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Performance Anxiety

Anxiety and self-doubt are common before a performance. Even your most seasoned performers continue to experience it, especially presenting a piece for the first time. Why? It means we care. It means that the performance has significance to us. These are all good things.

So how can we parlay our anxiety and doubt into something useful that will help us on stage? It’s about mindset. We have to use these things to help us get that slight edge to get to the finish line at our best. This is eustress which is a good kind of stress. Use it to help motivate you to get a better grip on your choreography. The more you practice the more you can just dance and not think about the counts. The more you practice, the more you can just feel the rhythms and story.

Most of us, when we practice, spend a lot of time counting – especially for group performances. Counting helps us to be on the same page so we can create synchronicity and clarity in the piece. As you are playing the music and counting, you are also training your brain at the same time to hear the rhythm in the music so that when you stop counting, your body will dance on time.

It can be hard to let go of the drive to count and to do a piece perfectly. Once you do, a lot of the anxiety will dissipate. Know that mistakes may happen. This is part of the live performance. Give yourself a break, a little love and forgiveness as well. You are going to do your best. Get out there and perform your ass off and let the cards fall as they may.

Children & Dancing

Children are little sponges for information. Have you watched a young child regularly acquiring information? It is crazy to see what they are able to take in over small periods of time.

When children start dancing at a young age, the really young just do as they are told and think nothing of it. There isn’t the self-awareness to realize that others may be judging. They were put in a program and told to do something and that is exactly what they do.

I was at a competition recently and observed children from previous years who had reached a turning point of self-awareness. Some who had been blissfully unaware of everyone else on the floor and full of joy when they had walked on the floor were now fearfully eyeing others on the floor, aware that they were competing and being observed. There was self-conscious mannerisms that had newly developed. It was interesting to see this brain maturation in motion while sad to see that maturing meant increased fear.

Fear does not have to be a debilitating thing. In fact that stress can become a eustress (beneficial stress) that propels greatness. If not groomed the right way, that stress can breakdown into distress which will halt growth in the activity. That distress may become debilitating and force a dancer to retire from the activity as the anxiety becomes too overwhelming to gain any outweighing benefit.

We have to be so careful with the children once they reach self-awareness and make sure they are still doing things for positive reasons. This applies to the parents as well. Often the competitive parent becomes competitive on their child’s behalf and can take the fun out of the dance for the child. The distress may not develop into full blown anxiety until a later stage, but the seed is planted in the young, so be mindful what you want to sow.

Feeding the Fire

We all lose our fire intermittently. No one can be 100% of the time and this can be difficult to face when artistically inclined in a pursuit. We have expectations on us – sometimes self-induced, sometimes induced by others. These expectations can create such a heavy burden that when we flounder, it can seem difficult to pick up and carry on.

So what can we do to navigate these moments when not at our best? Continuing to try to push through the struggle can be more damaging than good especially for the high strung. It is usually the first inclination though making it seem like the best idea. A break can be more beneficial though. Artists are often in their head. This usually results in mind chatter that can be hard to escape. The mind chatter maybe exploring artistic approach, ideas for new endeavours, or fumbling through a problem. This chatter can take a negative turn when we are stuck. The chatter usually gives way to questions about whether we are good enough, whether we are artistically emptied, whether we can ever be as brilliant as we once were. It can be devastating and sometimes gives reason to give up.

So how do you rekindle the artistic fire? Find the strength to keep pushing? Taking time away is often what is necessary. Getting out of the environment in which you normally pursue your work can be best. It takes you away from what is reminding your that you are stuck. The change of scenery can also inspire new ideas. Changing up your routine if you cannot get away from your environment can be helpful. Even just swapping when you do things can expose you to new inspiration because you are no longer seeing and doing as you normally do everyday. Giving yourself some credit that rest is not going to destroy your career is helpful as well. Again, we cannot be 100% all of the time. Sometimes we need to take the time to gather the kindling needed to stoke the fire. Without that, the fire may burn out forever.

Passion Pursuit

In hard times, people who are passionate and sacrifice for their art or craft, often start questioning that path. Work maybe hard to come by while living costs remain or escalate. How do you find the vigour to continue on your path?

I believe those who live and breath their work (artistic or not), can reach tipping points where they question motivation. Is this enough? Does this define me? Who would I be without this? Sometimes these questions are forced when on the precipice of losing it all – whether that career path is failing or being threatened to be taken away due to illness, familial responsibility, or other life obligations.

Why do we work so hard for something that may not have tangible results? This is something difficult for those who are not impassioned by their work to understand. Many people drag themselves to work out of necessity – financial obligations, lifestyle enslavement, fear of not having enough. They go to work because they feel they have to not because they enjoy it. We spend so many hours per week in our work environments that is difficult for me to understand how you can spend that much time “working of the man” when it is not something you like.

Would we not be better off pursuing our passions even when it is tough? Of course, that would breed more happiness as work would be play and something you do rather than have to do. Pursuing passion is terrifying for most as it takes you off the well trodden path that society has paved en route to success. We have been trained from youth that life is meant to be lived along a given map: get an education, get a good paying job, get married, have children. Are we enslaved to this ideology and sacrifice living to stay on this map? Does it make us happy? What would life be like if you pursued what truly made you happy?

Deception Requirement?

In communities where politics are rampant, it can be hard for the straightforward to survive. Those who are straightforward and speak their truth are often condemned for doing so. This is unfortunate because these are the people you can trust. They will tell you to your face what they really think rather than placating you with compliments then stabbing you in the back when you turn.

The straightforward are hard to find these days. Majority lie about how they actually feel in effort to protect feelings of others. How does lying help you protect feelings? Underhandedness and deception have never been things that I have found endear me to another. Thinking that someone is on your side when you find out they are not is unnecessary and more hurtful than the lamination of kind words spoken.

Yes, in adult communities, we are expected to mediate our own feelings – there is little expectation for someone else to do so. However, when politics of double speak or down right deception are used in small communities are used to manipulate and deceive, I would consider that unnecessary.

I am addressing this as a dear friend of mine was recently fooled within the community and hurt badly after pouring their heart and soul out for many years into a volunteer project. Rather than address any concerns with that person directly, this person was ousted when it had been made clear this would not be the case leading up to the event. It is disgraceful with the education level, experience, and intertwining of this group that this was chosen to be done. Can we learn to just say what we mean? Kindness is far more powerful than deception.

License to Play

I have been so fortunate in my life to never have felt that any job I have held has been work. Whether it was wrapping hotdogs like a mad kid at Taylor Field, costumer service for the RCMP training cadets, serving at restaurants in university, being a dentist and business owner, or being a dance performer, choreographer, and teacher, my “work” has always felt like play.

How does this happen when some dread the work they attend to daily? Maybe it’s because I have always approached life as a game. When I was growing up, it allowed me to navigated my home situation. In school, it was how I navigated high academic demands, in my teens it was how I survived severe bullying and abuse. I’ve always liked figuring out the rules of the game and playing to best myself, no matter the beauty or ugliness of the game.

How does that turn “work” into play? First off, I love busy-ness. My two careers happened to be the two loves of my life. At 24, I was a full-time dentist and dancer. Dentistry – well, I played dentist in my parents’ car since I was two. Dentistry was a dream career. Why I loved teeth and everything about the mouth was beyond my parent’s comprehension – there was nothing but blue collar and nurses in my family. However, it was something that I just fell in love with. I remember in high school, going to the U of S for Discover UofS day. I came out of the day having seen the physiotherapy, medicine and dental departments. In the dental department, I was handed a dental drill to work on a life-size plastic tooth which they allowed me to pocket and take home – I actually still have the thing in my jewelry box. I remember shaking that little tooth at my mother saying, “dentistry, I still love dentistry”, and that was that. I didn’t look at any other options after that day in grade 11.

I went from playing dentist as an imaginative child to developing my artistic side. I loved drawing – not colouring, but creating my own art. Since people didn’t really appreciate my untrained hands poking in their mouth past a certain age, it started to be about creating dance and theatrical works in my friends’ basement. We put up sheets as curtains that could be drawn, created scripts with dance interludes (I was a gymnast not a dancer, but the idea intrigued me).

So maybe I was intuitively drawn to these two occupations and had the energy to develop both? I do consider myself absolutely lucky that I have had the opportunity to live out two amazing occupations simultaneously and on their own at certain points. I am also super lucky that when clinical (hands-on) dentistry was no longer an option, I had already developed enough to fully transition back into a full-time dance career with a body that was built for heavy manual labour according to my permanent disability assessing physiotherapist. Lucky me. Truly.

Ceiling of Complexity

Have you been training and found that suddenly you can’t seem to break through a barrier. Sometimes this is called a plateau which can be a physical leveling of progress – perhaps the body reseting, repairing, and preparing for the next phase of change. Sometimes it is psychological manifesting as physical.

I’ve seen this many times in my past business with employees and colleagues. Thereis great capacity to improve, but they have limiting beliefs and so they self-sabbotage often without realizing. An example is taking a course that could grossly expand their skills and they have all intention of implementing. A few months later, the skill has not been implemented and the knowledge application and skill expansion is lost. The same thing happens in dance.

Why do we do this to ourselves? There is a concept called the ceiling of complexity and it relates to our comfort zone. A common example is those who win the lottery. When they are followed up with a few years after the win, the money is gone, nothing has changed in their life, and they are back to their original earning potential. It is an interesting phenomenon which boils down to aversion to change and how we perceive ourselves.

Let’s put it in dance terms. We get to a point where we are satisfied with ourselves – on the social floor, the stage, in our teaching. We have resources around us that can take us to a new level, past this comfortable plateau. We tap into these resources, maybe invest some money in our training. Check in a year later, not much has changed. We went above the comfort zone by acquiring new skills then allowed ourselves to slip back into it by not putting it to use.

The reverse happens as well. We get comfortable and we start slipping in our skills. We see others around us who we had surpassed starting to be more skillful. This lights a fire in us to up our skills so that we maintain our ranking within the community in whatever capacity. We have brought ourselves back to that comfort zone after slipping below it.

So how can we push ourselves to continually increase that ceiling of complexity and move that comfort zone up to a higher level? Awareness is usually the key. Start off by setting some goals for the next time period. I like to work in quarters – 90 day chunks – as it puts a time limit allowing for reasonable change in myself while keeping me on a short time leash so that I can’t procrastinate. At the end of that 90 days, I look at what my goals were, what I achieved, what I didn’t achieve and why. Then I set the next 90. I do look ahead as well for 6, 9, and 12 month chunks also because often there are steps that need to be taken in the short-term to achieve those longer term goals. If you are feeling like you have hit that plateau, put ten minutes aside and look at where you want to be in the next 3, 6, 9, and 12 month periods and outlay the steps to get there. The awareness alone will help you move that zone up a notch easily.

Symmetry

In life, balance is always a fleeting state that is chased by many. Balance in personal vs. professional. Balance in acquisition. Balance in relations. Balance in spirit. Balance is always sought and rarely achieved. In the physical body, this is another chased state. In dance symmetry can be hard to achieve, but is important for so many reasons.

Symmetry of training inputs help build symmetry of our physicality – muscle, nerves, blood vessels, brain activity, flexibility vs. strength of tissue. It is important to make sure we do things symmetrically so that we keep our body in balance. Many a career ending injury has been due to asymmetry. A friend last year tore his achilles tendon right off as his strength and flexibility were not in balance. Another friend ended his professional competitive career due to a severely asymmetrical sport.

When we are learning patterns of movement – whether a solo choreography, partnered patterns, or technique – it is easy to practice our stronger coordination also known as dominant side more than our weaker side. It is pleasing to our ego to do things well with less effort. However, this is where asymmetry in our physically stems. Often when choreography is built, it is built to the strength of the choreographer. I remember having a choreographer with a sore knee who inadvertently created everything involving leg strength on her healthy side. This ended up creating injuries in the company members of various types (back, knee, ankle) because of such heavy reliance on that side without adding inputs to our training that balanced it out.

In partnered dancing, especially ballroom and social dances, there is heavy reliance on unilateral forces to delivery leads and respond as a follow. As such, we end up with asymmetry in arm, shoulder, back, and leg musculature (whole body asymmetry really) if other inputs are not made to our system. I competed last year at Canadian Championships with my partner having had to correct many leads to my “wrong side” in dancesport because my “correct side” was injured and unable to take the stress of my lead’s physical input. It was an eye-opening experience for my partner, myself, and my coach as we were determined to make it to the championship regardless of my physical condition. Normal lead and follow partnering was something we hadn’t realized we too so easily for granted. There are dancers in my field with career ending injuries of soft tissue and spinal nature because one side was so strong from leader’s physical demands on their receiving side, that it altered the rotation of the spinal column and musculature and created a chronically painful injury that was no longer worth trying to overcome.

How do we combat this in our training? Try mirror your choreography – this is a great physical and mental challenge especially when certain moves are classically unilateral. If you are training in a solo style class, you can ask your instructor to make you go through the mirrored version or take the sequences home and work on doing this yourself. It is good for the body and an interesting challenge for your brain that will clearly point out where physical and neural weakness exist from one side to the other. With a little know how and discipline, we can make sure we are giving ourselves symmetrical inputs to sustain our bodies and careers maximally.

To Date a Dancer

So you think you want to date an impassioned dancer? To date a dancer, you need to be a strong person – emotionally, mentally, and socially. It’s not easy dating a full-time dancer. Many fantasize and some fetishize dating a dancer. There are some things for which you have to prepare yourself.

You have to be emotionally strong to date a professional dancer. Why? Dancers are going to go through ups and downs and need someone grounded beside them who isn’t going to add flames to the fire. The ups and downs are part of the job. The ups may include excitement about new work, new partners, travel, artistic influence, the creation process. The down may include not getting the desired role, politics in the community, back-stabbing by other artists, artistic blockage. This realm is not a typical 9-5 job. Even if you are hired with one company full-time, you are likely to experience many ups and downs as you bump up against ego of directors, fellow dancers, financial influencers, politics, fatigue, etc. Being a freelance dancer is worse. There is constant seeking of work, constant artistic creation, and fighting for survival against emerging and existing artists.

You have to be mentally strong to date a professional dancer. Why? You are going to have any insecurity in the relationship easily flushed out especially if your partner performs professionally. Jealousy is usually the easiest way to identify the insecurity rearing its head. Watching your partner being lauded by audience members as they watch from afar then meet up close. Watching students who admire your partner interact in a friendly way with your partner can be threatening. Dance tends to be a professional where physical boundaries of other workplaces would be crossed. Because dancers interact physically in their work, they tend not to be as aware of physical touch being an issue as their bodies are often touched so often in a day, there can be desensitization to it.

You have to be socially strong to date a professional dancer. Why? You are likely going to be on their arm at events that are highly social. You are going to see people who get shy in your dancers presence because they have your dancer on a pedestal of admiration. You will have people coming up to find out who you are related to your dancer. If you are someone who is used to being in the spotlight, being on the arm of your dancer can be difficult as you are likely a nobody in their realm. You will also be curiosity in their realm. It can be hard to be the arm candy when you like having the arm candy admire you in your realm. You may have to set your ego aside and let your dancer be the star here, even if you are used to being the star yourself.

Dancers are amazing people. The amount of work they put in to teach, perform, and create is astounding. The artistic process doesn’t sleep so their mind will often drift to it. This can be hard to understand if you have a job that you either just like or don’t like at all. Dancers tend to be intertwined with their work so much so that to try to unwind the work from the artist is nearly impossible. This is a reality of the dancer that has to be understood. Are you tough enough?

 

Learning Variety

How I learn and my students learn can be disparate. This is always the challenge in teaching – being able to present the information of study in a way that satisfies the various learning styles in the class room.

Some students need words. They are more intellectual or heady. They can repeat described patterns like a mantra and create them in their body. These are curious people to me as I can’t talk myself through things fast enough to keep up with my body’s muscle firing to do things on music. It is wondrous to me to watch them listen the words and create the movement. These are more the exception than the rule for my school, but their needs are always addressed.

Many of my students are mimics. They like to have an image created for them of the end point and then they try to replicate. This requires high reliance on mirrors and a lot of mirror studying time – they have to spend time before a mirror to input into the body what that image may feel like. Often the image is not downloaded into bodily sensation because the visual cue is missing, so without the mirror and an image to mimic, the information does not stick. This ends up with returning to the studio repeatedly with the same issue.

If I have the opportunity, I like to touch the person I study so I can feel the anatomical positioning and activation of their body to download that into my own body. By touching their body, I can estimate what it should feel in my own body.  I have students who operate this way and so we employ a hands on technique in classes for anyone who needs this kind of input to understand the concept. It works for less than half of my students, often not working if they are not well in tune with how their muscles activate to create movement. When we do isolation work, we talk about where muscles’ origins and insertions are and how they ultimately move bones closer or farther apart. This helps create mental image of what is happening at a deeper level.

Most people are not solely a verbal, visual, or sensual learner. They are a combination of two to varying degrees and the degree can change dependent on the information being studied. It is fascinating to watch people learn and discern what kind of learner they are so that I can best facilitate their studies. It is one of my favourite challenges in my classroom.