You fought through your audition nerves and earned admission to your dream summer program. You managed to pack all your dance necessities into two suitcases. You survived your tearful good-byes with Mom and Dad. You even broke the ice with your new roommate. It's time to relax and settle in for a great summer of dancing, right?
But if the results of your level-placement class are disappointing, you could be facing a whole new set of anxieties. What if you're placed too low—will you end up perfecting your tendus all summer? What if you feel like your level is way out of your league? What if you're separated from your friends? Here's how to conquer the mental challenges your level assignment might raise.
Is the person leading technique class also—gulp—your mother? Here's the good news: Having a parent as a dance teacher comes with many advantages. “From a young age, I had a built-in manager who knew the ins and outs of the business," says tapper Donovan Helma, who grew up dancing with his mom in Denver before performing in Tap Dogs on and off for 10 years. However, finding a balance between “home mom" and “dance mom" is difficult, and you might feel singled out by classmates for being the teacher's child(/pet). Here's how to deal with the difficult issues that can arise when your parent's also your instructor.
Don't let stage fright keep you stuck in the wings (photo by Rachel Papo)
It’s the day of competition. You’ve practiced your solo hundreds of times; you hum the music constantly, and you dream about the steps. But as you approach the wings, an unsettling feeling begins to set in. Suddenly you can’t remember what comes immediately after the aerial. You can remember, all too clearly, that week of rehearsals where you couldn’t nail the final pirouette. Your stomach starts to churn and your heart pounds like crazy.
It’s natural to feel nervous before a performance. But there are varying degrees of stage fright, and what manifests as the tickle of butterflies in some can be debilitating panic in others. Whether you feel mild uneasiness or serious anxiety, here’s how to manage your fears so you can get back to the thrill of performing.
Mild Stage Fright
What you might experience: butterflies in your stomach, increased heart rate, mild muscle tension.
Nearly every dancer gets a “fight or flight” spike in adrenaline as she prepares to perform, according to Dr. Kate Hays, a performance psychologist in Toronto, Canada. That spike revs up your heart rate and heightens your senses. “There are basic changes that happen in your body that tell you you’re ready to be on,” she says.
When you feel the adrenaline hit, take a deep breath. In fact, take several, filling up your abdomen as you inhale. That’s diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” and it’ll help you get as much oxygen as possible to your muscles and brain. “Diaphragmatic breathing calms you down rapidly and effectively,” Hays says. If you don’t want to breathe in a way that makes your stomach protrude, try “side breathing,” which can be just as effective. Place your hands on your sides just below your ribs and exhale. As you inhale, keep your belly flat and expand your lower ribs and waist, sideways, into your hands.
Moderate Stage Fright
What you might experience: fear, anxiety, distractedness, queasiness.
For some dancers, stage fright goes beyond physical cues and becomes a mental hurdle. If you’re feeling afraid, Stars Dance Company artistic director Victor Smalley suggests focusing on why you’re standing in the wings in the first place. “Let your love of dance be the armor that protects you,” he says. Hays suggests a perspective check, too. “Ask yourself, What is it that I’m really scared of?” she says. Remember how prepared and well rehearsed you are.
In fact, for some dancers, the key to managing moderate stage fright lies in the rehearsal studio. Houston Ballet soloist Nao Kusuzaki, who struggled with stage fright as a teenager, was recently given the lead in Madame Butterfly, which features difficult choreography, complicated props and quick changes (some of them onstage). “From day one of rehearsal, I practiced with the props and the costumes, and the studio was set up like the stage,” she recalls. “I wanted to use my studio time to eliminate any worries that could spring up during the performance.”
If you feel your mind beginning to spin, focus on what you can control—your breathing, your warm-up—rather than what you can’t. “When you start to worry about something outside of yourself, that opens a door for fear,” Smalley says. You can’t dictate the lighting cues, or the audience’s reaction, or the judges’ thoughts—let them go. All you can do is dance your best.
Severe Stage Fright
What you might experience: intense anxiety or panic attacks, vomiting, a feeling of being paralyzed.
If the way you’re feeling is interfering with your ability to perform, you’re suffering from severe stage fright. And that’s a problem you need to address quickly and aggressively. “One of the things about anxiety is that it feeds on itself—the more it hangs around, the worse it gets,” Hays says. At this level, consider enlisting a professional. “A therapist can show you techniques to handle your stage fright, and in the longer term, help you explore its origins and resolve some of its triggers,” Hays says. If possible, seek out a therapist who specializes in dance, performance or sports psychology. If there isn’t a specialist in your area, a psychologist who works with anxiety disorders should be able to help, though he or she may need to be educated on the specifics of the dance world.
No matter what level of stage fright you deal with, spend some time after each show to think about your reaction to the situation. Identify your body’s unique response to adrenaline and stress. “Then, when it happens again, you’ll understand it better,” Hays says. “You’ll be able to tell yourself, This is how my body reacts to performance”—and to implement your coping strategies more quickly.
“I feel so fat! Let’s go gluten-free for a while.”
“Come have a cigarette with us.”
Sound familiar? Many dancers encounter peer pressure. Whether your classmates are trying new diets or smoking and drinking, you might feel left out if you don’t follow the crowd. But giving in to social pressures can result in unhealthy habits. Margaret Tracey, director of the Boston Ballet School, has even seen it lead to a decline in technique. “Girls who are affected by cliques,” she says, “tend to be overly focused on what others think,” rather than on their own development as dancers. If you’re struggling with peer pressure, read on for tips from the experts on ways to deal with some of the most common scenarios.
Body and Eating Issues
Dance emphasizes perfection, and dancers frequently make the mistake of thinking there’s one “best” body to strive for. “Students focus a lot on how they look, which is exacerbated by social media and constant use of a mirror,” explains dance therapist Dr. Lynda Mainwaring. That can lead to peer competition and snarky comments in the studio.
(via Design Pics/Thinkstock)
If your friends are unkind about your body—or if they constantly harp on their own perceived imperfections, and expect you to do the same—don’t let their negativity overwhelm you. Focus on what you like about your shape and your dancing. Vivian Shock, a competitive dancer at CC & Co. Dance Complex in Raleigh, NC, learned not to obsess over the fact that she wasn’t “all legs.” Instead, she decided to zero in on one of her technical strengths: pirouettes. “I started working on lifting my relevés and passés,” she explains. Seeing technical improvement can give you an instant body confidence boost.
Although weight pressures are a common issue in dance, remember that everyone looks and moves differently. “Stay away from scales, as they don’t account for daily fluctuations,” Mainwaring warns. And always consult a nutritionist before starting a new diet, even if all of your friends swear by it. It may be “in,” but that doesn’t make it the right choice for you.
Drinking and Smoking
Juggling high school and an intense dance schedule is incredibly stressful. Dancers need ways to relax, which can make it hard to say “no” when peers from dance or school pressure you to try drinking or smoking as an outlet.
If your friends are always asking you to join them for smoke breaks between classes, Mainwaring strongly advises finding positive “distraction activities” to substitute—things that’ll both relax your body and give you a reason to say “no, thanks.” Try watching inspiring dance videos, rolling out your muscles or just taking a walk.
Because dance is so intensely competitive, jealousy and self-confidence issues can sometimes escalate studio peer pressure to the point where it becomes full-on bullying. “Some dancers lash out at their peers in dressing rooms, backstage or on social media as a way to elevate themselves and make themselves feel better,” Mainwaring explains.
(via OMG Image/Thinkstock)
Don’t hesitate to tell a teacher or a trusted adult when bullying occurs. And while constant negative feedback from others often leads to self-deprecating thoughts, find a way to stay positive in the classroom, even on bad days. “Don’t set yourself up for failure,” Mainwaring says. She suggests using mental phrases, such as “I’m ready” and “I love dancing,” to help you concentrate on personal goals in the classroom, rather than getting dragged down by others.
Above all, remember that you are the one in control of your choices. “Students who feel the weight of intense peer pressure should shift the focus back to themselves and their individual journey,” Tracey says. Concentrating on your own goals, rather than your peers’ perceptions of you, will make all the difference—in your dance training, and in your life as a whole
The Toxic Friends Problem
Pretty much everyone will have to deal with peer pressure at some point. But if it’s a constant issue for you, the problem could be your group of friends. Strive to surround yourself with people who are as driven as you are, both at school and in the studio. Look for peers who are focused on learning and improving instead of causing drama or drinking. “A circle of close, understanding friends is essential if you’re trying
to avoid making bad choices,” says Eileen Juric, a longtime teacher and founder of BalletBarreNone. “Find a good crowd that will encourage you rather than put you down.”
That said, separating from toxic friends can be difficult. Rather than making a sudden hard break, which can feed the drama mill, try distancing yourself from unsupportive peers gradually. “Inappropriate behavior can either be ignored or reported privately to a teacher,” says dance therapist Dr. Lynda Mainwaring. “Then you can remove yourself from the situation quietly. You’ll know you’ve found the right friends if they allow you to maintain your own standards.”
It’s an all-too-common scenario: You’re dying to impress a particular teacher. You want to hear her opinions on your dancing, and apply her corrections to your technique. But no matter how hard you work in class, she barely seems to notice you—because she’s too busy lavishing attention on a single favorite pupil.
Favoritism is common, and it can have real consequences. There are many reasons why a teacher might focus on one student over others. But that behavior can make the dancers left out feel hurt and discouraged. How can you become the best dancer you can be, even if you’re not feeling the love from a particular teacher?
The Who and the Why
According to dance psychologist Dr. Nadine Kaslow, favoritism is, unfortunately, just a fact of life. “It occurs in the studio because it occurs everywhere else,” she says. “We’re drawn more to some people than to others; we think some people are better or have more potential than others.” And because dance is so subjective, favoritism in the studio can feel especially unfair.
(Illustration by Lealand Eve)
That said, sometimes teachers choose to focus on certain students in order to help everyone learn as much as possible. “There might be students in a class who don’t respond well to corrections,” says Todd Rosenlieb, Dance Department chair at The Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, VA. “As an instructor, you have to decide whether you’re going to spend time on someone who’s not changing, or on someone who you know will. That can look like favoritism, when in fact it’s the teacher being efficient with his or her time in a classroom where everyone needs to learn.”
How to Handle It
If you’re feeling ignored by one or more teachers, begin by looking for solutions you can enact yourself. “The first step is to up your game in class,” suggests Renee Perry Mitchell, artistic director of rpm dance in Suffolk, VA. “If you’re working hard all the time, a good teacher will notice you. It might not be today or tomorrow or even next week, but it’ll happen.” And don’t let negative thoughts weigh you down. “The challenge is not to say ‘I’m not getting what I deserve, so I’m going to sulk,’ ” Perry Mitchell says. “The second you do that, you’ve lost the battle.”
Another good coping strategy involves looking to the star dancers for inspiration, rather than resenting them for the attention they’re getting. “To push myself in class and at auditions, I try to mimic the things that I admire in other dancers,” says Marina Gearhart, a sophomore dance major at Connecticut College who grew up dancing at The Dance Place in Newburyport, MA. “What’s she doing that I’m not doing?” Instead of seeing the “favorites” as enemies, use them as motivation to grow.
The Next Steps
Sometimes, however, a teacher’s favoritism is toxic, and it becomes necessary to confront it directly. “I think it’s appropriate to approach a teacher if you’re constantly feeling ignored,” Perry Mitchell says. Kaslow agrees. “Frequently, dancers feel like they’re not allowed to ask their teachers for more corrections,” she says—but you should ask, especially if you’re so discouraged that your dancing is suffering. Open communication is important to a healthy teacher-student relationship.
If your teacher isn’t responsive, and the situation isn’t improving, talk to other friends at your studio. Are many of them feeling ignored, too? “Sometimes favoritism is so bad that a bunch of kids can get together and go above the teacher’s head to a senior administrator,” Kaslow says. Studio politics can be tricky, though, so she recommends this strategy as a last resort.
Ultimately, if you’ve done all you can to address the problem but are still feeling isolated and discouraged, it might be time to consider other studios. “If you end up feeling bad about yourself, or if the favoritism is affecting your development as a dancer, that’s when you need to think about a different setting,” Kaslow advises. Rosenlieb agrees: “If you’re not loving dance anymore, you need to find someone who will bring that love back to you.”
The night before every big competition, 14-year-old Tessa Wilkinson, who dances with Plumb Performing Arts Center in Scottsdale, AZ, has the same dream: “I’m onstage performing, and then I either mess something up or completely forget part of my choreography,” she says. “I usually wake up worried—and immediately start going over that section of my dance!”
Recurring dance dreams like Tessa’s are common for teenage dancers. After all, when you’re spending hours and hours at the studio each day, it makes sense that dance would creep into your thoughts at night. But your dance dreams could be trying to tell you something more. Karen Bonner, a counselor who specializes in dream therapy, compares dreams to the mirror a hairdresser gives you to see the back of your haircut: “Dreams show you the back of your mind,” she says. “The more you can pay attention to what’s going on in your subconscious, the more likely you are to truly understand yourself.”
To help dancers like Tessa interpret what their dreams and nightmares truly mean, Dance Spirit recruited Bonner and Michael Loeffler, a therapist who specializes in dream analysis. Here’s what they had to say about the most common types of dance dreams.
(Illustration by Lealand Eve)
THE DREAM: You’re performing, and you leap into a grand jeté—but instead of coming down, you just keep flying higher and higher, until you’re up near the balcony. Just when you’re starting to enjoy the view, you suddenly fall, which jolts you awake.
The Meaning: Flying in dreams can have a few different meanings. “Since flying gives you a different way of looking at the world, a flying dream may indicate that you need a change of perspective,” Bonner says. “But if in the dream you’re flying too high, that can actually mean you’re getting too big for your britches. The dream is saying, ‘Watch out! You’re going too far!’ ”
The fall indicates that your life isn’t as stable as you would like it to be. “Something doesn’t feel safe,” Loeffler says. “Take a little time to think about what that could be.”
THE DREAM: You sleep through your alarm and wake up knowing that dance class is about to start—but you don’t have enough time to get there. When you do finally make it to class, you realize you’ve forgotten your shoes!
The Meaning: Stress dreams like these indicate anxiety about something in your life. Sometimes, as in Tessa’s nightmare about messing up onstage, the cause of a stress dream is apparent: a big upcoming competition. But other times, the meaning might not be as obvious. “Dreams where you’re running late or have forgotten or lost something can indicate you’re more stressed than you think,” Bonner says. “If you’re constantly dreaming that you’re late, it might be time to take a step back”—either cutting out one class per week, or easing up on yourself for not completely nailing that tricky pirouette combo.
THE DREAM: You’re Odette from Swan Lake, and the evil Von Rothbart is chasing you. Everywhere you go, no matter how fast you run, he’s right behind you, and you’re terrified.
The Meaning: Most likely, Von Rothbart is a metaphor for something you’re scared to face in your waking life—like a goal you’ve been putting off. “Being chased in a dream can be an invitation to connect with a part of yourself you’re avoiding,” Loeffler says. Bonner agrees: “In real life, it may be time to come to terms with something that seems scary and embrace it.”
THE DREAM: You’re standing at the barre—but you don’t recognize your own reflection in the mirror. It looks like your butt has ballooned to the size of a watermelon!
The Meaning: Dreams in which your body undergoes drastic changes can simply be a sign that you’re going through physical changes in real life. “The teen and adolescent years are a time of rapid growth, so your mind is trying to make sense of what’s happening,” Loeffler says. “Body-based dreams are your psyche telling you to prepare for change.”
THE DREAM: You walk into class and realize everyone’s staring at you. You look down—and discover you’re completely naked!
The Meaning: Bonner says the key to understanding naked dreams is to
reflect on how you felt in the dream after exposing yourself to the world. “If you were comfortable with it or nobody else was really paying attention, that may mean you’re feeling confident,” she says. “But if you were absolutely mortified, it’s a good idea to think back over the last couple days. Ask yourself if you revealed something that made you uncomfortable”—something you’d prefer were still private.
Joffrey Ballet dancer Jeraldine Mendoza was thrilled to be cast as Juliet in Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet—but her excitement dimmed after the first few rehearsals. She had trouble wrapping her head around the complex choreography, especially since its vocabulary was more contemporary than classical. “They were teaching it so quickly that I couldn’t pick it up,” she says. “I freaked out!”
Learning and retaining choreography is one of a dancer’s greatest challenges. How can you improve your choreographic memory? DS talked to the pros about their strategies—and about why absorbing choreography is so difficult in the first place.
When it comes to learning tricky choreography, Joffrey Ballet dancer Jeraldine Mendoza relies on repetition. (Photo by Herbert Migdoll, courtesy Joffrey Ballet)
Why Can’t I Remember?
According to professor Ruth Day, director of the Memory for Movement lab at the American Dance Festival and Duke University, dancers have problems remembering choreography for many reasons, but particularly when they’re unfamiliar with the style or instructor. “When the vocabulary is codified, as it is in ballet, most of the steps have names that people know well,” says Day. “But in modern and contemporary dance, almost anything can happen”—which means dancers can’t rely on movement names as memory aids.
Choreographers also have many different ways of communicating their choreography, and not all of their methods work for every dancer. They might use counts, the names of steps or non-words like “dee-dee-dah.” “There’s a problem when the cues the teachers give aren’t the cues the dancers want,” Day says. Maybe your choreographer doesn’t like to count and you do, or she’s giving too much information all at once and you’re getting bogged down in details.
The Memory Tool Kit
The key to improving your choreographic memory is identifying how you learn best, so you can figure out ways to adapt to various choreographers’ teaching styles. Here’s a tool kit of strategies for you to choose from.
If you’re working with a new choreographer, watch videos of her work before you start rehearsals. “It’s good to familiarize yourself with the choreographer’s movement style,” says Lizzie Gough, a commercial dancer and finalist on Season 1 of the British version of “So You Think You Can Dance.” That way, you’ll have a basic understanding of the choreographic language she’s speaking.
Sometimes it helps to break choreography down into smaller, more manageable pieces. The term “chunking” comes from cognitive science, and it means to combine a few items (in this case, steps) that go together naturally. “Find what stands out, and think of a way to capture it,” Day says. For instance, you might notice a phrase that reminds you of the way your dog runs. Call those three or four steps “Spike run,” and odds are good that you’ll remember them later.
3. Strategic Note-Taking
Rather than trying to scribble down the whole piece or combination, which can be overwhelming, focus on your problem spots. “If I get stuck at the same point, I’ll take notes on the steps I’m struggling with,” Gough says. The action of writing down the tricky sequences helps her brain register what comes after what. Using diagrams, like stick figures with arrows, can help you remember details.
For many dancers, it’s just good old practice that makes perfect—but you don’t need to be in the studio to go over new material. You can even mark through choreography while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store. “Try mini-marking, moving only your head or shoulders,” Day says. Mendoza likes to close her eyes and go through the movement with her hands, imagining what it should look like full-out. “Practice for the visual image of it—imagine yourself going through space,” Day says. “Once the movement gets into your head, it’ll get into your body, too.”
Rather than help you remember specific pieces of choreography, these brainteasers will strengthen your memory overall. Try them out when you have a little downtime between rehearsals.
Commercial dancer Lizzie Gough likes to play this game with her dance friends: Form a circle and have one person in the circle show a movement. The person next to her should repeat that movement and add another of her own—and so on, all the way around the room, or until someone forgets part of the sequence.
Find a dance video online that you’ve never seen before. Watch a 30-second piece of the video five times. Then, as you watch it the sixth time, click pause at a random spot, and see if you can predict what happens next.
During her senior year at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, dancer Mimi Healy was moved up to a new technique level. She was thrilled—but her best friend, who remained stuck in a lower level, wasn’t. It was a situation pretty much guaranteed to generate awkwardness. But Healy chose to talk to her friend about it a couple of days later, diffusing the tension. “We decided together that your level does not define who you are as a dancer,” she says.
As if dance’s technical demands weren’t stressful enough, uncomfortable social situations in the studio can also create anxiety—and they’re often difficult to navigate. Feeling socially awkward? Read on for advice about how to cope with common sticky dance scenarios.
I just switched to a new studio, and everyone there is already friends!
Joining a different studio—or moving up a level at the same studio—may be what’s best for your technique, but it also means figuring out how to fit in with a new class. “When I switched studios, I tried to be outgoing and introduce myself to new people, but there were already established groups of friends,” says Sabrina Shultz, now a dancer at First State Ballet Theatre. Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with dancers, encourages patience in these situations. “Start by befriending people who may not already be in a clique—but don’t give up on trying to slowly connect with everyone,” she says.
Sabrina Schultz (center) works hard with her friends in class but also takes time to maintain strong friendships with peers outside of the studio. (Photo by Tisa Della-Volpe)
I got a part my friend really wanted, and now she’s mad at me!
If you’re cast in a role a friend coveted, Kaslow suggests reaching out to her right away to clear the air. “Say to her, ‘I know this must be really hard for you, but I don’t want this to hurt our friendship. How can I be supportive of you?’ ” Take time to talk about your feelings, and let your friend know that you’re there for her.
I’m the teacher’s pet, so no one likes me!
“I can remember sitting at lunch at a summer intensive and having people poke fun at me for being the teacher’s pet,” Healy says. If getting attention from the teacher is causing tension between you and your classmates, speak up about your feelings. You can also show them that just because the teacher likes you doesn’t mean you’re perfect. Make a point of going to your class’ turning phenomenon for fouetté advice, or of asking the resident Gumby for stretching tips.
Everyone in my class goes to the same high school—except me!
Shultz found herself in this kind of situation, and wasn’t able to share school memories with the girls in her class. Talk to your friends about events you can attend together. “Sometimes my friends invite me to a school dance,” Shultz says. Kaslow also suggests making regular nondance plans with your dance friends.
Some of the girls in my class went to the same summer program, and they came back best friends. I feel so left out!
It’s hard not to feel isolated when your classmates return from an intensive as a newly minted clique. When Healy was faced with this situation, she took the opportunity to make a new friend. “The two of us weren’t invited to hang out with the other group, but that actually ended up bonding us, and we became really close,” she says. And try to be patient. Over the course of the year, as your whole class goes through rehearsals and performances together, odds are you’ll start to feel connected to the girls from the summer group again.
Most importantly, if anxiety about social situations is interfering with your school work or your dancing, find someone you can talk to—a parent or, if the problem is serious, a health professional. “If you’re dreading dance class because of social tension, don’t keep it inside—that will hurt you the most,” Kaslow says.