Honing Performance and Shaking off Anxiety
Someone recently asked me, “When did you stop being nervous before a performance?” I responded, “Stop? Maybe one day … but I don’t think they make calendars that far in advance.”
I am always nervous before a performance or speaking engagement or even before teaching my classes. I’m a shy person who has to work to pull myself out of that space so I try to consciously channel that energy, that adrenalin, that heightened awareness, that intense experience of Being Here Now and being fully alive, into my performance. It helps me be more passionate, more alive and more in the moment. I use that energy, picturing myself pulling it up and into me and using it to fuel whatever I’m presenting. Energy is energy. Excitement and anxiety cause the same effects in the body. That energy “feels” the same and we can transmute it into anything we want. The first step is not labelling it “good” or “bad” but as energy we can use however we wish.
Being comfortable on the stage has three aspects — the technical, the physical and the mental. Here are some strategies for preparing for each of them, enhancing your stage presence, and dealing with nervousness.
Be Prepared — Technically and Physically
1.) Know your music! Know it inside and out. Know every lyric. What is the story of your song? Until you know that, you cannot begin to tell it. You cannot bring that characterization into your dance. Who is the narrator of the story? What are their motives and characteristics? Who is the song being sung to and what are their motives and characteristics? What is the feel of the melody? What mood does the song create? Know both the story and the melody inside and out. Know it so well that you can hum or sing it to yourself, start to finish, without it playing on the stereo.
2.) If you are hoopdancing to a choreography, set a deadline for memorizing the song. If you put it off, it will only feed your anxiety. It is important to know the story and the choreography in your head as well as in your body. You want to know it so well that you can visualize it, again, start to finish. Know it so well that you don’t even have to think about it. Internalize it in your body so that one move flows after the other with no thought at all, so you can dance it in your thoughts. I first learned how to do this with performance poetry. When I began to do performance poetry, Dr. Paul Ferguson taught me to memorize the piece so well that I could recite it out loud in the shower like I was speed reading it — superfast!!! Once the entire piece was committed to memory, then we’d move on to going through each line super slow, placing emphasis on different words, timings and phrasing. This helped me have understandings of the piece that had escaped me before. It works with dance too. With dance, you’ll want to be able to run through your whole choreography super fast. This helps you rehearse it more often, in real life and in your head, but it also helps you to know the flow inside and out so that you don’t “go blank” on stage. Once you have it fast, slow it down as slow as you can, even slower than you think you’d ever do it. This will give you understandings of nuance and places to put your attention, information about your balance, opportunities to practice different facial expressions and body movements. Practice putting emphasis on different words and different spaces, punctuating them with movement or stillness or poses. Your performance place will be in the space between this super slow and super fast version. Once you’ve explored the possibilities in both lyric and melody, you can adjust the speed, the emphasis and the nuance, however you wish. It will also give you a deeper internalization of the song itself. It makes it a part of you.
Being able to run through your number fast allows you to practice it more and ensures that you are less likely to forget something on stage. It’s like building muscle memory in your brain. Once you’ve done this, you can begin creative visualization — another form of practice. Visualize yourself performing the piece start to finish, noting your gestures, your facial expressions, your gaze, your costume elements, and even your audience’s reaction. Take note of any places you forget the song or choreography and put some special attention there. See it in your mind’s eye. I cannot overstate the importance of practicing in your head, especially just before sleep. Athletes do this all the time and it helps them tremendously. And, to quote Albert Einstein, “Dancers are the atheletes of God.”
Once the choreography is completely memorized, master the moves. Practice doing it fast and slow, with highly exaggerated movements and hardly any movement at all. Videotape yourself and review it to see what works and what could be improved. Use your video camera as a learning tool. Once you have the piece memorized and the moves mastered, you can relax, listen to the music, feel into the ebbs and flows, have a good time with it and tell the story that is your song. Knowing your choreography inside-out allows you to communicate any emotion you choose rather than wear an expression of concentration or nervousness. It also reduces the anxiety that you’ll forget something.
3.) If you are improvising, it is even more important to really know your music. Know your lyrics (look them up online if you need to) and know the melody so well that you can hum or sing it to yourself, start to finish, without hearing the music. Listen to the song over and over so that its cadence and rhythms become second nature. Note the accents and dramatic segments and, if possible, plan how you’re going to interpret these segments. Also plan your entrance, a “ta-da!” ending and your bow. The entrance sets the tone for your performance. It’s also where you set your rate of breathing so remember to breathe slow and deep so you don’t end up breathing short and shallow as you perform. The “ta-da!” ending is the crescendo of your entire performance. It’s perhaps the most important move of your whole dance. A pretty bow not only allows you to keep your balance, it stops you from running off stage and allows the audience to give back to you as you have just given to them. Running off the stage is like refusing a compliment so practice a pretty bow that takes at least 10 seconds. (And even then you’ll probably be lucky if you manage 5!)
For improvisational performances, dance to the music over and over again, using different moves and steps and expressions so that you’ll have several options in your repertoire. This way you won’t blank out on stage. Videotape yourself and watch it to see what works and make sure to incorporate those moves or characterizations. Try to balance the number of repetitions so you don’t lose track of yourself and find yourself doing the same thing over and over and over. (With hooping, this move is often the “Lift and Drop”. You want your dance to contain a variety of moves, not the same move over and over.) Remember to integrate armwork. Some of the prettiest hoop movements are core hooping with armwork. We sometimes forget that in improv so plan for it and pick the armwork you think words ahead of time. Also integrate footwork. Lift your feet, travel around, fill the stage. Feel the music and express sincere emotions. Avoid frowning but also avoid a constant smile. which can feel insincere and kinda cheerleaderly. Allow your expression to fit both lyrics and melody. Reach down into yourself or into a similar past experience, pull up that emotion and let it radiate from your performance. This is an excellent use for nervous energy. Finally, remember to utilize the four main focal points for your eyes. Directed gaze may be directed over your open balcony and toward the floor or toward the sky, onto your hoop, at the audience or onto the free hand that is moving (if both hands are moving, alternate your directed gaze between them so that it follows first one, then the other). Try to avoid utilizing a single directed gaze, or worse, looking down at the ground the whole time and avoiding the audience altogether. Look around and use a mix of gazes. Invite people in to your experience. Remember that video “Walk Like An Egyptian where the camera focuses on Suzanna’s eyes and they look first left then right then left again? That was her technique for dealing with stage fright. She couldn’t focus on people in the audience so she would look first forward over people’s heads, then left, the right, then left, then right, avoiding eye contact but appearing to make eye contact. That was her technique for making sure she took in her entire audience even though she was nervous. It worked so well it looked great and was featured in their video and is a wonderful example of why directed gaze works. (Quick aside, I got way toasted on tequila with these ladies back in the late 80′s. They kick ass and are a lot of fun.) See minute 2:47 for an example:
4.) Psychological Readiness – The performer’s hardest work is not physical but psychological. The performer must really feel, see, and experience during performance. The question is never, “How can I show more?” but “How can I ‘feel’ more?” Practice at the level and with the energy you intend to perform. This includes practicing all the details separately before gradually putting them all together until you consistently create the impression that you want to create in performance. Build your focus by practicing through distractions. You might even stage some distractions to perfect this. Perform for friends. Have them whisper to each other, drop things, take phone calls, and practice staying focused and in your story.
5.) If possible, be familiar with the venue: Check out the type and texture of flooring, the size of the stage, your distance from the audience, the height over your head, the intensity of the lighting, any impediments around you, etc. Do a sound check to make sure your music plays and that the volume is correct. The more details you know, the better you can prepare. If you can, run through your number in the venue. I had a performance once where I’d seen the stage but hadn’t actually danced on it. Who knew there was an electrical outlet right in the middle of the stage!?! I almost tripped over it and it took me out of my dance and made me mess up. It was a challenge to recover after that. So run through your number on your stage or dance area if you can. It will also help it feel familiar to you.
6.) Rehearse at least once, preferably more, wearing the costume, shoes, hairstyle and accessories you will be wearing for the performance. Don’t wait til the last second to do this! There is a reason companies have dress rehearsals. You want to make sure everything works ahead of time. Check your costume for anything you might trip over or tangle in. Make sure it allows you freedom of movement and that it has no tears or stains. Make sure it’s grippy and not slippery. Ensure that none of your accessories or your hairstyling gets in the way.
7.) Warm-up and stretch before your performance. Do some yoga earlier that day. You want to be supple. It’s hard to do our best if we are cold or stiff. Try to get your blood moving and stretch every part of your body — calves, hamstrings, fingers, hands, waist, back, feet and toes, especially.
8.) Eat a simple meal with some protein about an hour before. You want to make sure your blood sugar is good so you don’t feel light-headed. People often forget to eat before a performance. If you’re nervous, at least eat some edamame or tuna.
Prepare Yourself Mentally
1.) Utilize creative visualization to envision your entire performance. Practice every aspect of it in your head while taking long, slow, deep breaths so that when you actually go onto the stage, you are already comfortable breathing long, slow and deep throughout your song.
2.) Remember that the audience is on your side. They want you to do well. You don’t have to win them over. They are already on your side. Consider them your colleagues and co-conspirators, You are in this together.
3.) Know that you will be lovely. Every dancer who does their best is lovely. There may be different skill levels and different styles but each dancer is unique with something special to give. There is no competition. It’s just you sharing what you have, even if there are other people on the stage. The audience will respond to the love and respect you give to yourself and to them. Your audience is a mirror of your emotions. If you feel insecure, they will feel uncomfortable. If you feel sassy and confident, they will feel alive and excited. So cultivate a feeling of calm, assertiveness. Feel your power and let it flow through you. Remember that you are a beautiful miracle and reveal that miracle to both your audience and yourself.
4.) Even if you do feel nervous or insecure, soldier on. You gain strength, courage and confidence every time you do something you are afraid to do. The bravest thing you can do when you are not brave is to profess courage and act accordingly.
5.) Assure yourself that whatever happens on stage you MEANT to do it. If something happens that cannot be disguised by this strategy, use humor and move on. (One essential skill in hooping is figuring out a pretty and clever way to pick up the hoop. This is never more important than in perforamance.)
6.) Don’t worry that you are not as good as “so and so” or whoever comes on right before or right after you. I can truly say that I have often enjoyed a simple and joyful dance by someone who is having a good time more than the highly skilled performance of someone who does it without passion or with an “I am the best” attitude.
7.) Just before you go on stage, take a deep breath and visualize yourself dancing your best as well as the smiles and admiration of your audience. Don’t spend any more time worrying about the performance itself. Picture your accolades upon completion.
8.) If you feel any nervousness, visualize it like electricy and take it in like a big jolt! Use it! Add it to your energy! View this power as a gift.
Before you know it, your performance will be done. I know I said this before but I must say it again: After your performance and before you leave the stage, stop and bow. Count to 10 in your head and receive your applause. This is the audience’s opportunity to give back. Do not reject their gift by running off the stage. Make yourself stay there and receive then exit slowly and confidently.
Also, no matter how badly you might “think” you did, simply say thank you to the compliments you receive and add nothing else. You diminish your efforts and discredit your fans by not accepting their praise or by pointing out what you did wrong. A compliment is a gift. Accept it graciously. The right response is always a simple, “Thank you” and a smile.
Finally place your attention on what worked, on what you’re proud of. Too often we focus on what we could have done better or differently. Notice these things but don’t dwell there. Dwell on what worked! You’ll be happier with your performance and more confident next time. And trust me, more worked than didn’t.
Each performance experience is unique and a new step in your hoop journey. Performance is not only sharing your skills but sharing your heart and soul. It is an exchange of emotions between the dancer and the music, the dancer and the other dancers, and the dancer and the audience. Just go out there and give it your all, remembering always that the one thing that you have that no one else does … is You. Let your light shine! You’ll do great. You are unique and more wondrous than you know.