When I started in bellydance I had a huge fear of being up in front of people. During my first years as a performer I would worry about the show for days ahead of time and get nauseous and sweaty on performance day. Over time, things shifted as I spent more time on stage and dedicated myself to practicing, performing more and gaining confidence in my body’s response to music. Now, getting up in front of a live audience is typically a euphoric and elevating experience. Mistrust in my body and fear of the audience are gone, replaced by joy in movement and gratitude for the audiences presence.
Stage fright can have many physical effects with sweaty palms, dry mouth, queasy stomach and shakes, it can, for some, be debilitating. Most of us experience some level of adrenaline rush or performance anxiety before hitting the stage. In my experience as a competition coach I’ve seen all forms of performance anxiety: from lethargy throughout the day of performance to breaking into tears moments before hitting the stage. …it’s all normal!
Stage fright is a primal fight or flight response to a fearful situation or “threat on your reputation”. It is a natural response designed to protect you from potential “predators” or critics. Most people are afraid to make mistakes or be less than perfect in front of others, I find this is especially true in the realm of bellydance because we are representing another culture and are worried we might do it wrong or offend someone.
When we think of ourselves on the stage and all of the possible things that could go wrong we stimulate a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. Its function is to link the nervous system to the endocrine system; basically operating hormone secretion and nerve impulses. The nervous system controls muscle movement, senses, heartbeat, breathing, digestion, memory and speech while the endocrine system deals with glucose levels in the blood, hydration levels and heat productivity (among other things). So, when the fight or flight fear happens, a signal is sent to the hypothalamus which then secretes hormones to the adrenal glands, thus generating adrenaline. This is when the digestive system shuts down and the body can respond with sweating, muscle tightness, shaking, increased blood pressure, nausea and shortness of breath.
So, what can we do about it? Well, I believe that the first line of defense is in preparation and removing as many unknowns as possible. Have your set together early, know what you’re going do. If it’s choreography, make sure that it’s done far enough in advance so that the weeks before your performance you’re just drilling it, not still creating. If it’s improvisation, know your music inside and out, plan your entrance, transitions between songs and exit. Also, find out about the venue, what kind of lighting and stage is it? How big is the room? What is the show lineup? Decide in advance which costume you’ll wear and make sure it fits you well!
Next, visualize yourself going through your set perfectly several times each day in the week before you perform. Put on your music, sit still and go through the set from start to finish. Visualization is a powerful tool, if you can imagine yourself succeeding and having a fantastic show, you will create that in reality. However, if you spend the weeks before thinking about how much of a mess it’s going to be and all of the things that could possibly go wrong, that is probably what you will create. Think positive, give yourself a deadline for negativity and stick to it. After your deadline you’re only allowed to have positive thoughts about your show.
In the days before your show get plenty of good rest and exercise. Rest will give your body a chance to get fully charged for any extra stress and exercise gives your body a chance to experience the fight or flight response with out any emotional attachment. Getting in healthy whole foods will also give your body the energy it needs to hold up under pressure. If you go out for fast food several times in the week before you’re unlikely to feel good in your body and confidence can wane. Eat foods rich in Vitamin B as well as calcium and magnesium to calm the nerves and maintain a feeling of well being. Avoiding excessive caffeine and alcohol can also help. Although for some, having a cocktail or glass of wine before performing can be a blessing!
Creating a moment in your preparation routine when you switch from everyday you, to performer you is critical. This allows you to have a consistent point in your preparation when you turn off all insecurities, negative voices in your head and general self doubt. You are now your performer self! For me, I switch when I put on my fake eyelashes, once those are on I’m indestructible!
On the day of performance, run through your set a few times, visualize and make sure your costume fits. Take time to breathe, warm up and have a little snack within an hour of your performance time, even if you don’t feel hungry. A small amount of food and breathing will ground you and help control the hormone and nerve responses. Usually the worst time during the stage fright time line is about 5-10 minutes before you hit the stage. Try to find a quiet corner and visualize your set one last time while breathing and setting the intention to go out there and bring it. Don’t let other nervous performers get to you; it can be contagious! Stand in a corner with your back to the room so it’s obvious that you don’t feel like chatting.
Don’t worry so much about being perfect, we are all human. Know that your audience wants to see you and wants you to succeed, shift your focus to giving. After all it is about them, not you.