Written by Kelli Nottingham
How do you feel before you perform? Does your mind go into a complete fog? Does your heart flutter like a butterfly on espresso? Do your muscles feel stiff or cold? Do you forget your choreography or what your song even sounds like? Do you feel more numb than scared? Do you dread performing? Or do you just avoid performing completely?
The truth is, performance anxiety affects a huge number of dancers and shows itself in a wide variety of symptoms. For many, it can feel absolutely terrifying to the point that they quit dancing completely. What a tragedy, because performance anxiety can be managed! Lots of dancers have pushed past the anxiety to fall in love with performing – with sharing their art and self-expression with the world while feeling calm, joyful, and excited.
If this sounds good to you, a pre-performance ritual may be the answer!
What is a pre-performance ritual?
Simply put, a ritual is any behavior or thought that’s repeated to elicit a specific response. Psychologist Nick Hobson found that people who participated in a ritual of breathing and specific hand and arm movements had lower performance anxiety when completing a computerized test.
So how does a ritual work?
Well, psychologists aren’t completely sure. People who participate in pre-performance rituals tend to have better performance, because of their confidence in both the ritual and themselves. And all of us have experienced times when we’ve fallen into a very calm and relaxed state when completing some random repetitive task, like sweeping or knitting. This is a type of ritual in itself.
We may not completely understand why rituals can help reduce anxiety and give us focus, but we do know that they work. The great news is, you can create your own unique ritual to serve your specific needs.
Since pre-performance anxiety affects our brains, our bodies, and our innermost feelings, a well-rounded way to create your ritual is to build it around three areas: Mind, Body, and Spirit. While focusing ourselves in one of these areas will help our jitters, when we find ways to calm our minds, bodies, and spirits, we’re in the performance sweet spot!
Here are a few thoughts on our mind, body, spirit performance connection.
Our thoughts are connected pathways between neurons in our brains. The more we think about something, the bigger and stronger these pathways get, and the more our brains go on auto-pilot down that same road, instead of noticing the other roads it could go down.
Emotions are attached to these thoughts, and the emotions can also become automatic when the thought occurs. These emotions may not make a lot of logical sense, but when we feel them repeatedly, we stop questioning them.
Our bodies react to what our thoughts and emotions say. This is why we can think a thought like “performing is difficult,” which creates emotions like “I’m scared to perform,” resulting in bodily reactions like panic and tummy upset. Those physical symptoms cause your brain to say “see, I told you this is hard!” Your emotions respond by creating even more fear, and the cycle continues.
Although these mind, body, spirit reactions can feel as permanent as concrete, they’re truly not. Creating a ritual can help to divert you off of those old rutted pathways onto new roads that lead to a peaceful and relaxing performance!
If you’re interested in creating your own pre-performance ritual, grab a cup of tea and a notepad, and start by exploring these questions:
Think back to your last performance (if you’ve never performed, think about the last time you thought about performing).
- How did you feel? (Scared, jumpy, tired, hungry, zombified?)
- How did that affect your performance?
- How would you like to feel before your next performance?
- How would you like to feel during your next performance?
- How about after your next performance?
- Use 3 words to describe what a “successful” performance means to you.
We’re going into your head for this next section of questions.
- What assumptions do you have about performing? (It’s hard, scary, fun, etc.)
- What do you think the audience is thinking about during your performance
- What are you thinking about before your performance?
- What do you say to yourself before your performance (your self-talk)? Be specific!
- What self-talk thoughts would be helpful for you instead?
- What keyword would be a helpful focus point/mantra during your performance? (words like fluid, relaxed, fun, energetic, mysterious, etc.)
Let’s focus now on how you feel physically.
- Where do you feel stress or anxiety? How do they show up in your body?
(Tight shoulders and neck, upset tummy, cold hands/feet, hot face?)
- Where in your body do you feel tight or uncomfortable during your performance?
- How are your energy/hunger/thirst levels before you perform? After?
- Which parts of your body move well and/or often when you’re performing
- Which parts of your body do you not move when dancing, that you would like to move more?
- How is your breathing before your performance?
- What specific thoughts or feelings cause a negative physical reaction for you?
Now let’s move into your emotional and spiritual aspect.
- What emotions do you feel before you perform? During? After?
- What emotions would you like to feel?
- What emotions or feelings would you like to evoke in your audience?
- When dancing for yourself (no audience, no pressure) how does dancing make you feel?
Creating Your Ritual
The wonderful thing about creating your own ritual is that it can be imbued with words, movements, thoughts, and feelings that are special to you – and that’s enough to make it worthwhile. A ritual has meaning only because we give it meaning. So as you start to create your ritual, focus on what meaning it has for you.
Below are some ideas you can combine into your own special ritual creation.
- Special word/mantra to repeat, such as “calm,” “graceful,” “happy,” “fun,” “freedom”
- Mentally walk through difficult parts of the choreography
- Replace negative self-talk with positive: “I am enough,” “I represent happiness,” “I am expressing my inner light.”
- Think of one thing you want to learn or focus on during the performance
- Recognize you’re not a mind reader; you don’t know what the audience will think, nor can you control it. Say something like: “The audience is here to support me and enjoy the happiness I show.”
- Catch your negative assumptions about performing and replace with a positive one:
– Performing is not as serious as brain surgery/firefighting/etc.
– Life will go on even if I mess up
– Lots of people wish they were brave enough to do what I’m already doing!
- Warm up specific areas of your body that get tight or cold – create a rhythmic pattern of warming up or stretching, maybe to a favorite number, or a favorite rhythm!
- Muscle slaps, patterned arm movements, air zills, torso/hip twists, or shimmies while thinking your mantras
- Monitor water or food intake to ensure you’re properly energized and hydrated (but not too hydrated!)
- Channel energy up and down your body
- Burn excess jittery energy by shimmying or pacing
- Warm up your face by smiling and making faces
- Dress yourself or put on makeup or jewelry in a specific order or with a sense of the sacred
- Wear a special piece of jewelry for each performance (pin inside costume if it doesn’t match)
- Breathe deeply to get enough oxygen, and focus on the breathing to calm you
- Internally build the sensation you want to feel onstage, before you go out
- Close your eyes and feel gratitude for your body for the ability to dance
- Focus on the emotion you want to share with your audience
- Support other dancers performing before you – giving love gives love back
- Imagine what your most supportive friends/family would say to you about yourself, and say those things to yourself too
- Listen to a favorite song that pumps you up or makes you feel happy
Ritual Building Tips
As you build your ritual, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Keep it short and simple! You don’t want to have a 45-minute long ritual that will wear you out before you get on stage! Pick 1-2 pieces to include for each aspect (Mind, Body, Spirit) and see how you can make them overlap for efficiency, for example, stretching, listening to your uplifting song, and saying your mantra at the same time.
- Recognize that your ritual does not define your success. The point of the ritual is to ground and center you by telling you that you’ve been in this situation before. However, if you aren’t able to finish performing your ritual, it’s ok –you’re not doomed to fail!
- Give yourself plenty of time before the curtain call. You may be able to walk out on the stage before the audience arrives, and get yourself ready in plenty of time. Rushing to get to the show and get ready will cut short your ritual time and add to your stress levels.
- Text a family member or friend beforehand (whether they’ll be at the show or not) and tell them you’ll text them after to let them know how it went. That way they’re “with” you during the performance.
- If some part of your ritual isn’t working after you’ve tried it several times, let it go. Try something new. Your ritual should be flexible.
- Enjoy this creative process. Creating this ritual might be so much fun, you’ll want to create them for other areas of your life!
Now get out there and enjoy your performance!