esther m palmer

dancers, quell your performance jitters

I remember the very first time I performed in a dance concert. I was about 14. I was a newbie among performing veterans. I was wearing a tutu in the my most dreaded and abhorred shade of pink. I was about to go out and twinkle my toes on stage in front of the whole school. Shit, was I nervous.

My ballet training was minimal and I was completely afraid of screwing up. I felt so out of place, and really wasn't sure how I had gotten picked to be in this piece anyway. I was just an apprentice in the school dance company. I didn't like or relate to the frilly dance I was about to try to keep up with, and I couldn't stop the fright that encompassed my body and mind in those pre-show minutes backstage.

And then, the most amazing thing happened. I got through it! Not without mistakes, and not with much style, but all of sudden, I was out there and then 20 minutes later it was over. When all was said and done, nothing about it was as terrifying as anticipated. I was perfectly happy to laugh at myself and let it go.

Never again have I been nervous before performing.

Why? I don't know, but I think it has something to do with realizing a) how much I love, love love love performing and b) that whatever happens on stage is just fine. Even though I don't feel nervous, I do often feel anxious. But in a "good" or "amped up" way, in anticipation of the lovely known/unknown. That's good right? Wellll, kinda. In this state, which I think of as normal for a performance day, I might feel buzzed, but I can't really claim to be in control of my body or mind.

That's not such a great thing for a dancer. You want to be in control at all times, so whatever you do on stage is a choice (whether that has been predetermined by choreography or is being decided in the moment by mishap or improvisation). And very often, those pre-performance jitters that accompanying the anticipation of the performance, the waiting, disappear once you're dancing. Sometimes, they just submerge a level. And other times, they manage to stick with you through it all. And very often it has little to do with your dancing or preparation for the performance. More often that off-center feeling is a result of randomly popping-up thoughts or emotions from whatever's going on in your life.

So what do dancers do to combat those distractions? A solid warm up that focuses thoroughly on technique generally does a good job, because it taps the mind into the body. But that warm up usually ends at least half an hour before actually going on stage (not to mention that the best of us have chatted through the better part of our warm up and not really connected to our bodies at all), and there can be lots of sitting around once all the preparations have been made. And then because of that, most dancers have developed their own little rituals that psyche them up for the show. In my experience though, these things keep the mind occupied, but don't actually help ground and center me (and others, I believe).

What to do?! Call on yoga to the rescue!

Most of you are well aware that a balanced + gentle yoga practice can be a great part of a dancer's physical warm up, but yoga also offers great tools to take in to the dressing room for those last minutes before going on stage - any stage, be it for dancing or some other kind of performance or presentation. I'm teaching a workshop on these very techniques (Yoga + Meditation for Dancers!), August 19 at Kinespirit in NYC, and you should absolutely be there, but in the meantime I want to share a quick tool anyone can use at home (or backstage!).

Breath Awareness 101

  1. Lie on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor. Begin with your arms relaxed by your sides, palms open. (This practice can also be done seated, either against a wall or in a chair. Make sure your spine is supported.) Close your eyes.
  2. Bring your attention to your breath. Observe your breath without trying to change or judge it.
  3. Then bring one hand to your belly, and focus your awareness on the movement in the belly. Allow it to expand as you inhale, and release toward your spine as you exhale. Stay here for several breaths.
  4. Then bring your other hand to your upper chest (anywhere that is decently comfortable for your arm), and focus your awareness on the movement in the chest. Allow it to expand three-dimensionally as you inhale, and return to neutral as you exhale. Stay with this for several breaths.
  5. Lastly, move both hands to the sides of your ribcage (again, place them so that your arms + wrists are as comfortable as possible), and focus your awareness on the movement in your ribcage. Allow it to expand three-dimensionally as you inhale, and return to neutral as you exhale.
  6. Release your hands to your sides and maintain awareness of your breath. Allow your entire torso to expand gently as you inhale, and ebb back in as you exhale.
  7. If you are feeling particularly anxious, encourage, but do not force, your exhales to lengthen and let your focus, and a hand or two, remain on your belly as your breathe. Let the abdominals muscles be soft and your belly move with your breath.
  8. To finish, open your eyes slowly, do any gentle stretching actions that feel good, and rock yourself back up to sit.

Even after you've opened your eyes, while you're walking around and probably chatting with other performers, keep a portion of your awareness on your breath and the movement in your torso. Without needing to "psyche" yourself up to it, you should feel more relaxed and grounded just by using this simple tool.

Give it a try when next you need to feel less anxious, and then let me know how it goes in the comments below!

Dancers in NYC, if this approach sparks your curiosity, come check out my workshop designed just for you on August 17th! Can't make it but want to see me run it again? Let me know in the comments! Then keep yourself in the loop of added dates by signing up for my newsletter 🙂

Om tat sat, happy grounding + centering!

Thoughts or questions? I'd love to hear them.

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