Understanding Performance Anxiety

            “Life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it.”   ― Dorothy M. Neddermeyer

            With the arrival of spring, comes the chance for dancers to perform in showcases, recitals, and demonstrations.  Although the opportunity to perform for friends, family, and other audience members provides dancers the chance to share their passion, it can also lead to performance anxiety.

The Scream by Edvard Munch

            Athletes, public speakers, singers, and actors, as well as dancers experience performance anxiety.  The anxious feelings develop when the performer begins to doubt him or herself and believes that he or she may not be able to meet all of the demands that performing requires.

            The body has a definite physical response to the stress of this situation, and if the dancer is not aware of what is happening, the shaking legs or “butterflies” in the stomach can be upsetting.  Dancers are known for being able to control their bodies, and when the body takes over, it can be very disconcerting.

            The body’s built-in alarm system, also known as the fight or flight response, is activated when a threat is perceived that will upset the status quo or force a dancer out of his or her comfort zone.

            It prepares the body to fight off and survive the threat by triggering the release of the hormones epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol.   The hormones relax the muscles of the lungs to allow more oxygen to enter the body and speed up the heart rate so the additional oxygen can be carried by the blood to the brain and the muscular system.  The increased delivery of oxygen to the brain increases focus and concentration, but it can also cause the dancer to feel lightheaded and/or dizzy. 

            Glucose, or blood sugar, is the body’s source of energy. The increased blood flow quickly delivers the glucose to the muscles so that they are ready to react.  The muscles also tense in preparation for movement, which can cause involuntary shaking.

            In order to transport the glucose to the muscles, certain blood vessels dilate, or expand, while those that lead to other parts of the body constrict, or begin to close, so that the blood is directed toward the muscles and brain and diverted away from the other systems.  As a result, the digestive system slows down, causing feelings of nausea and/or stomach upset, and hands and feet may begin to tingle or feel cold.  The lack of blood circulation in the feet is what is responsible for the saying, “he got cold feet”, meaning that the person was too nervous or anxious to follow through with the intended promise or performance.

            As the heart rate and breathing rates increase, the body begins to heat up.  In an effort to cool itself down, the body begins to sweat.  The sweating response also serves to make the skin wet and slippery so that a person could escape if captured.

            Additionally, the pupils of the eyes dilate to let in as much light as possible and to help survey the surroundings.

            While a performance is hardly a matter of life and death, the body perceives anything causing anxiety as a danger and threat.  This physiological response is a normal one, and research has shown that most dancers believe that it can have a positive influence upon a performance.  The increase in available energy, paired with the increased ability to concentrate, puts the performer in a highly vigilant state.

            Performance anxiety only becomes a problem if the dancers feel like they cannot control what is happening in their bodies.  Not understanding the feelings of nausea, dizziness, shaky limbs, and rapid breathing, can cause the dancer to feel a loss of control and panic.

            Research studies have found ballet dancers tend to experience more anxiety than those who study other dance styles and that soloists or principal dancers report more symptoms than members of the corps de ballet or ensembles.  However, all dancers report experiencing some level of performance anxiety.

            It is important for dancers to understand what is happening in their bodies as they nervously wait in the wings for an entrance.  The stress response to the idea of performing in front of an audience is a normal one.  By educating dancers about the body’s response, we can provide a feeling of control that empowers them.  This sense of control will allow them to use the response to positively affect their performances rather than allowing panic to set in, causing the stress response to become debilitating.