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Five, Six, Seven, Fright!!!

Your heart is beating out of your chest, your legs are shacking, your breath is short, the 2 8's before your entrance seem to be faster... All of a sudden those few inches separating you from the wing curtain to the stage feel insurmountable. Does that sound familiar? Or are you one of those lucky people who just feel excitement...? If you are, I'm so jealous of you...

I've been battling stage fright my whole career. Over the years I've learn to tame it. I used to feel like I was losing 60% of my capacities on stage while in studio rehearsals, I would be nervous during a run through but nothing compared to the wave of fear I would get before and during a performance.

I've asked a couple of my friends to share their sides. Leo seems to be part of the lucky ones who mainly feel excitement, Gabi seems to experience a mild controllable nervousness and then, there's me... The overly sensitive perfectionist Virgo in all its glory. SO, I thought it would be great to hear from all sides of the spectrum AND to invite an amazing professional to give us useful tips and most of all, hope. You'll have the chance get to know more about Leonora Voigtlander dancer with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Gabrielle Salvatto who's danced with Dance Theater of Harlem, Ballet West and Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, myself, Alicia Fabry and our neuroscience mental wellness and healing specialist, Sophia Martins.

Leonora Voigtlander (Leo for the experts ;))

"The stage for me is a place of comfort. I can transform into any character or even just be me but as a performer. I can express any feeling through my body which I actually find a lot more comforting than talking or meeting new people.

I do get a little nervous right before I go on stage. But as soon as I pass the wings it’s like I totally forget everything and I am just on stage living.

My best bit of advice is to do every rehearsal like a show because then you know exactly what is going to happen on stage and there is no surprises. Don’t rely on the mirror… trust the people in the front of the room. They chose you to dance for a reason so just live that reason. Trust your body. Trust the million hours you’ve put in. Remember how it feels in rehearsal and on stage be in that feeling. We practice our entire lives for those 8 counts haha no reason to be nervous! Also remember it’s live theatre, if something doesn’t work it’s not the end of the world … It’s just a learning experience. If you do every rehearsal like a show, then every show will be a rehearsal for the next show. I guess that’s my logic for not being nervous.

One thing I love doing before every show is jamming out to some great music! Either musicals or something with a great beat.

Moments on stage can be rare and we are a select few that get to experience it. So in my mind it’s better to love that moment than be scared of it. ❤️"

Gabrielle Salvatto (Gabi for the experts ;))

"Fortunately I have never been a dancer who has suffered much from crippling stage fright. I would be lying if I said I didn’t get butterflies or persevered on a tricky step before a show, but when the curtain goes up I usually try to give it my all and stay present in the moment. I try to remember that my “go-to scaries'', like the marley being wiped clean with baby oil, or my pointe shoe snapping in half, or being blinded by stage lights and twirling into the orchestra pit, are 1) largely out of my control and 2) thankfully off-chance events. 

I can recall two moments in my career when I’ve been extremely afraid to go on stage. While on tour with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, we performed Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven on a steep raked stage. Fouettés and an incline don’t make for a good recipe in my book, and my utmost respect goes out to every dancer that does this on a regular basis, literally defying gravity. My saving grace was knowing that I’d likely never get another chance to perform in Honduras, and if I fell on my face I’d never see these patrons again. More importantly, I realized that sharing the gift of dance around the world was far too beautiful an opportunity to be thwarted by fear. Our tour in Honduras ended up being one of the most life changing experiences in my career, and thankfully no one bit the dust in the show.

Last season I had the extreme privilege to work with the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen in Sidi Larbi’s Mea Culpa. The role required a front walk-over (in pointe shoes) and if you know me you know that gymnastics was NEVER my strong suit. Maybe it was my growth spurt at 12, but whenever I had to do anything remotely acrobatic in the past, it didn’t end well. I was already nervous performing in Europe for the first time with one of my dream companies, so learning and ideally perfecting something I was historically at odds with heightened my anxieties tenfold. I practiced every day in the studio and in my apartment (which was probably dangerous), I consulted as many experienced dancers as I could, and shout-out to Sidi Larbi who showed me how to do a front walk-over casually one day in his cap and sneakers. When it came time to perform I gave myself more than a few pep talks, checked in with my amazing husband who showered me with support and confidence, and then gave it my best shot. I actually ate sh*t in the dress rehearsal, but thankfully didn’t hurt myself. I think the tumble helped show me that I could survive the worst possible outcome. 

Every chance we get to go on stage is a gift. Now more than ever we know how much that statement holds weight. When I’m a little scared, or “front walk-over panicked”, I try to focus on connecting with my colleagues and the audience. Performing can be one of the most fulfilling aspects of our careers, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence these two experiences, once associated with terror, are now remembered with gratitude, pride, and joy."

Your Frenchy (Ali for the experts ;))

"My confidence got shattered pretty young during my teens... I didn't really do ballet very intensely until much later when I joined English National Ballet School at 17-18. Needless to say hard pointe work and pirouettes on pointe at 18 almost felt foreign. I had lost my natural and careless child approach on turns and I gradually made it way too analytical and psychological. I became my worst enemy and sabotaged my body from doing its natural thing by trying to over control everything. I didn't believe in myself and performance nerves became an excruciating fight. Any choreography with pirouettes would create this mountain of stress and when finally on stage, it felt like my body would forget how to do them and would shut down. At Carolina Ballet, my director casted me for the lead of Ribbon Candy (Marzipans) in Nutcracker. In this little 3mins dance there were 7 pirouettes of 4 different kinds. My first response was "PLEEEEEEASE, WHY ME???". He gave me 22 out of 24 Nutcracker shows of this part... But after my 10th show, I have to say, I was nervous before but started to get more and more comfortable as I went on. Which proved to me that repetition of the same circumstances was the key to quiet my anxiety. I turned to Hypnosis and Visualization which helped me tremendously. Homeopathy works well on me too (Gelsemium, 5 pellets before a show) as well as Bach Flowers like the Rescue Remedy and Lark drops. Maybe it is complete placebo effect but if it works then I'll take it! It can hurt.. What centers me also is the make up and hair time and sharing time with my friends and colleagues before the curtain rises, it prevents my mind to go to that darker place. I have to say I am also a lot more relaxed when I dance an acting role or do a pas de deux as I have to create the story or connect with my partner. I also try to experience rehearsals like a show now, because your director will be there watching you and after many run throughs, your fear of his/her judgement will also quiet down. Plus you never know when a pandemic will hit and the only memory of the cool part you were supposed to do was that last rehearsal..."

Sophia Martins: Performance anxiety Neuroscientific tips (Bio at the end of article)

The why…

We have all been there. That place where we have that feeling in our bellies, our bodies are shaking, our hearts are beating fast, it becomes hard to breathe, our minds are racing, we start sweating, we feel sick, we cannot speak, but why?

At the neurological level, all the things I described above are nothing more than a survival mechanism. We feel anxious when a flight or fight response is being triggered by a perceived threat. Here, the brain directs all its energy to survival and protection, so your digestion stops, you feel sick, your heart beats faster to prepare you for action, your mind starts racing looking for an escape. So first and foremost, see anxiety as a friend asking for help and warning you of something, a process that is there to protect you. Then try to understand what it is protecting you from and address it. Anxiety only subsides when there is no longer a threat, or it is under control and your brain feels it is safe to go back to its normal state.

The how…

Trying to think positive, ignoring and avoiding the feeling will only intensify it. A fire alarm will not stop just because you ignore it and try to think it is not ringing. Running from anxiety will only make it scream louder. The answer is to listen to it, always ensuring you are paying attention to how your body feels as our bodies hold a lot of important information. It is not always clear why you are anxious and even if it is, always try to go deeper. So, let’s say you are anxious, and you know it is about your upcoming performance, start asking more questions to understand the root cause: what is it about the performance that makes you anxious? If your answer is fear of failure for instance, then ask failure of what? Why do you have that fear? Where does it come from? Are there any other feelings attached to it? Where do they come from? Sometimes the final answer will surprise you, it may have to do with something that happened so long ago you didn’t even remember until now or it may have to do with something completely different. You can and should dance your questions and answers, lot of the times what we need to process cannot be done through words. As dancers we are great at processing feelings through our bodies, and we should make use of this skill.

When we are presented with unpleasant thoughts and feelings and we question them, we are breaking a pattern, your brain goes from automatic and reactive thinking and feeling to introspective thinking and feeling. It can no longer run the same neuropathways and automatic responses to external environment because there is new information coming in.

You can further ask other questions: Is it true what I am thinking? Is there evidence? And throw other phrases such as "I cannot be sure that a future event will happen in certain way until the event happens". That is, you cannot be sure you will fail so why worry about something you have no idea if it will happen or not? At this point, your brain will start to be unsure if there is even a real threat to respond to.

Moreover, you can reverse all your thoughts and assumptions about the future, by thinking and visualizing the opposite. Do it enough times and you are building new pathways that are contradictory to the original ones! Visualization is very powerful; it triggers the same brain areas as if the event was happening. Therefore, your brain does not know the difference between a real or imagined event. Do what you can to make this as real as possible such as checking the stage you will be performing and stepping on to see how it feels and rehearsing in your outfit to friends and family.

Build on your tools…

Someone once told me that my past is a toolkit for my future. Try to build on previous similar experiences and remember how you resolved them. You have been through a lot in your life where you have managed to overcome it or at least learn from it. This will tell your brain that you know how to deal with the challenge, it is all under control. This way of thinking will also empower you to not think about your past negative experiences as predictors of the future “this has happened before, therefore it will happen again”, but as preparations for a better future “this has happened before, and therefore I am better prepared for it to not happen again”.

Remember, each time you step on stage, you are stepping with a larger toolkit than you were the time before.

Practice calmness…

To be able to do everything I just told you more easily, you should incorporate some practices in your training. Meditation and somatic exercises are extremely powerful tools to listen to your mind and body, help you feel present, grounded and more in control. However, they need to be practiced just like any other skill. Ten minutes a day is enough but the longer, the better. Be patient with yourself, if your mind tends to be racing all the time, meditation can be quite challenging, but I promise it will get better.

When you practice this often, you are more prepared to do this right before your performance.

By doing all of this you are really making the most of your energy, it is no longer directed to survival but to resolution and empowerment.

In conclusion... Whether the stage is a comfort or an anxiety zone, we have chosen this art form to communicate emotions to others and to ourselves. What this past year and a half has told us is that it can all be taken away from us so fast and the uncertainty of it all made it very heavy. So let's try to be present and think of the stage not as a torture device but a sacred, lucky place where we make magic happen. ⭐️💎⭐️🦄⭐️

About Sophia Martins:

Sophia Martins is an international neuroscientist, dancer, performer, and dance teacher.

She has done her postgraduate studies in neuroscience where she conducted research on the brain mechanisms in dance. She trained in dance therapy and somatic practices, has a double degree in Psychology and Forensic Psychology and worked as a mental health practitioner for 4 years.

Through her Neuroscience of Dance project and Dance Integrated Healing Method, she provides neurocognitive and dance healing tools. She has been helping dancers and dance teachers all over the world for the past two years with the following key aspects: coping with injuries, neurological recovery, improving class environments and teaching techniques, overcoming struggles (memory, equilibrium, learning difficulties), improving mental well-being, improving dance skills, and using dance for healing purposes. She is an advocate for neurodiversity and inclusive dance environments.

This content is intellectual property and copyright protected by Neuroscience of Dance.

To reference this blog post:

Martins, Sophia. “Performance anxiety: Neuroscientific Tips.” Ballerina Problems (blog), 17/06/2021.

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