Happy Sunday everyone! As promised per my Facebook livestream earlier today, I’m writing to you with a specific topic in mind that I hope will support at least one dancer out there. I want to talk about dealing with stage fright on the day of competition.
We spend hours and hours in the studio preparing for a competition, and when we finally get there, we’re thrown into a completely different environment full of loud music, bright lights and colors, and a whole lot more people than you’d see in the studio. So it’s no wonder you may be hit with the sudden feeling of “oh shit.”
I get overwhelmed pretty easily by large crowds. The environment of a competition, even though it’s where I want to be, makes me hesitate when I first enter the ballroom. It’s just a bit much for this introverted dancer! Of course, I’m not going to let loud music, bright lights and a bunch of people keep me from doing what I love. At the same time, if I don’t take steps to prepare myself to deal with all this external stimuli, it could seriously rattle and distract me from doing what I came to do.
So how do I deal?
First, the more I go to competitions and feel familiar with the environment, the easier it gets. So just keep that in mind. If you’ve just gone to your first competition and found it stressful or overwhelming, don’t think it will be that way every time.
The best way I’ve found to enter the competition is gradually. Teacher is usually already in the ballroom dancing with his Bronze-level students, so the first thing I’ll do is look for where they’ve settled. This may sound funny, but after I find my team, I leave them.
I take my phone and headphones and find a quiet corner. This is where I’ll do a little warmup, but mainly it’s where I start taking in the scene around me. I start with the visual. I play my own music, so I don’t hear the chatter around me, and just take in what I see. Then I’ll turn off my music and take in what I see and hear. You’re starting to get the idea, right? Instead of diving head first into the deep end of the pool, I take the stairs at the shallow end.
All of this is to avoid getting overwhelmed by the “stuff” surrounding the actual dancing I’ll be doing. I still feel something between butterflies and anxiety about my performance, so it’s important that I avoid taking in additional nervous/excited energy from those around me.
Now for dealing with the dancing nerves themselves.
First step here is accept that you’re as prepared as you’re going to be. TRUST that you and your teacher have done all you can to be ready for this performance. And if you’re like me with easily triggered anxiety, don’t test that trust. When I do my warmup on my own, I never go through my routines. I don’t want to welcome the chance to get stuck on a step and then get myself all worked up that I won’t be able to remember anything. I’ll review sections as part of my warmup to wake up my body, but never a whole routine. If Teacher is available to warm up with me, then we’ll go through the routines together. On my own, I tell myself I know the steps as well as I’m going to know them, and that’s enough.
Waiting for my heat can be nerve-wracking or I can use the time to enjoy the show. If I have a good amount of time to wait until its my turn to dance, I will sit and watch those who are dancing. We all know how hard it can be to get out there and perform, and it’s anticlimactic when you finish your dance and bow to a bunch of people not paying any attention. So if I’m not busy warming up or preparing to dance soon myself, I am an attentive audience member. Aside from supporting my fellow dancers, it’s just nice to relax and watch the dancing!
About 20 to 30 minutes before I’m supposed to dance, I’m in my own space again. Filtering out the noise around me and getting centered with myself and why I’m there. This helps control the nerves as I prepare to go to the on-deck area. I probably appear stand-offish when I’m actually in the on-deck area. I don’t really talk to anyone, unless Teacher is saying something to me. I’m already in performance mode. I’m ready to walk out on that floor and show ’em what I got.
And it’s not because I’ve done a bunch of comps already and placed well. It’s not because I’ve been dancing for over five years. I tell myself I’m ready. I trust that I’m ready. Do I have little doubts swimming around my head as I’m telling myself “you’ve got this”? Heck yes! But I don’t focus on them. I’ve got multiple radio stations on inside my head, but I can pick which station to tune into.
When I actually walk out onto the dance floor with Teacher, it’s go time. Doubts don’t matter because we’re dancing whether I’m full of doubt or full of confidence. So may as well choose to focus on the happy thoughts. I get to dance! I like what another teacher said during her styling workshop. She said think of the dance floor at a competition as your floor. This is your space. You are home. So relax and let your confidence shine through because you own it!
On the more practical side of things, after we reach our spot on the floor, I focus on Teacher while we wait for the music to start. It’s just him, me and the music. Everything else is a distraction. I always have one or two “focus” points at competitions, usually technique items. So once the music does start and we begin to dance, if my brain wanders because of nerves or I get thrown off because I make a mistake, I check in on those points. Am I keeping my shoulders down and chest up? That sort of thing.
If all my strategies utterly fail me and I feel like I’m about to lose it in the middle of my Foxtrot, I turn to Teacher. Not literally (unless the choreography calls for it). What I mean is I don’t try to fix things or regain control by force. I breathe (very important!) and just let Teacher lead me. Or at least I try to. It didn’t work very well during our Standard rounds at Ballroom Beach Bash. But I’m not perfect and frankly, I let my nerves get the best of me that day. I didn’t feel fully prepared and I let myself focus on that, which led me to believe I wouldn’t dance well. When it does work, I focus on what I need to do to stay connected to my partner, so he can lead me, and that’s it.
The nice thing about pro-am ballroom is you have your teacher to support you if you freeze or freak out in the middle of your dancing. You’re not dancing alone! And you’re not dancing with another student who may or may not freak out with you. You’re dancing with a professional. Your dance partner literally does this for a living. You can trust that they’ll get you back on track if you get lost. Discuss it ahead of time too. Talk with your teacher about how you guys will handle mishaps, especially if you have open routines where you may not be in frame with him or her all of the time. Come up with a game plan, so you can feel prepared even if things go wrong.
Final tip: breathe. Just breathe. In and out. Slowly. I usually get an adrenaline rush sometime right before or during my first dance at a competition, which makes my heart race and my body shake. Teacher has commented about feeling my hand shaking in his. It’s not something I can prevent entirely, but slow breathing helps soften the effects. Not just before or after the dance, during. Breathing helps release tension too, which will also help you dance better. So breathe!
I gotta say, this took me a lot longer to write than I expected! I really wanted to give you guys some practical advice on this subject though. Yes, the majority of managing anxiety is managing mindset, which is kind of woo woo. But there are very practical things you can do to help, like the way I slowly expose myself to the stimuli in the ballroom when I first arrive. It’s something you have to continuously practice too. Embassy Ball is less than two weeks away and there’s a lot of symbolic significance attached to it. So I’ll be breaking out every trick in the book to manage my nerves that day.
I hope this helped someone. Let me know if that someone is you!