Ah stage fright. Two tiny little words with a BIG emotional load. Some people like it, and claim a little nerves helps them give their best performance whilst for others it’s more akin to wanting to make you run for the hills, assume a new identity or fake a heart attack as a temporary viable solution.
Whilst I can’t deny the thrill that comes with doing something you previously felt incapable of for sheer terror, I am not one that falls in the camp of subscribing to a lot of stage fright being good for you, at least not in the long term. Whilst it may be fine, albeit uncomfortable to experience the butterflies before a new job or your first performance, it is far less confusing conducive or productive to have to be dealing with it if you’re facing it regularly for performances, auditions or pretty much any new milestone. So here we are- the magic you need to know to overcome stage fright when dancing.
Please note, although this post is targeted toward dancers, a lot of this will also be transferable for athletes, singers, actors and other kinds of performance artists so please do read on if that’s you!
To Slay The Beast, You Must Know It
In order to understand how best to overcome stage fright, it will help you to know about the mechanics of what is happening on a biological and chemical level. When we are scared, it triggers our fight or flight response. This was initially designed to keep us homo sapiens safe from predators back when we were living in the wild.
However, it was not designed to be triggered by ongoing modern day concerns. So whilst we know that we are not in fact being chased by a bear or mountain lion, our bodies cannot tell the difference between a real physical threat and a perceived emotional one. If we get used to functioning in this mode too often it can be bad for your health.
So now you know WHY the fight or flight response is triggered and why living this way long term isn’t particularly beneficial, let’s get down to the strategies we can harness to deal with it!
I’ve talked a lot about the power of visualisation and this is no exception. As performers, oftentimes we get nervous because we CARE. It’s not just about the act of going out onstage, it’s about wanting to perform the best version of it- the bit that sometimes went great in rehearsals, and sometimes went terribly, that particularly tricky footwork, that lift, that difficult turn. We want to deliver our best for all that rehearsing to pay off. This means that it’s very easy to catastrophise! Almost without realising we’re doing anything, on autopilot we find ourselves mentally running a movie of what could go wrong. So you see our imagination is very active all by itself! Turn it to work for you by going through the dance in your head and visualise yourself executing it WELL, everything going smoothly. Don’t allow yourself headspace to dwell on what could go wrong.
#2. Leave Your Ego At The Door
Take your eyes off yourself and focus on the story and the character you’re trying to portray. My singing teacher always told me ‘leave your ego at the door’ and it’s true. Often when we get nervous, it is because of fear of mucking up, making a fool of ourselves in front of people or the fear of failure. But when we truly immerse ourselves in what we’re trying to express and the mode through which we’re trying to express it, it’s no longer about you any more which is massively freeing! Even if there’s no specific story, focus on what the music is trying to say, how YOU personally interpret it.You’re unique, no one is like you so use it to your advantage. Every time we step on a stage, people are giving their time to watch what we have to say, it’s a gift, so don’t be afraid to use it!
#3. Change Your Perspective
At times stage fright can make us feel self-conscious. This is very understandable and very human! We are about to step out on stage and everyone is going to be watching what we’re doing. In these situations, shifting perspective can be a huge help! How many people are you performing in front of- 50? 500. That’s still out of 6 BLLION people in the world. If you make a mistake it’s ok, remember most of the world won’t even see it!
Know that your audience are there cheering you on, they want you to be good. Yes, there might be the odd few who are there to criticise but NEVER let the minority or mean spirited take away your chance to perform from your heart. Know that 99% are on your side, so dance for them and know that when you’re dancing, you’re dancing to share, not to prove yourself!
Also know that the critical 1% are far more likely to be proved wrong if you approach your performance from a place of flow and conviction. Think about it- have u ever danced well when u’ve felt self-conscious or from a place of feeling under confident? My guess is not. So if it’s not serving you? You can leave it at the door.
Future you. Cast your mind back to other times you’ve felt stage fright. Think of the things which at the time felt insurmountable. You’re still fine now. You survived it, chances are you don’t even think about those things now that they’re done.
In 24 hours, this thing which feels insurmountable will be done and you’ll carry on.
#4. But I’m Not Ready! Think- Wrong And Strong!
So in a perfect world filled with rainbows and unicorns we’d never have to go on stage feeling under prepared. This is professional and it is how it should be. However, the other side of this as a performer is that life happens, sometimes we lose rehearsal time to illness or someone has to go on in someone else’s stead, there could be a million reasons there isn’t enough time. And sometimes as a dancer, you’re expected to get things up and running very quickly. In this scenario focus on the bits you’re unsure of, outside of this if you do go wrong- think wrong and strong! You’ll look twice as good if you do something with conviction; this also goes for if you end up improvising. When in doubt, wrong and strong. (Although it’s hard to see the mirror in this picture at my old work actually says ‘WRONG + STRONG.)
Okay, so we’ve ticked things off mentally.
‘There are still times when I feel flat out terrified- what now?’
The Physical Side
#5. Try Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
So if not thinking about what you’re scared of, or changing how your thinking about it is working for you then I have the perfect thing for you. In fact, I recommend this anyway to anyone. It works last minute right before you go on on stage and it works pretty much INSTANTLY.
It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? The method I am talking about is EFT which stands for Emotional Freedom Technique. In case it sounds a little too new-agey or woo woo I shall explain how it works. When we’re frightened a small pair of almond shaped glands in the brain registers the threat. The gland itself is called the amygdala and it is what sets our fight or flight into motion, according to what we perceive as a threat. EFT works by tapping on certain acupressure points on the body and whilst thinking about the thing that scares us, activating our parasympathetic nervous system creating a calming response in the body. If you don’t have time before u go on to do it properly, you can even just tap under your collar bone on either side. This is one of the strongest points so will still do the job. See diagram below:
Note- this is NOT a placebo. Placebos I find I get very skeptical about, but don’t take my word for it- try it and let me know what you think! You can also check out YouTube for lots of free tutorials which guide you through the process of EFT.
#6. Be Dauntless! But In The Right Way.
With this technique however it’s important that you start small and increase gradually, as if the fear is something too monumental it will cause the person to freak out which then reinforces the fear. So start small, and build up. Also be wise, about what situations you put yourself in to try and give yourself the best chance at a positive experience.
For example, there’s no point putting yourself in a situation where you think you’ll do a bad job (like playing a character you don’t do well) or putting yourself in a dance class that is WAY above your skill level, as this is more likely to make you have a negative experience which makes things worse. Don’t be afraid to draw boundaries, and say no to experiences which you know aren’t going to be beneficial to you.
#7. Tension And Release.
#8. Whilst You’re On Stage, Breathe…
When we’re nervous it’s easy to breathe less but this is also the fastest track to exhaustion when we’re dancing, so don’t forget when you’re on stage to breathe.
#9. For Singing and Acting
#10. How Fast Can You Run?
#11. Rescue Me!
Now and then we all need a little help. Bach’s rescue remedy is homeopathic and completely natural. Simply put a drop on your tongue and let it take effect. Whilst this one doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, lots of people swear by it so it’s worth trying to see if it can work for you.
#12. Finally… Be Prepared
Tying It All Together
Like with all things, finding the right strategies to conquer stage fright is individual- so it may take a little time to find what works for you. But once you know, you can set a routine in place. Feel free to comment below and ask me any questions, and let me know how you’re getting on. Good luck employing these strategies for your next performance.