and do nothing. When you practice alone, clearly you are the only one who is in charge. If you don’t set up a task/ schedule/ timing, no one will. Be your own boss! The best way to practice is to limit yourself and not to practice everything. Practicing everything, in the end, is not practicing. You work on something small and that significantly improves the overall dance.
Here are some of the common reasons/ tasks for personal training that I use:
- Practicing/ remembering choreography
- Composing something (be in sketches or a new chore or a little routine)
- Working on rhythm, time signatures
- Working on something new; be it movements, style etc..
- Working on quality
- Practicing dancing to different speeds
- Practicing improvisation.... etc.
Define what you want or need to do, set the goal/ task and time! For example, Practicing/ remembering choreo or a few of them, reviving overall choreos, 1h. Or working on time signatures, get sketches for new choreo in 3/4, 1.5h.
2. Don’t judge/ punish yourself for not standing up to your expectation immediately
This one I need to remind to myself quite often to be honest. One day the things flow and everything works. The other day, you can’t invent anything, all you do seems to be boring, you can’t even make a proper turn and not stumble. It’s ok. Accept and move on. Maybe make the practice that day short and go have a tasty coffee with a friend. The word immediately is important here. If you have a solo jazz dance practice date with yourself regularly, say 2-3 days a week for 1 - 2 hours, you’ll see the improvement! It’s just not possible not to improve! Regularity is the key.
3. Play! Make solo jazz dance practice a game
That is super important! If the practice is something boring and hard you will simply never practice. Make it your personal playground. For me, I don’t have to put much effort into making it a game. I love to dance so much that simple action of moving my leg to music makes me happy.
Here is a video of my practice.
Hope these were useful general practice tips on how to practice solo jazz dance! And what's your experience with practicing? Would be happy to read your comments.
I will continue with Part 2: How to practice improvisation in the next blog post.
Written by Ksenia Parkhatskaya