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  • Writer's picturePam Newton

Performance Anxiety - Seeing Red & White

By Pamela Newton Aug 21, 2021

Dancing with Dragons

Stage fright can be a tricky, ferocious dragon to wrestle within your life. There are people who are blessed with a flawless approach to performing. Such lucky ones transform mild flutterings of anxiety into exciting stage work or a stellar presentation. This type of person’s presence sizzles with theatricality and mysterious longing, pulling audience members to the edge of their seats.

Then there are people who have trouble sleeping the week before opening might, who suffer anxiety attacks in the wings, and tend to forget the first line or initial movement phrase. These performers, often gifted and technically strong, may hate performing … unless they find good coaching or go through some miraculous change of attitude.

Most of us are somewhere in the middle, handling our nervousness relatively well. We recognize that if emphasis were less on the possibility of making mistakes or seeing a critic in the front row, the experience might produce the magic we dreamed of earlier. We discover that the pressure of maintaining technical proficiency and “looking good” can bring us to our knees emotionally.

I have encountered specific techniques for handling “stage fright” that really do help. Some performers come to these intuitively. Others can befriend the natural adrenaline rush that stress produces. If you get anxious, you might want to try some of the following:

• Become aware of mental scripts that add to performance anxiety.

• Practice thought stopping when needed; develop a positive repertoire.

• Make an honest self-inventory; recognize both your limits and your gifts.

• Focus on what you can control: class time, warm-up, rehearsal, mental preparation, etc.

• Practice breathing, grounding, and relaxation skills.

• Stay in the here and now; focus on what you are doing; feel the floor.

• Remember that learning involves risk and is a life-long process.

• Visualize your desired performance and tell yourself that you can do it. The unconscious believes positive reinforcement, especially when repeated.

• Talk to your peer colleagues about what helps you and use their collaborative support!

I have learned a lot from my mistakes. Preparation helps me; improvising, warming up to good music, or paying attention to visual guides all can be helpful tools. My mind can be an ally in this process. For instance, I know that practice builds mastery. I can plan rehearsal time. I can focus on why I chose teaching, presenting, or performing. In your case, is it curiosity, the need for expression, the charge, or just an excess of wild, spontaneous physical energy? Reconnect to these reasons. Awareness can cut through a lot of unnecessary tension.

Just before going “on” can be one of the most difficult points. Remember to breathe, ground, go through whatever rituals bring you good luck. Applying a bit of Vaseline to your white dragon teeth can make it easier if you suffer from a dry mouth when anxious, for example. People find many ways to focus and calm themselves; it is important to know what works for you. And, rituals really do help.

Once you are out there dancing, moving, and/or speaking or singing, you may feel wonderful. On the other hand, if you freeze up, focus on the present; keep your attention on specifics such as the meaning of the piece for you. Concentrate on your love of dancing and expressing yourself out loud. Even if you forget something, your bodysoulmind will cooperate and keep on moving. It will be OK. The performing is the flame at the center, not some abstract perfection. When you make mistakes, the audience members often don’t notice. If you use the anxiety to energize your presence, you can turn even the most obvious mistake into a performance filled with excitement.

Always remember that this is just an adventure, not a terminal illness! Fill your pre-show time with activity: class, washing and cleaning, rest, right food, and time in the performance space to mark what you will be performing. Use the energy and take care of your specific needs. Some of us require time alone to meditate or sew; some luxuriate in the group’s anticipation of the event. Stage fright can help to improve your performance when the initial tension is converted to physical awareness, motivated action and intensity.

Use that red dragon heat to get your teeth into the moment. Have fun and just keep going. The audience wants to love you.

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