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Decoding Stage Fright in Ballet

Suvi Honkanen • 04 May 2024

Decoding Stage Fright in Ballet

Sweaty hands, pounding heart, legs like jello, crippling fear. Gorgeous triple pirouettes in rehearsal but barely able to stand up onstage. Stage fright and performance anxiety is no easy feat to handle. 

Nervousness and excitement before a performance or an audition is normal, but when it becomes problematic is when it significantly impairs one’s ability to perform effectively or interferes with their overall well-being. It’s important to note the distinction between healthy adrenaline and crippling fear. While a surge of adrenaline can sharpen focus, increase alertness, and enhance performance, excessive fear can be paralyzing. Healthy adrenaline is characterized by a sense of excitement and anticipation, accompanied by manageable levels of nervousness. In contrast, crippling fear is marked by overwhelming dread and a sense of impending doom, which can sabotage performance and undermine confidence. Severe performance anxiety can undermine confidence, hinder concentration and focus, and lead to avoidant behavior, ultimately compromising the quality of the performance.The good news is, with the right strategies and support, it’s possible to learn to manage and overcome it and of course -to enjoy your dancing to the fullest. 

An important aspect of dealing with stage fright is understanding its origin. What causes the fear, and what causes your body to react in such a way?

Performance anxiety stems from a complex interplay of psychological and physiological factors. At its core, it is the fear of judgment, failure, or not living up to expectations. In a ballet performance, this is magnified by the spotlight and the scrutiny of an audience, judges, or your teachers and directors. Scientifically, this fear triggers the body’s natural stress response, commonly known as the fight-or-flight response.

When confronted with the prospect of performing, the brain perceives the situation as a threat, triggering the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones flood the body, preparing it for action. This can manifest as trembling limbs, a racing heart, shallow breathing, and a sense of dread. These physical manifestations can further exacerbate the psychological distress, creating a cycle of anxiety.

Everyone is different: there is no one definite and proven way to ease nervousness. Finding the ways that help manage the body’s stress response and cultivate a sense of calm before a performance is a learning curve. Some common things to try are different relaxation techniques like deep breathing, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, and meditation.

However, overcoming performance anxiety requires an approach that addresses both the psychological and physiological aspects of fear. It’s not enough to take care of your body. There is one more muscle to work on: your mind.

In performance anxiety and stage fright lies a possibility for a positive force and it is all in the mindset. Instead of viewing the performance as a test of one’s worth or talent, dancers can try to adopt a mindset focused on growth and learning. Shifting the focus away from perfection and towards improvement may ease the pressure. It’s never about perfection, it’s about learning, doing your best, finding meaning in the moment.

Especially when it comes to performing, shifting focus away from you might be useful. If you think about the most important meaning of this performance, you realize it has never really been about you. It is about this moment, never to be repeated again, with these exact people in the audience, sharing this experience with you. What an incredibly special and unique moment in time.

I often find that finding gratitude in what we take for granted: an able body, the ability to hear music and feel it on your skin, the ability to be blinded by stage lights and see your friends in the wings, helps me shift the focus from myself to something more universal. After all, dancing isn’t about your performance, your career, your pirouettes, or your teacher’s opinion. It’s about that exact moment, speaking to someone with your body, sharing something that can’t be put into words. 

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