Performance Anxiety – Dealing with nerves

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Back in the eighties, a slew of alien movies like Cocoon, Alien, ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind made all of us nervous about what an advanced “space” civilization might think about our Earthly activities. Were they studying our TV shows? Infiltrating our radio waves? Landing in pastures late at night to spy on us in our sleep? Media imaginations ran wild with hypotheses about who or what might be out there watching our every move.

BU-U-U-T what if no one is, or ever was watching?

This thought occurred to me on my way to yoga class – not in terms of alien interest, per se, but rather in terms of the system of checks and balances I have used all of my life to control, correct and shape my behavior. I had become accustomed to the knowledge that others are watching me (at least that is what I told myself). Not aliens, but people like my parents, teachers, friends, Santa, even God all had the sole intention of either rewarding or punishing me based on what they saw. Life had become a series of presentations; the eternal nagging question egging me on; what will they think of me?

Being judged!

“Watching,” and its counterpart “comparison” can be prevalent in yoga class; like when taking a tiny peek over one’s shoulder to see if anyone else can ground their heels in Downward-Facing Dog. But for me, after fifteen years of practice, yoga class has finally become the one place where I just don’t care anymore who is there or what they’re doing. It hasn’t been easy though. In fact, it has taken years and constant reminders from yoga instructors to focus on the breath, still the mind, stay centered in my own body. And most days I can.

Dance is a metaphor for life.

I wish I could say the same for all the other areas of my life, but I’m just now beginning to apply these lessons across the board. For example, I recently had an opportunity to dance at my studios Winter showcase with my coach, John Berry and you know, performance can’t really happen without other people watching. Normally, I take these situations very seriously, spending far more time (hours even) on getting ready and managing my appearance than I do for the actual two minutes it takes to dance the number. The pinnacle of this presentation is, without a doubt, the dress: it has to be the perfect color and cut and covered as much as possible with anything that sparkles, glitters or shines. I have to admit that in the past, the dresses I have worn had no problem outshining me and my dancing. If people weren’t impressed by my dancing, they would at least be impressed with my dress!

A little problem

But this time, I had a little problem. I didn’t have the right costume. I had been looking for one, online and at a few competitions, but I hadn’t found one I liked in my price range. It was coming right down to the wire—one week before our performance, and still nothing. Then, I had a disturbing thought, maybe I should cancel. Maybe I just wouldn’t dance this time. The schedule hadn’t been printed. Maybe it wasn’t too late to back out…

Luckily, the voice of sanity jerked me back to reality, “You’ve got to be kidding! Just go find any old dress and do the dance!” Right, I thought, I can’t back out just because I don’t have the “right” dress. Iwanted to believe that the dancing could preside over the apparel, that it wouldn’t matter what i wore. To be honest, I was having a hard time truly believing it, but I’d made up my mind.

Taking care of business!

I started shopping (for any old dress) on Thursday after work. I tried on some discount prom dresses and bride’s maid’s dresses, but none of them fit right or had a full enough skirt. I went home feeling a little dejected. But on Friday after work, I gave it another shot. I stopped in the Toggery and to my surprise, they were having wine with fruit and cheese and crackers. Well, I thought, even if I don’t find a dress, a glass of wine will do. I took a stroll around the store, Zinfandel in hand, and there it was; a simple long red dress. It had a full skirt and simple neckline, but nothing else. It would be perfect.

Free up your mind

For the first time ever, I was removing the dress from the equation of dance performance. Let me qualify—there’s nothing wrong with having a beautiful dress. But this time, I didn’t want the “look” to be a crutch, an act of smoke and mirrors designed to lure people into believing that I am great. I wanted to strip the image down so the dancing would not be missed. And here comes the Catch-22, without the dress, I would be more vulnerable to scrutiny. There would be nothing to hide behind.

A different mindset

Anymore, when I perform or compete, I try to get myself in a similar state of mind and body as when I’m practicing yoga. Practice is the relevant word here – but a different definition of practice than we normally assign the word. A former coach once told me that dance competitions are won in the studio. What he meant by that is, if when we practice, we give it 100% attention, and focus on our art, then what we do on the day of our competition or performance is simply a result of those hours in the studio – nothing more.

Applying this to dance practice

Approaching my dance practice in this way, it becomes far easier to accept what I do accomplish. I’m not looking for perfection, per se. I’m looking for the hours I’ve spent practicing to show up. If I were trying to demonstrate perfection, I would probably always be disappointed and especially nervous because I know deep down that the idea of perfection belongs to someone else, someone I am comparing myself to.

You see, I never worry about being perfect in yoga class, even though I know people might be watching. But no one else has to live and move in the body I have. It can tackle some Asanas more easily than others. For example, I can relax in full lotus, hero pose and pigeon because I have flexibility in my hips. And the repetition of attendance, the stretching and strengthening have allowed me to improve my strength and balance moves like crow and half moon. I am still working on deepening my folds which are limited by my stubborn hamstrings. Results come slowly, steadily and over time. The evolution of my practice is the reason why I attend yoga class and the same reason why I keep dancing.

But it’s hard not to be a little nervous dancing in front of 100 people, so my goal this time was to relax and allow what I have learned to manifest. For that, the dress didn’t really matter: it was an external factor. The people who watched, although peripheral to the experience, did matter, but not as judges or evaluators. They matter because when you have something special, you need someone to give it to. You need to share it, just like money. You can’t hoard it, or it will ruin you. And because dance brings me immense joy, I naturally want to share that feeling. I know that what I have to offer is always enough if I keep in mind that I’m not presenting myself for judgment, but instead am sharing what I have with an open heart and not basing my value on whether or not people accept that.

Right before we danced, my coach, John Berry, said, “Don’t worry. There isn’t anyone here who knows enough about what you’re doing to decide if you’re good or not.” His comment put my mind at ease and when we stepped out to dance, I was relaxed, calm and did what I know how to do. It was unlikely that I could do anything else, try any harder or be any better. Giving credence to those kinds of thoughts is like looking deep into space expecting an alien starship to zip across the sky; an activity better left for children who still think Santa knows if they are naughty or nice.

When I finished dancing, I changed into jeans and bare feet to rejoin my table where my friend Deanna announced, “Your dancing made me smile.” 

Mission accomplished.

So if aliens do exist and they are out there watching, I hope they enjoy the show.

About the Author:

Tracy Martin contributing writer to CountryDancePros. She is an Author, Life Coach, Soul Searcher and former successful competitive ballroom, swing & country dancer. She has spend countless hours on the floor as a student as a teacher and even more time contemplating and writing about her journey.

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