Joyful Dance Laura Stanyer

Joyful Dance Laura Stanyer

Friday, 24 June 2011

Stage Fright, Performance Anxiety and the Dancer


Dancers can experience stress while learning new skills or choreography and most dancers naturally feel nervous before a performance. This stress or anxiety can affect their level of confidence and performance.  I have worked many years as a dance artist, performing, choreographing and lecturing and have experienced and witnessed a wide range of effects of performance anxiety from dancers full of apprehension, doubt, worry about letting themselves or the company down to experiencing a heightened level of excitement to perform at their very best.

I have worked in many different environments from theatres, for film, on location, site specific, street theatre in performance and in dance studios preparing dancers for audition or practical assessment. Each experience gave me the opportunity to develop effective methods to prepare myself, dancers and performers to perform to their best ability.

The main focus in managing performance anxiety is the emotional state just before performance. However, I feel our perceptions about the pressure of performing may be addressed at the start of the rehearsal or preparation process and worked on throughout learning new skills, throughout rehearsals and through all performances.

Cultivating a positive emotional state and enhancing mental focus throughout the preparation process enhances the physical learning experience of the work and in my experience brings the members of a company working together in harmony. When individuals have the opportunity to share their worries, other company members are experiencing similar concerns may come together in a supportive way enhancing the company morale through stressful rehearsal periods and enhancing performance overall.

Psychological Pressures

With significant pressures on dancers to constantly improve their performance, their mental and emotional states become significant. Professional dancers have to cope with demanding rehearsal schedules, performance stress and have to balance their commitments to work, family and their personal lives. Performance anxiety also known as stage fright is an issue faced by many performers even at an elite level.

Self Confidence

Self confidence is the belief you have in yourself to achieve a particular task and can influence your ability to succeed in performance. The more confidence you have in your ability to perform you’re more likely to perform well. Therefore the more anxious you are it is more likely you will underperform.


Motivation is the driving force that compels us to do something. In dance, dancers will be motivated for different reasons.

Motivation can be:

  • Intrinsic - The motivation is the pure pleasure derived from participating in dance. You value dancing; you love to participate for the enjoyment, friends and creativity
  • Extrinsic - The motivation is the desire to achieve something external: achieving a qualification, medal, financial reward or recognition
A negative feeling, nervousness or feeling of fear felt just before you perform in front of an audience, audition panel or camera. The physical symptoms of arousal occur before the performance however the mental and emotional anxiety surrounding performing can occur long before performance though out rehearsal and have an impact on you ability to learn the material.

What can cause it?
It is your individual perception of the demand that determines if you enjoy the experience or experience anxiety. We are setting ourselves up to be judged by an audience or assessors and our idea of success or failure is a high level risk that relates to us as a threat to our well being.

How does this affect you?
Our physical, mental and emotional responses to this perceived threat is a primal instinct as if it was a real threat to your life. You subconscious mind cannot distinguish between a real physical threat and a perceived threat.

What is arousal?
Arousal is a physiological state of alertness and anticipation, which prepares the body for action. It activates both mind and body and is a neutral state. To perform to the best of our ability, we need to be in the appropriate state of activation, not too little, not too much.  It allows us to function effectively, whether to digest a meal or dance.

Although arousal itself is neutral, if it is associated with negative thoughts and perceptions we experience anxiety. This is a negative emotional state associated with feelings such as worry and apprehension. Anxiety may be created by a situation, which we see as threatening; perhaps we doubt our ability to cope.   For example, in the time leading up to a performance you may feel anticipation or apprehension and fear may begin to emerge. This is the fight, flight or freeze response and at this point adrenaline is released into the bloodstream.

Performance Anxiety

The demand, also known as the stressor, is the initiating factor and it is your individual perception of the demand which determines whether or not anxiety will result:-
  • Demand The stressor - example: major performance with large audience or an important assessment.
  • Perception of the demand Negative perception - example: Under-rehearsed, not physically skilled enough.
  • Response to Stressor Arousal & Anxiety - example: unable to remember choreography, legs feel weak.
  • Outcome Poor performance
Some examples of negative stressors:

Reframe your thinking

Each thought you think creates your experiences:

  • Threaten our self-esteem: When criticized - by tutor, friend or audience. The criticism may be taken personally and then become self-conscious at public criticism. Being evaluated by others can threaten our self-esteem.
  • Cause Personal Harm: When asked to perform a skill which you feel unable to perform because you fear sustaining an injury or feel too technically difficult to perform.
  • Create uncertainty (fear of the unknown): When you do not understand what is expected from you from your tutor/choreographer, or in an audition not knowing what will be asked of you and judging your ability unfairly. Another example is coping with unpredictable situations like performing in a different venue each night.
  • Creative frustration: Unable to achieve your goals, not setting realistic time scale or programmed training/rehearsals to achieve your goals.
  • Creative pressure: Unexpected events such as music not playing, or playing too fast or problems with other circumstances out of your control (lights, costume, set other dancers etc).
The anxiety increases by your perception of how important the situation and the outcome is to you.

Responses associated with performance anxiety:

Before a performance:

Cognitive symptoms (your thoughts and feelings):
  • Worry and self doubt
  • Disturbed sleep and restlessness
  • Overwhelming negative thoughts
  • Feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope
Somatic symptoms (physical experiences):
  • Sweating palms and butterflies in the stomach
  • Shaking and muscle tension
  • Frequent urination
  • Pacing and other nervous habits
During a performance:

 Cognitive symptoms (your thoughts and feelings):
  • Disorientation and inability to focus on the task at hand
  • Irrational feeling of loss of control - mind goes blank
  • A feeling of paralysis feel frozen unable to dance
 Somatic symptoms (physical experiences):
  • Sweating palms and increased heart rate
  • Shaking and muscle tension
  • Feeling nausea and dryness of the mouth

How to manage performance anxiety

If you have experienced the negative thoughts that flow into your mind during class, rehearsals and before performance that lead to self defeating behaviour there are a variety of strategies you can use to manage performance anxiety.

It is important to remember that at the start of a performance your arousal levels increase and this is a neutral state of activation.

It is your interpretation of the arousal that is important:
  • If you perceive it as positive you can experience excitement and energy.
  • If you perceive it as negative you may experience fear and anxiety.
Your thoughts create your experiences. Anxiety comes from the negative things we say to ourselves that create distractions. It is important to understand your inner critic and to understand the power of your mind that creates positive or negative cycles. Therefore, it is so important to manage your thinking and the emotional state your thoughts create.

The important elements to unlearning negative responses:
  • Write a detailed history of past situations where you experienced an anxiety response. Include performance and non-performance anxiety situations if they seem relevant.
  • Work out what your stressors have been in past performances such as being under rehearsed. Indentify and dissociate from them.
  • Put the original experience of performance anxiety into perspective.
  • Create a plan of action to stop the panic if a stressor occurs.
  • Run a reality check, on a scale of 1 - 10, 1 being no anxiety 10 being very anxious. Work out your level of anxiety working through rehearsal and up to performance and see if you can develop the various strategies to diminish the anxiety.

Strategies to manage Performance Anxiety

Maintain you general health and well being
Understand the body, mind and emotion connection, and that your general health will affect your perceptions of your experiences.

  • Make sure you are physically fit enough, improving over all cardio-vascular fitness and muscular endurance.
  • Make sure you have adequate sleep, the right amount of sleep and a good quality sleep will impact on your well being.
  • Eat a healthy balanced varied diet to maintain healthy mind and body.
  • Appropriate rest and relaxation to release excess tension and the effects of adrenaline after performance.
  • Prepare your mind and body appropriately for your dance schedule.

  • Be aware of the warning signs e.g. negative self talk
  • Stop any negative self talk. Befriend your inner critic and teach it to make positive statements focus on what you want to achieve.
  • Reframe you inner critic Change the voice of your negative internal dialogue e.g. if it is loud change it to a whisper, if it is stern give it a soft quality to the voice, turn you critic into a supportive coach.
  • Question inappropriate beliefs about yourself or your abilities and replace them with positive alternatives. E.g. What is your negative belief? - "If I make a mistake the dance is ruined"  Is this true? - Can the audience enjoy the performance anyway, or will all the audience even notice the mistake?  Change the negative belief into a positive one - one or few mistakes will not ruin the whole performance
  • Ask yourself is your anxiety caused by:
    Internal dialogue - your thoughts, feeling, your reaction
    Or External - other dancer, music, set, director other situation?
    Does this feeling need to remain or can this be a temporary feeling and not affect the rest of the performance?
  • Run a worst case scenario check, work out what is the worst that could happen. On a scale of 1 - 10, 1 being not at all likely, 10 being definite. Work out the likelihood of your worst scenario happening then work out what you may do to prevent or handle the worst.
  • If you're overwhelmed, find a Role Model and imagine how someone you admire may handle the performance.
  • Focus on what you can change or have control over and accept the things you cannot control.
  • Eliminate any outside distractions to focus on the task at hand you can do the golden box visualisation.
A confident dancer may find the physical affects of adrenaline such as butterflies and sweaty palms and perceive them as signals of being ‘psyched up’ and ready to perform and therefore will not experience the negative effects of adrenaline. It is important in order to control the negative effects of performance anxiety to reframe the physical experiences of arousal and build self confidence.

Goal Setting
Setting goals within training and performance is a useful tool to measure your progress. It provides an opportunity to improve your skills or new choreography. Goal setting is an important strategy to manage performance anxiety as you can set goals to cope with the stress of performing. Please see Visualisation for Dancers article for further information.

Be in control of your body

  • Be aware of the warning signs e.g. physical discomfort or excessive tension, e.g. biting nail, teeth grinding or tension headache.
  • If you feel physical tension, begin to bring your awareness to your breathing and slow your breathing down to a clam natural state. See relaxation article for more information
  • To release excessive tension in your body engage in PMR exercise. (Relaxation article)

Visualisation for Performance Anxiety

Visualise yourself performing the dance skills and sequences you will be performing at your best.


Peak Performance Visualization by lstanyer

NEVER listen to this audio recording when driving or when you need to concentrate on a particular task.  Only listen when you can relax and not be disturbed from any distractions.

This audio recording will guide you into a state of relaxation, it is best to be comfortable and either sit or lay down in a comfortable place free from distractions.

We advise you listen to this audio recording through headphones for best results.  To begin with, it is best to listen on a daily basis to develop your visualisation skills.

Let Go of Worry Visualisation - to eliminate distractions

Part one
This visualisation is useful for eliminating negative thoughts and feelings that cause distractions that may interfere with your performance.  It enables you to focus on performing at your very best.  This part of the visualisation may be listened to working towards an up and coming performance.  Also, only listen to it several hours before an up and coming performance as you need time to re-energise and warm-up and prepare for the performance.

Let Go of Worry Part One

Part Two
Part two is to be listened to after the performance and at a time you can relax to allow you to start to assess any other stress that may be affecting you.

Let Go of Worry Part Two

Worst Case Check

In performance, situations can arise that may cause you to feel anxiety. Prepare yourself by going though a series of worst-case situations so should they arise they have a solution.

Potential situations:

  • You are late to the theatre
  • Costumes are damaged, lost or forgotten
  • The performance is delayed
  • Changes to the choreography, set, environment or music
  • It very hot and humid
  • Another dancer forgets the partner sequence
Work out what your concerns are and consider possible solutions and coping strategies to prevent them affecting your confidence levels.

The aim of all these strategies are to reduce the fear to a controllable level and reduce negativity until the arousal level is neutral so feeling nerves or excitement is comfortable to you. With continuous practice of these techniques you can make good progress of reducing and eliminate performance anxiety.

Ideally, it is helpful to create a working environment where individuals are nurtured and the group are supported to work together to create an atmosphere where all focus on the success of the whole performance. The great performance is its own reward.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this web page is intended as general guidance and information only. Laura Stanyer and its authors accept no liability for any loss, injury or damage however incurred as a consequence, whether directly or indirectly, of the use this information. All advice on this web page should only be used under the supervision of a qualified dance / fitness / healthcare professional.

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