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.

Stage fright is defined as acute nervousness associated with performing before an audience, often accompanied by fear or panic over a situation that the performer doubts his or her ability to handle. There’s a scientific explanation for the affliction, but chances are you’re more interested in overcoming the symptoms, which can include difficulties in walking, speaking, standing and breathing, as well as trembling, a pounding heart, an elevated pulse, nausea, vomiting, flushed face, dry mouth, shortness of breath and (probably most frightening for dancers) forgetfulness. If this happens to you, here are tactics to beat your jitters and perform with confidence.

Focus on purpose. For many artists, stage fright vanishes once the performance begins, because instead of focusing on fears, they focus on the work at hand. Remind yourself of this, and that your dance is going to enrich the lives of the audience.

Don’t tempt fate. Indulging in what-ifs can allow them to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Instead, ask yourself exactly what you’re afraid of. The answer might help put things into perspective.

Speak in affirmatives. Repeat confidence-boosting encouragements out loud, such as “I’m going to nail that triple pirouette.”

Relax with aromatherapy. Keep lavender and peppermint essential oils in your dance bag for bouts of anxiety. Lavender is calming and relaxing, while peppermint promotes concentration and easy breathing. Apply one drop of either to a cotton ball and inhale when you feel nervous or short of breath.

Create a regimen that works for you. Find a backstage routine and stick with it. Some dancers prefer not to try the tricky elements of a dance, because it only psychs them out; others find that a mark-through is centering, and they feel unprepared without it.

Desensitize yourself. Kansas City–based psychologist Mac Harnden uses a form of therapy known as systematic desensitization to help performers overcome fears. He sits in the audience of an empty theater and asks the artist to begin performing. Gradually, the seats are filled with people (friends as well as strangers). This process will desensitize the dancer to the stimuli or environment that causes anxiety. Try this on a smaller scale: Have each person in your support group bring someone whom you don’t know. Then, run through your number while this group slowly fills up the space.

Breathing Techniques To Calm And De-Stress You

Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing, from yoga)

1. Sit in a comfortable position.

2. Hold your right palm in front of your face, with your middle and index fingers curled toward your palm.

3. Place your thumb next to your right nostril and your ring finger next to your left nostril.

4. Close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale slowly and deeply through the left. Pause.

5. Release your right nostril, close your left nostril with your index finger, and exhale slowly and fully through the right nostril. Pause.

6. Keeping your left nostril closed, inhale slowly and deeply. Pause.

7. Release your left nostril, and close your right nostril. Exhale slowly and fully.

8. Repeat 5-10 times.

Calm Belly Breathing

1. Lie on your back.

2. Empty the lungs without force while watching the navel fall.

3. Practice breathing in and out through the nose for five minutes, while meditating on the rise and fall of the navel.

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