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Performance Anxiety and the Creative: A Dance Centered Discussion

Way back in February I posted an Instagram story about performance anxiety while at our studio’s showcase. This is the first time our dancers take the stage before heading out to competition; the goal is for them to get comfortable and confident with performing on stage. It is incredibly difficult to perform on stage, to give your all, your heart and soul, to be vulnerable to share a piece of yourself with someone else. It is also difficult to see young, confident, talented, hard working dancers doubt themselves. When the self doubt and fear take hold of an artist, there are few things that can shake them loose, but we are here to discuss the onset to the cure.

With our annual recital coming up next week this will be a conversation heavily centered around dance specifically, but performance anxiety affects all performing art forms. The same truth rings true for all of them too. I watch these dancers train all year for their moment on stage. Yet, when that moment finally comes, they freeze, they panic, there is crippling anxiety. Some throw up, others crumble under the pressure - often self inflicted - and their moment of joy is stolen by unfounded fear.

In the performing arts - dancing, acting, singing, musicianship - we are performing a part for an audience, to get them to experience something, to feel something. In order to do that we as performers have to be vulnerable, and invite the audience into our experience. That is a scary thing, to know that people are watching, judging, as you open yourself and offer the best you have. The anxiety that kind of pressure evokes is crippling; it feels like your whole world is wrapped up in a few moments, one performance, one night.

Performance anxiety cripples creative expression. And in performance art, expression is the only priority.

As coaches and teachers it is important to remember that we are not only training artists, we are nurturing a love of art in people. Of course we want the best for them, for them to soar and grow. But we need to be mindful of the way our teaching comes across, the way the student receives coaching. When we criticize it stunts their ability to be vulnerable, which in turn increases their anxiety and diminishes their performance.

The Kindling

Self Doubt - This typically comes from criticism. Doubting ourselves is a constant battle for creatives. When this happens it becomes difficult to believe in our ability to perform let alone embrace the ephemeral aspects of emotion and flow that accompany it. Self doubt becomes the naysayer in your head, taking you out of the moment and into your head. But the thing about a performance is, it only exists in the moment.

Fear of Failure - We spend so much time trying to get it right that when it comes to finally facing the audience, when it comes time to share the experience we suddenly have this crippling fear that we’ll get it wrong, that we’ll fail. This fear is completely unfounded - the hours of work and dedication we’ve put in mean nothing once we step into the wings and the only evaluation of our performance is the audience experience yet to come.

Pressure of Perfectionism - Whether we put it on ourselves or we feel that pressure from others the need to be perfect can be overwhelming. With that weight on an artists shoulders it becomes difficult to perform with authenticity and vulnerability. Perfectionism steals the joy of the performance from the artist, and the joy is why we started in the first palace.

Tips to Help overcome performance anxiety

This is the advice I gave to the young dancer that inspired this post topic “Your dance isn’t in your head, it’s in your body, it’s written on your soul.” As a performance artist your performance is deeply seated in your body. If you let go of the mind games and just inhabit your body you’ll know exactly what to do. More than the myth of muscle memory getting you through it, as an artist, your pieces are written onto your soul. You don’t just perform for the audience you perform because it is who you are.

Change your goal - The goal isn’t to be perfect. The goal is to give all that you have that day to what you love. And no, it won’t always be your objective best, and the thing about art is - it doesn’t have to be! If dance competitions taught me one thing it wasn’t to go for gold, it was to do my best that day at that time, and the judges were going to award scores based on how they felt at that time of day that specific weekend. It’s not about performing for them, it’s about performing for you first, your coaches second and the audience third. Make your goal when you step out to perform enjoyment, love, and authenticity.

Trust your process - Performance anxiety can only sneak in if we do not trust ourselves. It’s not even trust in yourself as the instrument, it’s trust in the process that has lead you here. The hours, the training, the deviation, the practice, the rituals, all of it is part of your process, all of it means you are ready. Trust in the practice you have built.

It's about letting go - Now let it all go and dance like no one’s watching. This is the faith step, take a leap and settle into your place on the stage. Inhabiting the moment is about being present - present in the moment and present in your body. Your body knows what to do, your heart knows your joy, and the courage you hold onto every time you step on stage, but that is the moment you need to let go of any and all expectations - the ones you have for yourself and the ones you believe others have for you, real or imagined. Let all of that go and perform.

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