The dance world is fast paced, focused but all over the place, driven, difficult, emotionally and physically draining and awesome. But in an environment where so many things are coming and over and twirling and rolling, it can cause anxiety within our dancing bodies.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, "Anxiety helps us get out of harm's way and prepare for important events, and it warns us when we need to take action." Sound familiar, dancers?
Constantly needing to be alert both physically, mentally and emotionally can create an anxious energy within us which will actually harm our dancing.
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Harvard Medical School wrote about the physical and physiological effects of stress on the body:
"Anxiety is a reaction to stress that has both psychological and physical features. The feeling is thought to arise in the amygdala, a brain region that governs many intense emotional responses. As neurotransmitters carry the impulse to the sympathetic nervous system...
In the short term, anxiety prepares us to confront a crisis by putting the body on alert. But its physical effects can be counterproductive, causing:
So let's talk about the tough stuff that stress dancers out and see if it's "worth it" or not to allow that anxiety into your body.
It is natural to look at other dancers' bodies, feet, ability to turn/jump/glide across the stage in envy. Our world is set up like that with auditions weeding out and choosing who will dance what role based on ability. But this obsession can actually ruin your own dancing. Remember, you are not in their body, you are in your body. Your own collection of muscles, bones, ligaments, balance and range of motion. You have your own challenges to overcome, so do not worry about what other dancers are able to do. Focus the energy you're using to look at other dancers on your own dancing. Each day try to jump a little higher, reach a little further, stay in the splits a little longer, understand petit allegro a little more intimately. Create your own world with your energy instead of powering other dancers.
This is where a little anxiety can be a helpful tool. Remember, anxiety is there to help prepare your body for a big event by alerting your senses. Allow that to work for you, instead of against you. A great teacher once said, "Transfer nerves into energy." You can also transfer nerves into focus. You may not "feel ready" for an audition, but that's anxiety talking and trying to bring you down. Stop that thinking right away and start transfering it into positive thoughts of focus, energy, effort and preparedness. Breathing exercises can slow your parasympathetic nervous system which prompts the body, brain and muscles to relax.
Dancers experience injuries. A recent study by the Center of Injury Research and Policy of the Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital revealed 113,000 dancers were treated in emergency rooms from 1991 - 2007, which is a 37 percent increase. Of those injuries, sprains/strains made up 52 percent of those injuries. You have to understand that as an athlete, physical injuries will inevitably happen. So let's remove stress from this process (because stress will cause the injury to be worse). To prevent injuries, you have to understand your body and the importance of warming your body up before class or performances [Read about how to properly understand your warm-up]. You also have to understand how to properly execute moves [for example, landing in plié after a jump]. If you have an injury, you have to understand the process of icing, medication and rehabiliation. The more you know, the more prepared you are to tackle healing without anxiety. You are capable of coming back to dance and continuing your work, but if you stress about it, the physiological effects will slow your healing and keep you out of dance longer. Don't let stress win this one.
Dance can be a difficult career when it comes to money. Since the arts are usually founded on donors or grants, it can mean very little gets dispersed to the dancers. You want to be smart financially and plan ahead. Grab your calendar and look at your situation. Create a monthly bill chart so that you know what is coming in [and for how long based on your current contract] and what is going out. Once you feel more organized and in control of what is coming in and going out, you can feel more confident about the flow of money. Always pull a percentage of your income to a "rainy day / emergency" fund. This will help reduce stress while you're between contracts.
There is often a lot of pressure to impress one person: an artistic director, a parent, a significant other, a donor, a teacher or friend who doubted your chances. You have to let this confidence-eating anxiety go. If you're dancing for someone else, you're missing out on a lot of the joy. But remember, who you are, what you look like and how you dance may not be what that one other person is looking for in their performance or company. That doesn't mean you are a terrible dancer, it simply means that isn't the company or show or role for you. Stop trying to impress one person to get one job and start striving to impress yourself on stage and in life.
Photo: Maria Doval Ballet
As dancers, we let other people define what "making it" means. "Making it" means moving to New York City and getting into a professional company or performing on Broadway. Nothing else seems to "count." But this anxiety can lead you into a path that may not be meant for you. There are companies, ballet and modern, all over the world, and there are also schools, non-profit organizations and theater companies that work in the arts field. You are the only one who can define what "making it" actually means, and then you are responsible for making it.
You will be jumping around a lot. Even if you aren't jumping around from company to company, you will be jumping around from learning one ballet to the next. In the dance world, we are always doing more than one thing at a time. To lessen this stress, you have to stay organized and in control. Buy a calendar so that you can clearly mark when you are rehearsing what, and what your call times are. Write down every detail of where you need to be, at what time, with what, prepared to do what. The more detailed you are on paper, the less you have to remember in your brain (save that room for choreography notes).
Dancers are required to recall a lot of information on the spot. They have to remember how to properly execute a move, the sequence of the moves, the speed of the moves, how to interact with a partner, and detailed requests from the choreographer. One way to alleviate this anxiety is to keep a dance notebook of everything you need to recall. You can review your notes as you're tying your pointe shoes or stretching each morning. Refreshing your memory will help you stay in on top of everything choreographers are asking you to recall.
How do you relieve your anxiety?