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It’s complicated, and it may just be a part of you are as an artist. But you’re not alone!
On the cover:
Stage fright or performance anxiety is the anxiety, fear, or persistent phobia which may be aroused in an individual by the requirement to perform in front of an audience, whether actually or potentially (for example, when performing before a camera).
That's not a shimmy, I'm shaking.
You’ve worked SO HARD! Why does this have to happen?
According to a review in the American Journal of Psychiatry, those jitters you’re feeling are the product of a complex neuro-chemical set of interactions. Words like “amygdala” “GABA-ergic neurons” and even your genetics could be at play (Fox and Kalin, 2014.) One review focusing on social anxiety even points to behavioural inhibition learned during infanthood as a contributing factor.
In summary, it’s complicated, and it may just be a part of you are as an artist. But you’re not alone! Performance Anxiety, despite not being a formal diagnosis in most medical communities, can be so debilitating among professional musicians it can contribute to shortened careers (Kenny, Driscoll, Ackermann 2016).
As belly dancers, we focus heavily on body acceptance and positive body image, but brain acceptance and mental health acceptance seem to be lagging behind in our community. So here’s a few things YOU can do to help meet your mind where it is, and be a little more at peace with your shakies.
1) Over prepare. This is advice I got directly from R. Brice at one of her dance intensives, and if you ever have the chance to study with her, do it. This is great advice. Let’s say you have a show Dec 1st, and today is, let’s say, August 1st. Start preparing now. Learn your choreography early, master your prop NOW, and spend the last couple weeks leisurely reviewing a piece you already know. Practice often, if only for a few minutes a day. Oh, and know your costume. Inside and out.
That being said…
2) AVOID practicing the day of. For me, personally, sleep is part of the integrative process. I need to sleep to make practice and study count. I have also read that studying on the day of an exam does little for recall, and that’s my experience in dance, too. I just wind up freaking out if I mess up. And I don’t need that!
3) Mindful meditation. This is a little woo woo, but hear me out. Think about what you KNOW you do well in the piece, and think about how much you’re looking forward to doing your favorite move! Picture yourself in your mind totally rocking it out. Seriously, before you go out, form a mental image of yourself totally killing it. This is akin to “confidence-enhancing imagery.” Related to this is….
The positive reach: This comes from The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle, a must read for any dedicated artist. Coyle advises us not to think in negative terms. For example, turn “I hope I don’t screw up that ummi layer” into “I’m gonna nail that ummi layer.” There’s a surprising amount of power in just thinking in positive terms rather than negative, and it is dangerously easy to think in negative terms. We’re kind of conditioned by our society to think about ourselves in terms of negatives——especially us women. The positive reach might take some practice, but it’s totally worth it.
4) Have a friend in the audience… or MAKE a friend in the audience, and smile! The Compleat Belly Dancer says if we smile all the time, our face becomes a frozen mask, and that’s true, so smile when you mean it! Pick someone in your audience who is smiling or likely to smile back (children are pretty good at this) and smile at them. The simple act of smiling makes us feel better, more at ease. The same is true of frowning. Frowning will make you feel more negative.
5) Talk it out. OK, this one sounds hokey, but talking through your anxiety with classmates or troupe members will really help you understand your anxiety. And understanding is power.
6) Perform often. I used to get the shakes at student recitals, every single one. I shook so badly I couldn’t bend my knees and I couldn’t do hand waves AT ALL. So for a year I hit up every. Single. Hafla. I could find in drivable range. People got sick of me. But you know what? I stopped shaking at haflas. Now, festivals, and big stage shows I’m still in the back doing breathing exercises and meditating, but hafla performances are kind of fun!
7) If you start freaking out, focus on your breathing. You know that weird, noisy breathing technique from yoga class? Or the alternating nose thing? Do those over a shimmy. You’ll be warming up and focusing your mind.
After all this, you may still be shaking, but it’s important to note that some experts in modern psychiatry view anxiety as a completely normal part of a functional person’s emotional spectrum, and the reason we struggle with anxiety so much is because we choose to struggle with it. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, instead, focuses on accepting your anxiety for what it is (ACT; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2011; Juncos, Cardaciotto, et al. 2013). I think this is something we could all be a little open to.
I have one, very important DON’T:
DO NOT DRINK ALCOHOL before a performance to alleviate anxiety. This is not a healthy behavior. Alcohol LOWERS your coordination——yes! Even one drink of it!——affects your memory and overall puts you at risk of injury and lowered performance quality. While alcohol is usually present at parties and performances, and it’s OK to have a toast before going out, if you are drinking alcohol regularly to mitigate performance anxiety, you are developing a dangerous habit. Self-medication with alcohol is NEVER OK. If you find you are doing this, please explore alternative means of anxiety mitigation or seek the advice of a good ol’ physician. An insightful family practitioner will be able to recommend a quality specialist.
Doctor’s Note: If you are a regularly performing or professional artist with performance anxiety that you consider debilitating or limiting to your career, it may be worth your while to seek professional advice. There are medicines that can help alleviate anxiety, and better than that, there is a thing called cognitive behavioural therapy that may be very helpful to you. Just a thought!
Romana Bereneth, Contributor: Romana Bereneth is the stage name for Louisville-based belly dancer and science fiction writer Megan McIntosh. She started belly dancing in 2010 at the suggestion of a fellow church member and committed to performing and teaching as a professional in 2015. With over a thousand training hours under her own hip belt in topics ranging from music to floor work, cabaret and tribal fusion, Romana is a knowledgeable resource for belly dancers in the Ohio River Valley and Mid-West. (more...)