Dance Advice

Handling Nerves

By Rain Francis.

As we step onto stage or into that audition room, we all tend to get a rush of nerves. How do the professionals in the industry control their anxiety and nervousness? Dance Informa spoke with three talented performers to see how they cope when the pressure’s on.

How nervous do you get before performing?

Daniel Ulbricht
Principal Dancer, New York City Ballet
Generally speaking, I don’t get very nervous.  If it is a new ballet or new role I am dancing, I try to focus on the steps.  Most of our ballets are rehearsed pretty thoroughly.  Sometimes when I know a family member or friend is there I feel a little nervous, because I want to really show my stuff.

May Yen Cheah
Singapore Dance Theatre
It depends on what I’m performing. Usually I don’t suffer from uncontrollable nerves, but I think if I had to go on and do 32 fouettes, I would be very nervous! I definitely used to get very nervous when I was younger. I guess over time and with accumulating performance experience you become more confident.

EDC's Riannon McLean, Richard Causer and David Williams. Photo by Fiona Cullen

Riannon McLean
Expressions Dance Company, QLD Australia
I get very nervous!  No matter what I am performing, I have always experienced nerves throughout my career.

Do your nerves subside as the season progresses?

Daniel Ulbricht
Performing definitely gets easier as you go through a season.  The first couple shows of a season you are really trying to get your rhythm together.  That includes warming up, doing your show, cooling off and the small things in between.  As you go throughout the season you find you know how long everything takes and can relax into things a bit more.

May Yen Cheah
Definitely, because you become more comfortable with the choreography. It becomes an extension of yourself. After repetition and time, you learn not to stress about the steps but to trust your body and muscle memory. Then you start to really experience the freedom of dance and the art of expression.

Riannon McLean
Yes, they do tend to subside. You become a little more confident with your role, allowing you to relax and enjoy it.

What is your best way to deal with nerves?

Daniel Ulbricht
The best way for me to deal with nerves is to turn the situation around.  I try to use it as energy. Instead of thinking that the audience is a group of judges, I think of them as support.  They are there to cheer on art, not pull it apart.  They appreciate it.

May Yen Cheah
It is absolutely necessary to adjust to and get comfortable with the new surroundings: the size of stage, floor material, lights and not having a mirror. Before I go on stage, I like to be alone and get into a zone to prepare myself mentally. This is very calming and helps me to focus.

Riannon McLean
Breathing and staying focused on what I am about to do.

What does your pre-show routine entail?

Daniel Ulbricht of New York City Ballet in Tarantella. Photo by Paul Kolnik

Daniel Ulbricht
I kind of have a pattern.  I don’t like to eat too close to the show. I don’t want to feel too full. Depending on when we go on in the program, I do hair and make-up, and then try to get in a full warm-up. Then I get my costume on, go onstage and walk through the choreography lightly.  Last, I always take a knee before I start the piece.  I always want to take the opportunity to be thankful for the opportunity I am about to share with 2,500 people.  It is truly a blessing to do what we do!

May Yen Cheah
My preparation begins days before the show. Eating well and sleeping well all contribute to dancing well. For warm up, I like to do a ballet class. Then I spend a little time on any problems I had from the previous show or rehearsal. I do my hair and make-up and stay warm as long as possible. Before the show, I revise parts of the choreography in my head to try to imagine what I’m trying to achieve, or to think how I could do something better, and importantly, to remember corrections. Then I am both physically and mentally prepared.

Riannon McLean
I always have to listen to music while I put on my make up and walk the corridors (as I like to pace around). Just before the show I have one track that I listen to to get energised, focused and get my heart rate up.

Are there some situations, or ballets, that make you more or less nervous, and why?

Daniel Ulbricht
The one ballet I get nervous for, even after 10 years, is the Gigue in Mozartiana.  It was one of Mr. B’s last works and has a special solo that is very quirky.  It is genius the way he made it.  The reason I constantly go over it is because there are many familiar sequences that happen to repeat but each time it comes around there is a slight variation.  It is stimulating and you have got to be on to show how great the piece is.

May Yen Cheah
I recently modelled for a runway show for Singapore Fashion Festival 2012, and I was so nervous. All we had to do was walk and do a couple of ballet poses. It was SUPER EASY and yet I was more nervous for this than I’ve felt in a long time. Everything was put together so fast. So for me, preparation is key. I dislike running late, having to rush, and feeling so unprepared.

Riannon McLean
If it’s a premier season then I am extremely nervous on opening night. It’s the first time performing the new work, so there is a lot of expectation for it to be a success and I want to be the best I can possibly be in my role.

Can you describe a time when something didn’t go right on stage, and how you handled it?

Daniel Ulbricht
There have been mishaps on stage that I have both seen and experienced.  The bottom line is: it is not a mistake until you show it. Usually, I can notice it in someone’s eyes first, then the rest of their face.  But it does happen to us all at one time or another.  In the end great technique, experience, and confidence help.

Australian dancer May Yen Cheah performing with Singapore Dance Theatre

May Yen Cheah
Most of the time, it is not as noticeable or as big a deal as we feel it is. I’ve fallen over, missed a climax lift, had a costume malfunction, and fallen out of a lift! My partner threw me up in the air and our grips didn’t work out for some reason. He caught me at the very last minute as my knee hit the ground. I also kneed him in the eye. We whispered to each other “are you ok”, “yeah I’m ok. Are you?” “Yes. Let’s keep going” and we kept dancing until our next exit which is when we realised he had blood dripping down the side of his face! We had a few minutes to freshen up and we then continued on to finish the entire show. The next day he woke up with a black eye. Oops…Sorry! So yeah, it is humiliating at the time, but you have to remember that it happens to everyone, even some of the biggest stars in the world.

Riannon McLean
Most dancers have experienced a time on stage when the mind has a forgetful moment and the body kicks in to take over.  I have had a few of these and those moments can feel like an eternity! You recover yourself quickly and hope the audience never noticed.

What advice would you give to other dancers who suffer from nerves?

Daniel Ulbricht
Just remember to stay calm.  When you are calm, you can think, listen, decide, gauge things, and enjoy it.  When we get nerves or panic we usually hold our breath, get tired faster, and it is not as fun.  Remember the audience is there for the art.  Lastly, remember Lombardi who said, “It is not how hard you fall, but how fast you get up.”  The audience will know what that means….

May Yen Cheah
The more you perform, the easier it gets. It takes practise, like anything else. Taking slow, deep breaths is very helpful. Go somewhere quiet, close your eyes and try to become more aware of your other senses and of your body internally. I find this is very calming and brings focus to the body and mind. Also, don’t focus on the fact that you’re nervous. The mind is very powerful and you will only make yourself more nervous. Think of positive things and the reasons you do what you do. Reassure yourself of your talent and renew your confidence. Remind yourself to be thankful for your opportunities, your passion, and ability. Dance is a gift.

Riannon McLean
You need to acknowledge your nerves and know yourself well enough and how best to deal with them. Never let nerves get the better of you. As a performer I rely on my nerves for every performance and they are a very positive feeling for me. I know I am ready to step out on the stage and perform. Without those butterflies, I know I would be more anxious and nervous trying to find them.

Top photo: May Yen Cheah

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