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Overcoming Stage Fright

That is moi about 27 years ago, flying through the air as the Nutcracker Prince. Yes, the fat man was actually in great shape once upon a time. 🙂 But that’s not what this article is about; at least entirely…

That picture was taken from my very first public performance – actually the second performance of the day, but on the first day of my first public performance. As a dancer, especially a male dancer, you have to get over your stage fright and self-consciousness and fast. Look, you’re prancing around on stage in tights with the shape of your genitals clearly visible to the world. Once on stage, it’s too late to be thinking about your balls hanging out…

Admittedly though, I had a serious case of stage fright the first show of the day; so much so that I forgot the final steps to my solo, something that I had practiced for 3 months leading up to the show! I recovered by doing a standard sequence of steps that made it look as if I knew what I was doing. But I was PISSED after that show for losing it!

So during the few hours between the matinee and grand opening night show, I practiced for about an hour and a half before the show, and went over and over my blocking and steps till I could literally do the solo with my eyes closed (which I also practiced). I had it down so well, that I even worked out more complicated maneuvers that I added into the solo (without the artistic director’s knowledge 🙂 ), so confident was I with what I had worked out.

When it came time for my solo in the grand opening, though I was a tad nervous at the start, I was confident and focused enough to nail the solo. I mean nail it. I know the picture is a little grainy, but if you can see my face, what I was doing was playing to the audience; not self-absorbed at all, not giving any thought to how I looked. I was running on pure instinct, trusting in my memory of the steps I needed to execute, which allowed me to interact with my audience, or as my beloved dance teacher and mentor put it, “Make love to my audience.” And I got a standing ovation and yells of “bravo” at the end of my solo. And I in turn walked to the front of the stage, bowed to the audience and applauded them for going on the journey with me.

So how did I get over the stage fright?

People talk about using your nervousness or fear or turning it into some other feeling like anger. Still others say to imagine the audience in their underwear or some other visualization, and there are professional coaches who make tons of money teaching people how to get over their stage fright. The coaches probably work, but why pay when you can teach yourself?

So circling back to how I overcame my stage fright, there are a few things I’ve learned in all my years of performance that I’ll share here:

  1. First, be mechanically prepared; that is, know your shit. This doesn’t necessarily get you over the stage fright in the moment, but it certainly helps to give you confidence.
  2. Be mentally prepared. The best way to describe this is that before you perform, visualize yourself doing it so that once on stage, it’s not a surprise. Racers such as ski, bobsled, and even race car drivers do a lot of visualization to make sure they’ve visualized the right line to take through their course.
  3. Once you hit the stage, JUST DO IT! You know your stuff, you’ve visualized it, so execute. You might feel nervousness, you might feel anxiety, that’s okay. After almost 40 years of performing in public, I still get nervous before all my performances. But I don’t try to compensate for it. I simply execute. My performance may not be sexy; it may not be sophisticated. But I’m just doing it. Once I get comfortable, I get confident, and once confident, I can truly put on a performance.

Another thing that really helps me is simply being in the moment and realizing that “it is what it is.” There’s nothing I can do about it – even if I make a mistake. Can’t stop a song if I mess up, so I just have go on. Being in the moment is simply being present. Not dredging up the past and not looking into the future, but purely focusing on where you are and what you’re doing (gawd that sounds like Yoda). After all, where you’re at is no accident. You chose to be there; likewise, your audience chose to be where they’re at – where you are. Nothing can change that, so be in the moment and show up.

Notice that I haven’t once mentioned anything about analyzing your situation. I think analyzing and trying to figure out why you have stage fright just makes you have it more. Instead, I offer suggestions that put you in action, for to me, it’s action, not thought that breaks the stage fright.

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