Every ballet dancer knows the time, sweat, and occasional tears the art form demands. But many non-dancers are clueless about just how much work a ballet dancer puts into perfecting his or her dancing. So when the mainstream crowd recognizes our crazy work ethic, we'll accept the round of applause any way it comes—even if it comes via four men in tutus. Yep, we're talking about "The Try Guys Try Ballet" video.
After spending the summer learning new choreography, cleaning every eight-count and listening to your songs on repeat, it's time to put your effort to work onstage. But as the season progresses—and you keep drilling down those same eight-counts—it's normal for your choreography to start to feel stale. Read on for insight from top teachers and dancers on how to prevent and overcome mid-season burnout.
Ivan Kalinin and Kali Grinder from The Dance Zone in Henderson, NV
You’ve worked all year to perfect your routines, and now it’s time to show off on the competition stage. But suddenly, the nerves kick in and you second-guess yourself. What if I forget my dance? What if I fall? What if I have a wardrobe malfunction?
“It’s a mind game,” says Sydney Choucair of KJ Dance Designs in Plano, TX. “Everything is ingrained in your body and you know what to do—but the night before a competition, there’s some nervous thing that comes over you. It’s a fear of being vulnerable onstage in front of judges.”
Not to worry: DS chatted with five competition dancers and two industry experts about how to face your biggest competition fears.
Fear #1: The Nemesis Move
You know the one: It’s that trick, turn or lift that makes the dance pop. And you can pull it off—most of the time. But what if now isn’t one of those times?
“My biggest fear is whether or not that moment in the dance will work out for me,” Sydney says. “When I was younger I would psych myself out about one move and practice it over and over. My body got as freaked out as I was.”
The Fix: Now’s the time to trust your training. “You can only rehearse so much. Before you go onstage, relax and tell yourself, ‘I’ve done all I can—if I don’t hit the move this time, I will next time,’ ” says Anne Smith, co-director of Hollywood Vibe. If you freak out before the big move, it will be obvious to the audience and judges. Keep breathing and don’t panic when it’s time to prep for your quadruple pirouette—just go for it. “Take reasonable chances onstage,” says Kari Anderson, director of Dupree Dance. “Dancers train hard and I think some play it too safe. Practice, practice, practice in the studio, and on stage you’ll usually pull through.”
Fear #2: The Costume Malfunction
This potential mishap takes many forms: tops falling down, shoes coming untied or hairpieces falling out. “It happened to me once,” says Kali Grinder from The Dance Zone in Henderson, NV. “I wore a backless dress with cap sleeves and one of the sleeves popped off. I was almost completely out there!”
The Fix: This is why multiple dress rehearsals are absolutely necessary! “If you have a unique costume or you dance with a prop, work it down to the core in the studio before you jump onto the competition stage,” Kari says. But things can—and do—happen at the most inopportune times, whether it’s with a costume or a prop. “If something happens, keep going. If it’s a character routine and your heel happens to be caught, make it a part of the dance. But if you drop something like a hat, it’s more distracting to leave it lying on the stage than if you pick it up and continue dancing. If your costume is hanging off, hold it up! Body glue and sticky tape help make sure tops don’t fall down and booty shorts don’t ride up.”
Fear #3: Forgetting to Pack Something
You’ve checked to make sure you have everything, but you get to the event and something is gone. “We check our costumes multiple times, but sometimes we get to the competition and somebody is missing a costume piece,” says Ashlee Hatch of Dance Impressions in Bountiful, UT. “It puts us in a frenzy.”
The Fix: Make a list and check it a million times. “We’ve all been in groups before where we had to go without gloves because one person forgot them,” Kari says. “Have an early roll call—what if a mom could run home and get the missing piece? It’s also good to have a backup hat or pair of gloves.” If you’re traveling by plane, don’t take any chances. “I never pack my costume in my checked luggage,” says Jayci Kalb from The Dance Centre in Tuscaloosa, AL. “I put it in my carry-on, and it’s the first thing I pack.”
Fear #4: Blanking Onstage (AKA "The Deer in Headlights")
“I’ve forgotten my solo onstage twice,” says Hannah Steff from Concord Dance Academy in Concord, NH. “One time I was able to improv my way out of it, but the other time I blanked and ran offstage. I never wanted to go back on.”
The Fix: Losing your cool onstage is traumatizing, but most dancers have been there and survived, including Hannah: “I went back to my studio, worked hard and returned the next time with more confidence,” she says. If you forget what you’re supposed to be doing, just move. “Dancers are actors, too. Make something up and act like that’s what it was supposed to be,” Anne says. “The judges don’t know your routine.” In the meantime, take advantage of non-adjudicated performance opportunities, like talent shows or local parades. “Dance outside of competition where you’re just there to entertain and don’t have the added pressure of critique,” Kari says. “Any performance-related opportunity builds confidence and decreases the chances that you’re going to freeze onstage.”
Performers from Dance Impressions get excited backstage.
Fear #5: Losing a Team Member at the Last Minute
You’ve worked hard on your choreography and spacing, but suddenly someone on your team gets sick or injured. It’s time to rearrange the dance—fast! “A couple years ago, we all started having major stomach issues,” Sydney recalls. “We had to take a bunch of people out of dances that night—it’s a lot harder to rely on muscle memory if you’re in a new spot onstage.”
The Fix: There’s no easy way around this one. “One of my groups actually had to do that last year,” Kari recalls. “It’s not fun, but going to conventions can prepare you for this. When you’re asked to learn dances and perform them at the spur of the moment, you develop the skills—physically, mentally and emotionally—to handle it.”
Fear #6: Dealing with Unpredictable Props
Performing with an accessory adds an extra level of stress to a dance. “We once danced with a mannequin on wheels,” Sydney says. “We rolled it around the stage like we were all fighting over a man. It was just the unknown: Would it work on the stage? Would it get to me on the right count?”
The Fix: You know the answer to this one: Practice, practice, practice with your prop! And do it with the actual performance prop, not a stand-in that may be shaped differently or weigh more or less. “In rehearsal, you’ll see what could go wrong and you can prepare for it,” Anne says.
Fear #7: Unpredictable Stages
Will the stage be sticky, slippery or just right? “It’s scary because it’s a new surface you’ve never danced on before,” Jayci says.
The Fix: Test the stage if you can. “Often there are little pauses throughout the competition when you can jump on the stage,” Kari says. “Many competitions supply rosin in case it’s slippery. But at the end of the day, having confidence during your performance—and not dancing tentatively—is the safest thing to do. If you’re shy because you’re afraid of the floor, that’s where the risk of injury comes in.”
Fear #8: The Quick Change
“We’ve been to competitions where we were on every other dance,” Ashlee says. “You’re changing backstage and someone says, ‘Your team is going onstage now!’ ”
The Fix: Being prepared and organized is crucial. “Show up already stretched and mentally focused, early enough to visualize your dances and lay out your costumes,” Kari says. “You can wear a pair of tights underneath another one if you can’t tell onstage. That way you’ll minimize the time it takes to change.” Plus, you’re faster than you think: “I’ve never seen a dancer who couldn’t change in one number,” Anne says. “You think you can’t, but your adrenaline keeps you going. If you need to ask the director to hold a number while you get ready, most of them will do it.”
Dancers from KJ Dance rehearse in the studio.
Fear #9: Letting the Team Down
No one wants to be the one who messes up. “It’s frustrating when you made a mistake but everyone else is talking about how great it felt,” Ashlee says. “When I get offstage and haven’t done my best, it makes me upset, especially if my mistakes affected other people onstage,” Hannah adds.
The Fix: “This will happen to everybody on a team at some point,” Anne says. “Everyone does the best they can and it’s important to keep each other motivated, uplifted and positive.” Yes, your teammates might get frustrated if they all performed flawlessly and you kicked left every time you were supposed to kick right. But they’ll get over it, and so will you. And remember, treat your teammates as you want to be treated. “Don’t be mean to the girl who messes up, because next time it might be you in that position,” Anne says.
Fear #10: Getting Psyched Out By Your Competition
“I never watch the other dancers in my category,” Jayci says. “It just makes me nervous.” Hannah adds: “I get nervous about what the other dancers are going to think of me. We’re all there to do our best, but there’s still a sense of competition.”
The Fix: If you don’t want to watch the other dancers in your category, that’s fine. Compete for yourself, not for them. But if you do choose to check out the other routines, make the experience a positive one, not a scary one. “Try to get inspired,” Anne says. “If you see an amazing dancer before you, think, ‘I’m not as good as her, but she’s inspiring me to do better.’ Use it to your advantage.”