Health & Body
(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.

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Health & Body

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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