Posts

End-of-Year Meltdowns Got You Down?

It’s spring, so that means meltdowns and performances. (Haha.) Seriously though, it’s definitely performance time: most dance schools are having their end-of-year shows to showcase all the good work their dancers have accomplished over the year. So it’s a time of excitement but also nerves, often for teachers as much as students. Everyone wants to put their best foot forward (no pun intended), but the anticipation can stir emotions into a real frenzy.

If you’re still in the countdown to an end-of-year show and are either experiencing meltdown-inducing levels of stress yourself or dealing with them from your peers or teachers, here are some fun tips to keep you sane.

  • Perfection will not be achieved between today and the performance, so let go of that as a goal. How you’re rehearsing today is the best indicator of how the show will go, so start turning on your face muscles to get ready to glow onstage because…
  • Performances are the reason you work as hard as you do every day. They should be exhilarating, as well as fun. If you keep the focus on dancing your best and having fun, you’ll be happier.
  • If your teacher(s) is overly stressed, don’t take it personally; end-of-year shows are an evaluation of them as well as you, so they’re entitled to jitters. Remind yourself of that if those jitters become meltdowns: everyone is doing their best and some people cope better than others.
  • Be in control of yourself and only yourself. There’s no point in trying to fix everyone else’s problems because it won’t work. Turn your focus inwards to yourself: how can you be best prepared to perform well? Keep your focus there to feel less stressed.
  • Finally, mark the end of your school year with a celebration after the performance, however small. It’s important to mark the occasion with a dinner out or some other way to celebrate your accomplishments.

Don’t fall into the trap of letting stress overshadow your performance(s); learning to cope with pre-show jitters is a big part of becoming a happy performer. If you have tried all of the above and still can’t deal, email me. I can definitely help.

 

Audition Prep: Familiarity and Routine

“Last time I auditioned, I was up till midnight printing out my resume. I had totally forgotten to do it earlier.”

* * *

“Last year, I didn’t wear my usual class skirt to one audition and it completely threw me off.”

 

I’ve already started talking about how auditions can be scary, unpredictable experiences – see here– which upset your normal schedule and mindset. Your brain likes routine; it enjoys being able to predict what’s coming up. When it gets jostled by sudden last-minute changes, your brain can either get pumped at the challenge or totally freak out. Hopefully you know yourself well enough to know which camp you fall into. Either way, you can reduce anxiety by making the audition process as familiar as possible, before the actual audition.

What does that mean?

Stress and anxiety are born from many things, but some last-minute, unexpected changes to routine can be anticipated and controlled by you. For example, take the second quote and imagine this is you. Every day, all year round, you wear a similar outfit for class: a leotard and a skirt. You are used to seeing your reflection in the mirror with a skirt on. While it might seem like a minor detail to a non-dancer, dancers know that altering your own reflection can be as disorienting as dancing without a mirror. For the dancer quoted above, it proved to be a major distraction for the duration of the audition.

Distraction = lack of focus = stress and anxiety. 

The solution is simple: start dressing now the way you will dress for your next audition. If you never wear pink tights, but know you’ll have to for auditions, then start as soon as possible; get used to the reflection of yourself you’re about to see in the audition. It’s one less distraction and one less source of possible stress.

Another upset to your routine is the extras that come with auditioning: maybe you’ll have an extra long commute to the audition, or need to pack extra food; you’ll definitely need things like resumes, cover letters, and pointe shoes that are ready to go. Leaving these details until the last minute and then not expecting them to stress you out is a little crazy. (See first quote, above.)

So start planning now. If you’ll need extra snacks, figure out what and plan to shop ahead of time. If you don’t have a printer (or even if you do), get those final drafts written and printed at least two days before the audition. The sooner it’s done, the calmer your brain will be, and the less it will weigh on you.

Familiarity + routine = calmer, happier brain = calmer, happier you. 

Good luck to everyone auditioning this weekend!

Grace Under Stress: Your Average Dancer

 

A diamond is just a piece of charcoal that handled stress exceptionally well. 

Among the many things dancers are gifted at, hiding stress is one of them. How many times have you been nervous or scared, and someone has said to you afterwards that you looked relaxed and nonplussed? This still happens to me now, years after my dance career ended, and I attribute it to my dance training.

Unlike athletes, dancers can’t show exertion or pain on their faces. Remember the Olympics last summer? The fierce determination, the anguish in the faces of the athletes- it really struck me that as an observer, I could almost read their minds because of how much showed on their faces.

Dance isn’t like that: dancers are trained to minimize natural expressions of pain or exertion so that they do not distract the audience from the art form. Keeping stress under the radar does not, however, mean that dancers handle it effectively. I have found that most dancers either ignore their stress, hoping it will go away on its own, or they are completely consumed by it.

Here are some tips for dealing with your stress so that you can respond like the diamond pictures above: clear-minded and beautiful!

  1. First, start paying attention to it: how does it manifest in your body? (i.e. no appetite, shaking, extremely tense muscles, dry mouth?) How does it manifest in your mind? (i.e. replaying mistakes in your head, self-criticism, obsessively checking things like your hair or your text messages?) Often, just noticing what is happening to us is a strong step towards managing the stress and preventing it in the future.
  2. Don’t wait until you’re stressed to practice self-care. Think of one thing that calms you down when you feel stressed, and add it to your daily routine to stop stress before it starts.
  3. Breathe. Deep, mindful breathing has been shown to lower the heart rate and slow down the release of stress hormones. Try counting your inhales and exhales, “inhale 1, exhale 2; inhale 3, exhale 4.” Count up to 10, and then start over. Doing this 2-3 times should help you feel calmer and more in control.

Understand that everyone experiences anxiety and those who come out the other end looking shiny and bright probably spent some time “in the wings” dealing with it. So, the real secret to handling stress is to not keep it a secret: acknowledge that you will have stress at some point, and make a plan to deal with it that involves prevention as well as treating the symptoms.

Sing a Song (In Your Head)

Sing a Song (In Your Head)

I’ve been having trouble lately quieting my mind: it’s on replay these days with to-do lists and various other things. It’s been really difficult to find a quiet mental place where I can truly relax and be in the moment. I’ve tried breathing deeply and also repeating a mantra, things that have worked in the past, but no dice.

So, this morning, walking to my office, I tried a new tactic. I tried singing a song in my head. I didn’t invent this, I’m sorry to say. It’s a technique that marathon runners, among others, use to stay in the moment. They memorize playlists and then “play” them in their minds during races. It helps block out the incessant whirring of their brains. (And can you imagine how much whirring could happen during a 25-mile run? Seriously. Anyone would need a strategy.)

It turns out, it is really hard to think about anything else when you are singing the words to a song. (Which is not true when you’re actually listening to music, right? Raise your hand if you have completely missed entire songs in a playlist because you are so distracted by your thoughts. My hand is up.)

Anyway, I sang three songs by the time I got to work and it worked! I didn’t have any random thoughts wander in and pull me away from my being in the moment.  Furthermore, I felt mentally refreshed by the time I arrived at my office. It was refreshing to get off the hamster wheel of my noisy brain.

So, the next time your brain is being annoyingly overactive, pick a song you know the words to and start singing in your head. (This is a great time sing music that other people don’t appreciate: no one will hear it but you!) Make a mental note of how you feel afterwards. If it’s helpful, maybe cue up a little playlist for yourself so you have it at the ready.

Mindful Breathing Relieves Performance Anxiety

Those of you who have taken a yoga class or meditated know the positive effects of mindful breathing. An article in the Pacific Standard Magazine confirms those effects, reporting on a recent study out of the University of Sydney. The study shows that 30 minutes of mindful breath before performance steadies the heart rate and calms down the nervous system.

The Study

Psychologists Andrew Kemp and Ruth Wells lead a research team that experimented on a group of 46 musicians and singers. After being hooked up to a device that measured changes in their heart rates, the musicians were asked to perform a difficult piece and their heart rates and anxiety levels were measured.

Then, the musicians were divided into three groups.

  • The first group performed a slow, deliberate breathing exercise for 30 minutes
  • The second group did the same and stayed hooked up to the device to see the results of their breathing
  • The third group just relaxed on their own without special breathing instructions.

The musicians then performed a second, equally difficult piece of music.

The Results

The results showed that the musicians who felt anxious during the first performance experienced lower anxiety after doing the breathing exercises- much lower than those who simple relaxed.

The researchers suggest that slow, mindful breathing helped the musicians regulate their physiological stress levels. That is, it helped regulate their shaking hands, sweating palms, and butterflies in the stomach – all physical traits of anxiety.

It seems that emphasizing the exhale during slow breathing also helps. Our heart rate can increase with inhalation, and decrease with exhalation. So focusing on a long, slow exhale helps decrease the heart rate and thus lowers the amount of anxiety that we feel before a performance.

The Takeaway

So, remember those breathing exercises you learned in yoga or wellness class? Start using them! They are an easy, effective way to calm the mind and the body before class, rehearsal, auditions, and of course, performance. Remember that it takes a little time to master, so start practicing now to become a master by the time you really need it.