The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.
But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?
Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.
Move to the Front
As the consulting psychologist to Pacific Northwest Ballet School since 1981, Toby Diamond, PhD, has worked with many dancers who worry they're missing the moxie that would make them truly great, and teachers who worry an advanced student is holding back. "These dancers are afraid of making mistakes, looking like a fool or like they don't know what they're doing," she says.
To break that mental pattern, Diamond suggests making small changes first. Risk-avoidant dancers frequently hide in the back during class, and won't do combinations in the first group across-the-floor, nervous about messing up. But standing front and center is a low-consequence risk—a good place for anxious dancers to start. "Push yourself to move up, to try a combination even when you aren't completely confident in it," she says. Realizing that that's not so scary will help you feel more comfortable taking bigger risks down the road.
See It, Then Do It
At Plumb Performing Arts Center in Scottsdale, AZ, instructor Brooke Anderson prepares her students to perform audience-
thrilling combinations with visualization exercises, which several scientific studies have shown can increase confidence. Imagining yourself performing a difficult lift or tumbling passage perfectly can actually improve your ability to execute it—and make you less scared about the risks it entails. "We have the dancers envision the lift, the risk and the feeling of achieving it safely," Anderson says. "Then we ask them to open their eyes and their minds and go for it."
Improvising is one of the riskiest things you can do as a dancer—you never know quite how it's going to go. Becoming an experienced improviser will help your brain learn to trust your body, giving you the confidence to do riskier things onstage and off. Fletcher recommends experimenting with structured improvisation, as she frequently does at Ballet BC—improvising with a specific image in mind, or with a particular task to fulfill—so you won't feel lost in the vastness of the possibilities.
At Plumb, Anderson frequently has dancers improvise to the music for a particular routine before they do it in competition. That way, a missed step or a fall is less likely to result in a scramble to catch the next step, because your body and mind will be primed to keep moving. You'll feel better taking risks, knowing that you have a kind of built-in safety net.
Plan to Be Spontaneous
A big misconception is that fearless dancers' risks are unplanned, that they just happen onstage. But risk-taking should be a part
of your everyday work in the studio. "Daily risk-taking creates consistent success under the pressure of performance," Anderson says. Once you get used to pushing your limits, you'll find that those limits are further than you imagined—a thrilling feeling. "Risk-taking doesn't mean being reckless," Fletcher says. "It isn't about abandoning yourself. And there's an incredible amount of hope and joy in it."
A version of this story appeared in the September 2017 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Learning Fearlessness."