Dance Advice

Coping with Competition Stress

Are you preparing for a dance competition? Do you find that you dance well in the studio but nerves often get the better of you when it comes to performing on stage? Dance Informa recently talked to two dance professionals to help you come up with an action plan for dealing with nerves so your talents can shine through.

Alexandra Cownie

Alexandra is a former professional dancer and the author of How To Be a Ballet Dancer. Having performed extensively in Europe, she now lives in Australia where she is a renowned master class and classical repertoire teacher.

What are your top three tips for dealing with stress and nerves at a competition?

“1. While you warm up, think about a time when you danced really well and felt very confident. Visualise how you felt and use that feeling to pump yourself up. Smiling, shaking your limbs dynamically and looking upwards will help you do that.

2. Practice positive thinking. The quality of your self-talk can literally make or break your performance.  Watch out for negative thinking that comes up by watching the other competitors. These thoughts are very harmful to the quality of your performance, so stay positive and be there for yourself.

3. Keep in mind that everyone is nervous and wants to do their best. If you can be calmer than them, with only the ‘good’ stress, you will be way ahead of the competition.”

Dancer and author Alexandra Cownie

Dancer and author Alexandra Cownie

What can we do to combat negative thinking when nervous?

“Think of something funny! You can even have your favourite funny video ready to go on your smart phone (or your mum’s) in case you start to feel too tense. Laughter will help you let go of the unnecessary pressure. Once you feel in a brighter mood, take a moment to refocus on your dance with a short meditation.”

Is there an optimum diet and time to eat leading up to a competition?

“Eating is something that needs to be tested to suit your specific needs. However, here are some tips:

–      Eat a healthy dinner the night before

–      Never skip breakfast, no matter how nervous you are

–      Test in rehearsals when is the best time for you to eat before you go on stage so you can be ready for the big day

–      Drink small sips of water all day long

–      Eat smaller meals and snacks, but eat them more often to keep your blood sugar regular”

What happens when something goes wrong on stage?

“Every single dancer in the world has made mistakes on stage. From memory loss to falling, how you deal with the issue will impact the outcome of the competition. Keep going, keep smiling and focus on what is to come instead of what went bad. As long as you are on stage, you still have a chance to impress.”

As a dancer, did you have any pre-competition rituals or routines?

“I would always visualise my dance routine done perfectly in my head before going to bed the night before and again while warming up before the show. It helped me focus on doing things right instead of worrying about what may go wrong.”

“I would also always take a moment to look quietly at the stage from behind the curtain, take deep long breaths and remind myself why I am doing this and how much I love dancing. This helped me give to the audience, because even in competitions, dance is dance and the judges are your audience – you have to dance for them and not only perform technical moves. That is what makes a real dancer.”

Dancer Aaron Smyth, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School

Aaron Smyth performing with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.

Aaron Smyth

Aussie Aaron Smyth is a Genee Gold medal winner who is currently dancing as a guest artist throughout the USA and South Africa, as well as performing with English National Ballet. He has previously worked with American Ballet Theatre II and the Royal Ballet and has been a medallist and finalist in many international ballet competitions.

Skill and artistry aside, what do you think gave you the edge to do so well in competitions?

“I take a lot of pride in my stage presence and charisma on stage and making sure I portray whichever character I am dancing spot on. I think that really sorts the boys from the men.”

Is there a particular win that you are most proud of?

“Yes, winning the Gold Medal at the Genee International Ballet Competition, as well as the Bravo Audience Choice Award. It was a very special win as I had been planning to compete in this competition ever since I was a young boy. Also, hearing about all the previous winners going onto exceptional careers was very inspiring. There was also a lot of excitement as the Genee was on at the same time as the Beijing Olympic Games, so when I got Gold I felt like I did Australia proud. Also, Dame Antoinette Sibley was a judge and she doesn’t give Gold Medals easily!”

What are your tips for staying calm in a big competition?

“To breathe and treat it like a performance. Really just try to have fun and learn from your other competitors.”

Do you have a pre-show ritual?

“Not really, I just like to have a nice warm up, iPod stuck in my ear and stay focused. I also have a special hand shake with my mum before I go on stage.”

How do you spend the day before a competition?

“By this time I am feeling excited, anxious, nervous and stressed. I try to be surrounded by family and friends and try to distract my nerves and have one last run through of my variations.”

In general, do you feel nervous before a competition or performance?

“Yes, I get very nervous before a comp or just a normal performance. I think it’s a good thing, because when you hit the stage adrenaline kicks in and it’s all okay.”

Have you had any onstage mishaps, and if so how did you deal with them?

“YES! In the first round at the USA International Ballet Competition we were dancing the pas de deux from Coppelia and there was a panel of the most prestigious judges from major companies around the world. We weren’t even half way through the pas de deux when the cuff of my costume got caught in the back of my partner’s dress and it was stuck! We had to literally re-choreograph the pas de deux whispering to each other, with me attached to her. We ran off stage screaming ‘scissors!’ and I had to be cut from her costume. Then I ran on for my solo and it was fine from then on. We thought we were going to be cut, however, we ended up winning the Silver Medal!”

Good luck readers! May you perform exceedingly well in your upcoming competitions, learn a lot and enjoy the experience.

Photo (top): Aaron Smyth and Alys Shee compete at Varna IBC 2010. Photo courtesy of Aaron Smyth.

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