Stress management has become a hot topic in our modern society. Despite all of our technological advances and instant gratification conveniences, our overall stress level seems to have only increased. We can’t ignore this trend because stress can have powerful, negative effects over our minds and bodies. My last two lessons are a prime example of how stress can turn a competent dancer into a dope in heels.
As we prepare for Embassy Ball next month, Teacher has taken to starting our lessons by having me dance a round by myself. Since I wrote the book on solo practice, I guess it’s only fair that I walk the walk (or dance the dance) by demonstrating I can dance my routines by myself with Teacher watching. Last Friday is the first lesson in this story. I was trying to boost my mood on my way to the studio by listening to The Greatest Showman soundtrack, and I thought it was working! Then I pulled into the studio’s parking lot and took in aaallllll of the cars. There was a lot of people in the studio that day.
I’ve gotten a lot better about controlling my self-consciousness around dancing and practicing in front of others. But frankly, I don’t like crowds. When the studio is crowded, I get distracted by all of the random noise around me and start feeling like I can’t move anywhere without being in the way. It’s one thing if I’m working with Teacher on something. Then who’s to say if we got in the way of another lesson or if they got in our way. It all balances out. But when Teacher is standing against the wall and I’m dancing on the floor by myself, I start feeling exposed and vulnerable. I’m outnumbered. I’m in the middle of a busy parking lot with no idea if that car coming toward me is going to keep on moving past me or swerve in front of me.
So I’m already feeling the stress. Then, as if to confirm my fear that I’m just in the way, right as I lift my arms and step forward toward my invisible partner, another teacher dances his student right into the same spot. I never recovered. I still got through my round, but it was with a lot of stumbling, and stopping and starting. Nowhere near the quality I knew I could bring. So add another helping of stress courtesy of my frustrations.
Now let’s compare the second lesson that occurred on the following Tuesday. I had spent over two hours at the studio on Sunday to prove to myself and Teacher that I knew my routines better than I demonstrated on Friday. I even recorded an entire round, so I had video evidence.
There weren’t nearly as many people at the studio on Tuesday. If I remember right, there was only two other lessons going. So no initial stress due to a crowd. Just like on Friday, we started the lesson with me dancing a round by myself. After the Waltz alone, Teacher was visibly impressed, and maybe a little surprised. By the end of the round, he was smiling and applauding his approval. He said he was impressed I was able to improve so much over just the weekend. I said it helped that I wasn’t stressed out of my gourd this time!
It wasn’t that I had added skill or knowledge between the two lessons. I had reduced the amount of stress I was carrying. I knew my routines, but the pathways in my brain freeze up like an old computer when the stress level gets too high. Then I can’t think clearly, I can’t process information as well, and I can’t perform my best.
I can practice my dancing for as many hours as I want, but if I don’t also practice mindset in stressful situations, it’s going to seem like I hardly spend time on my dancing at all. It’s even more critical at competitions. At my last one, they kept moving the heats around and I ended up being called to dance my scholarship 20 to 30 minutes sooner than I expected. It threw me off, and not surprisingly, my scores for Waltz (the first dance) were lower than the other three dances.
Luckily, just like with my other dance skills, practice is very effective for coping with stressful situations. It changes unknown and uncomfortable into familiar and routine. Familiar things just aren’t as stressful as the unknown. When a situation is stressful no matter how familiar I am with it (like a crowded studio or stepping out to perform at a competition), I practice focus and calm. If you ever see me when I first enter the ballroom at a competition, you’ll see me retreat to an empty corner with my phone and earbuds. I do my initial physical and mental warmup away from everyone, so I only have my own energy to deal with. I have a recording I listen to that helps me feel centered and grounded, after which I feel prepared to take on the energy of the crowd.
Do you have something that always triggers stress for you in ballroom? What do you do to manage it?