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.

Alexia Meyer performing her title-winning solo at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals in 2012 (photos courtesy NYCDA)

For years, Alexia Meyer struggled with comparing herself to other dancers. “I would feel confident going into a competition, but as soon as I saw other dancers’ abilities, I would second-guess what I was capable of,” says Alexia, who just graduated high school. “My self-consciousness definitely hurt my performance. When I wasn’t confident, I couldn’t dance 100 percent.” Alexia consistently placed among the top dancers at competitions, but never won at Nationals.

Then her studio, The Dance Club in Orem, UT, brought in performance psychology consultant Justin Su’a, who counsels elite athletes (including a few Olympians) and artists such as “Dancing with the Stars” pro Chelsie Hightower on improving mental skills for physical performance. Su’a led three group sessions at TDC. “He talked a lot about managing stress and fear, and getting rid of self-doubt,” says TDC co-owner Allison Thornton. “All of our dancers were excited to try the techniques he offered, but Alexia really took his advice to heart.” After the team sessions, Alexia kept meeting with Su’a one-on-one—and his advice worked. At 2012 Nationals, Alexia overcame her confidence issues and was named New York City Dance Alliance’s Senior Female Outstanding Dancer.

How could a sports psychologist’s methods improve your own performance? Here are five strategies you can take from the field, the pool and the rink to the studio and the stage.

Stop Negative Self-Talk

“Anytime you’re being judged on your performance, it’s easy to beat yourself up,” Su’a says. The first steps in silencing the inner voice telling you you’ll never be good enough are recognizing the thought and realizing you don’t have to listen. “People think, If I have this thought, it must be true,” he explains. “Believing that negative inner voice can lead to a physiological response that affects your performance.”

Alexia getting her start at NYCDA

Turn the tables by thinking about what you want to be saying to yourself before a performance or competition. For example, Su’a helped Alexia come up with “power statements” to repeat when she starts doubting herself or questioning her capabilities. “I say things like, ‘I’m here to dance, and that’s all I care about,’ ” Alexia says.

Use Imagery

Have you ever heard an athlete use the phrase “Be the ball”? Just as a soccer player might visualize the ball sailing past the goalie and into the net, dancers can visualize what they hope to do onstage. Picturing what you want to happen—rather than what you don’t, like falling or messing up—can help you relax and let your training take over.

Dr. Kate Hays, a performance psychologist who works with athletes and dancers, uses both realistic and metaphorical imagery with her clients. “For Swan Lake,” she explains, “realistic imagery would focus on the music and envisioning particular steps. Metaphorical imagery would be thinking about ‘swan-ness’—being a swan rather than being a dancer.” Try both types of imagery to see what resonates with you.

Breathe Through the Nerves

“Nerves aren’t bad—they’re your body’s way of telling you it’s show time,” Su’a says. However, if your nerves affect your breathing, your performance can falter. “When your breathing becomes erratic in a high-stress situation, carbon dioxide gets trapped in your muscles and you get stiff,” Su’a says. Slowing down your breathing can stop the cycle.

Alexia demonstrating during NYCDA convention classes. After winning the Senior Outstanding Dancer title at Nationals in 2012, Alexia began traveling with NYCDA as an assistant.

Hays teaches dancers and athletes a technique called diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing. To try it, put both hands on your stomach, middle fingers touching, and breathe in. Your fingers should separate at the depth of the inhale, showing that you’re fully engaging your diaphragm, and your middle fingers should come back together on the exhale. You can also curl up on the floor in yoga’s child’s pose and feel the inhale expanding your back, just below your ribs. Breathing like this for several minutes can help you regulate tension and calm down.

Create a “Pre-game Ritual”

Athletes use pre-game rituals as a way to get into the competitive mindset, and you can do the same before performances. “There are a lot of uncontrollable factors about performing, and a pre-show routine can help you feel in control,” Su’a says.

Hays adds, “What helps you feel most ready to be onstage? Do that, while avoiding things you know psych you out.” You might need to be surrounded by friends, or be alone. You might do a set warm-up backstage before every show, or listen to a specific song over and over. Whatever it is, establish a routine and stick to it.

Remember Your Motivation

Whether you’re hoping to dance with American Ballet Theatre or you want to play in the NBA, staying motivated is important. “Do you dance to win trophies, or because you love it?” Su’a asks. “It’s easy to lose motivation if you forget why you do what you do. If you reconnect with your purpose, you can be more effective in your behavior.”

For Alexia, thinking about her motivation for dancing helped her relax in stressful situations. “I remembered that I dance for myself and not for others,” she says. “I can’t let outside influences hurt my motivation for dancing.”

Change doesn’t often happen overnight. “Mental skills, like physical ones, take time to develop and practice,” Su’a says. But if you’re willing to train your mind just like you train your physical body, you can look forward to major benefits.

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