Advance: Embrace the Nerves, They're Good for You!

Waiting in the wings for your cue to go on stage, your heart is racing, your mouth is dry, your tummy is a swarm of butterflies. As you notice these sensations you begin to panic. How will you dance your best in this condition? 

Firstly, it’s normal!

The first step to managing performance anxiety is knowing that some level of nervousness before performance is not only normal, it’s necessary!  That rush of adrenalin that increases your heart-rate and makes your tummy feel funny? That’s your body preparing you for action, giving you the extra burst of energy you need to do your best in performance.

Rename, reframe

While it’s easy to blame the physical symptoms of nerves for your anxious feelings, performance anxiety is not caused by these symptoms. Performance anxiety is caused by the way we RESPOND to those sensations.

Bloch artiste Emily Seymour, a Young Artist with West Australian Ballet, chooses to respond in a positive way. She explains,

“If I get nervous, I try to let those nerves get me more excited to perform,” she says. “The main thing is to have fun so if you do have nerves, tuck them away in your back pocket and know that they’re not ‘bad’ to have… they’re normal.”

That idea, that nerves are not “bad”, is key to changing the way we respond to the physical symptoms of nervousness, says performance psychologist Dr Shona Erskine. Rather than talking about anxiety, she renames it performance arousal.

“Arousal is about being ready,” she explains. ”It’s not positive or negative. With young people I might also talk about excitation or activation. We talk about activation of the system, which is adrenalin, heart increase… getting ready… that’s all it means.”

"That energy you feel is about being ready to perform", continues Erskine. "It doesn’t have to be interpreted as good or bad… it just is what it is."

You CAN do it!

"Even professionals can suffer from performance anxiety", says Erskine. "It takes practise and skill to manage it well. But just because you have high levels of activation doesn't mean you can't just do it anyway." Don’t believe it? Check out this YouTube video of Adele talking about her performance anxiety.

Preparing for a Performance

  • Plan ahead

"Have a plan for the day of a performance, competition or exam", says Erskine. "This is partly about not giving your brain time to wander into anxious thoughts, but it’s also about practicalities. Often dancers go loopy and the first thing I say is, ‘Have you eaten and have you drunk water?’ You can’t work if you’ve run out of fuel,” she comments.
Planning when you are going to eat is an important part of your performance day schedule. 
Make a timetable of what you will do at the performance venue, too, from arrival to performance. Schedule things like your warm-up, putting on make-up, putting on your costume/uniform, mentally rehearsing any challenging sections.
A pre-planned routine will help to calm your mind and keep it focused on practical tasks.

  • Music

Getting in the right headspace for performance is vital and that’s where music can help. 

“If I feel like I need to calm down before a show, I listen to a playlist of music that is calming and soothing while I’m warming up,” says Seymour. “Also vice versa, if I feel like I need to hype up, then the upbeat playlist gets played, to get my energy levels up, get excited for the show. It really depends on what mood I need to be in, and what mood I am in but I like to put my head phones in to get ready for a show.”

  • Mental preparation

“Often dancers will know their physical steps, but haven’t thought through what it is that they are doing in their imagination… who the character is, what imagery they have, and how they want to be feeling during the dance,” remarks Erskine. Given that performance anxiety is fuelled by your emotional reactions to physical cues, having a plan for your thoughts in performance can be helpful. Erskine works with dancers to develop 'imagery scripts' so they can practise what they will think about during the performance, in the same way that they practise the steps they will perform.

Footnote: Be Patient.

While it is possible to train yourself to respond differently to pre-performance nerves, Erskine advises a degree of acceptance and a lot of patience. “To expect to be able to walk on stage without activation is unrealistic,” she says. “You need that readiness in your system to do a good show! And it’s not about a quick fix… people often think about performance anxiety in terms of the moment they go on stage and I’m always trying to reconceptualise it as something to be managed across the whole practice and life of a performer.”

-       Nina Levy
Nina is co-editor of Dance Australia magazine.

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