Once upon a time, I was a painfully shy child who could barely speak to anyone. It was as though an unseen hand gripped my throat, restraining my voice so that those who attempted conversation received only a silent stare in reply. Public displays of any kind were out of the question, as I suffered from relentlessly crippling, stomach turning, lip quivering stage fright. Although my daily anxiety decreased over time, my fear of performing remained. If you told me ten years ago that I’d soon be belly dancing in public and loving it, I’d have hurt myself laughing.
While this destructive state of mind kept me confined, it also bred a deep desire to prove that I was stronger than my weakness. Miraculously, I decided to perform. In my initial attempts to defeat stage fright, I tried to stubbornly muscle through the fear to the best of my ability. But it just wasn’t enough to overcome my barriers.. Finally with professional help, experimentation, and lots of dedication, I whipped the Performance Panics.
Now that I perform regularly, I meet many blossoming dancers who are in the midst of that same struggle, wondering how to break free. If you are one of these dancers, I offer you guidance drawn from my extensive personal experience in this arena. I hope to invite self-directed exploration of your performance barriers and methods of combatting them, as well as spark new ideas and encourage you to take charge of your emotional well-being. Overcoming performance anxiety changed my dancing and myself for the better — it can do the same for you.
Challenge your negative thoughts.
Talking to myself as a friend instead of as a mean-girl made a world of difference. Where there is performance anxiety, there is usually negative self-talk: a pesky voice automatically dispensing damaging sound bites such as, “I’ll look stupid”, “No one will like me”, or “I’m not good enough”. Once I learned to listen for these automatic thoughts, I noticed them more often and was able to keep a written log. Seeing my thoughts on paper helped me break them down by asking questions such as:
How do I know ahead of time that the audience won’t appreciate my dancing?
What is the likelihood that I’m not good enough to perform at a casual hafla after working diligently on technique for years?
What specific reasons can I give as to why I’m sure to fail?
In trying to come up with answers, I realized that my fears were not supported by evidence, but by the false belief that I could predict the future. The real truth was that I had no way of knowing what would happen. Recognizing these fears as empty made it easier to resist their persuasive power and to replace them with positive phrases.
Let go of perfection.
Over time, drilling technique and choreography can lead to the belief that it is possible to flawlessly execute the technical and emotional aspects of dance. Falling short of that lofty standard can feel frustrating and hopeless, causing negative self-talk to creep back. After experiencing this perceived downfall many times, I came to understand that perfection in performance is inherently impossible. I am not a robot. No matter how much I drill, I might still do a hip circle instead of a turn or move my arms along a different path.
The only way the audience knows there was a deviation from the plan is if I hesitate or break character. They are none the wiser if I continue dancing purposefully.
Besides, deviating from the plan isn’t always undesirable. Sometimes new and wonderful movements happen that improve upon the original. I find that instead of expecting perfection, which makes me more nervous, it’s more effective to have faith that my years of dance training will rise to the challenge. This internal trust exercise, completed publicly, creates a relaxed vulnerability that contributes more to stage presence than perfection ever could.
Getting comfortable improvising to live music with Flowers of the Nile
Taking control of as many aspects of the performance as possible is vital to decreasing one core cause of anxiety: the unknown. These aspects include music, costuming, choreography, expression, and dance space. Even if circumstances change at the last minute, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that most details are accounted for.
Know every note and nuance of the music. This will help you remember your choreography, improve your musicality, and let you improvise if you blank on stage.
Practice in costume. Each costume moves in a unique way, and all costumes move much differently than practice wear. Make sure you know how your costume feels and whether it limits your movements in any way.
Incorporate facial expressions and consider the direction of your gaze as you dance. Having a plan for your face helps avoid that “deer in headlights” feeling on stage.
Block out the stage dimensions and practice in that space. This will help solidify the traveling sections of your choreography and provide assurance that you are in the right place at the right time during your performance.
Pack your dance bag in advance and allow plenty of time to get to the venue to keep anxiety levels low.
Celebrate all of your accomplishments.
As a perfectionist, I often took it for granted when I reached my goals and was incredibly hard on myself when I fell short of them. I also constantly compared my achievements to those of others. Being my own impossible-to-please parent made me start to resent dance.
It was only after I gave myself permission to be proud of my work that I enjoyed dancing again. I also realized that achievement comparisons are useless. Our goals and the rate at which we reach them are impacted by so many variables (e.g., personality, upbringing, opportunities, motivation), that its only ever accurate to measure myself against myself. Remembering this helped me keep a positive and fulfilled mindset.
Whether you set up a reward system or keep a written record of each goal you accomplish, focusing on what you’ve achieved — no matter how seemingly insignificant — can build confidence and keep negative thoughts at bay.
Know when to slow down and when to push.
When anxiety is involved, it’s hard to know when it’s time to take the next step. All performance goals can seem equally daunting, but it helps if you sort out which challenges you can handle now and which ones require more time. This is a personal process that requires a thorough understanding of yourself. My process included writing my thoughts about each challenge to gauge anxiety levels and pinpoint barriers. Once I had this information, I could more easily decide which barriers I was ready to push past.
My first public performance was a simple choreography with a beginner class at an informal hafla — a terrifying experience, even after obsessive rehearsing and five years of committed bellydance study. In contrast, I pushed myself to improvise to a live band at a competition when I had never improvised in public or danced to a live band before. This was a far cry from taking a well-prepared plunge at a pressure-free event. Since then, each subsequent barrier has become easier to conquer as my frame of mind slowly shifted.
Take care of yourself.
I used to tell myself to “suck it up” and ride out the full force of my anxiety because that’s what I thought a tough person (like me!) should do. However, I soon realized that this approach was impeding my progress. My performance skills were suffering from the stress and I was associating unpleasant feelings with dance. I embraced the touchy-feelies and made a plan to calm down.
Finally composed and confident (Jewel of the Sierra 2014 Improv 1st place)
Your plan can be as basic or elaborate as you like, and might include guided meditation, relaxing music, journaling, or breathing exercises — whatever tells your brain and body that it’s going to be ok, but still keeps your senses sharp enough to perform. Also, make sure to take care of physical needs. For example, if anxiety leaves you nauseated and unable to eat, remember to drink fluids with electrolytes and bring a snack and drink for after your performance.
Perform for all kinds of people in all kinds of places.
It was hardest for me to dance for people I knew well. The thought of friends and family watching me increased my anxiety ten-fold, while dancing for strangers felt easier. Other dancers gained confidence from the cheers of their posse, but felt anxious in front of strangers. In all cases, the fastest way to learn and grow is to get out of your comfort zone and gain experience with whatever scares you. Invite friends, family, and colleagues (if appropriate) to watch you perform at an event. Dance in neighboring cities for new audiences, for the elderly, and for children. After a while, it will start to feel normal and you’ll accept yourself as a performer. You’ll also learn how to connect with and entertain a variety of audiences.
Another component that drastically changes the way we feel when performing is location. A brightly lit rec center, a moody nightclub, a professional stage — it’s all completely different. Once you’ve experienced many types of venues, you’ll feel more confident in handling a variety of situations (e.g., a tiny dance floor, children in your space, a really close audience). You’ll also have a chance to practice bringing your performance personality to circumstances that feel less than magical.
Go back to the beginning.
Anxiety can twist the blessing of bellydance into a dismal chore. Revisiting the reasons you were drawn to this dance and recognizing the joy it has brought you can provide perspective when things don’t seem so fun anymore. When I felt discouraged, I rewatched the video clips I used to watch for hours as a new dancer. I played my favorite songs, remembering how it felt hearing them for the first time. I recalled heartfelt experiences in sharing music and dance with others. Questions that can help steer you back to enjoying dance include:
What is at the core of your relationship with bellydance?
How has it enriched your life?
What can it still give you?
Systematically dismantling my stage fright was a lengthy process that began with a commitment to make that process a top priority. In fact, this was a commitment to myself. If you also experience excessive self doubt and criticism, I encourage you to put yourself first and use my advice as kindling for further exploration. I’d also like to emphasize how important it is to change your inner dialogue. The intricacies of self talk and its modification are expertly explained by Pamela E. Butler in the book Talking to Yourself. This book, along with sessions with a licensed therapist and plenty of experimentation, helped me discover my path to dealing with stage fright. However, I still have work to do as there will always be another fear left to conquer. It helps to know that the real measure of a successful performer isn’t living free from fear (a nearly impossible dream), but rather how smoothly we’re able to manage fear to reach our goals in an effective and healthy way. Mastering the ability to cope well can lead to a profoundly fulfilling dance experience and bring sweeping positivity to life as a whole.