HEAD GAMES: MENTAL PREPARATION FOR DANCE
Ever had one of those moments where you’re about to dance and your mind totally blacks out? In rehearsal, you’re not sure if you remember the choreography that you’ve known for ages. Or maybe you’re in the wings waiting to go on and can’t even recall how the song you chose goes? The panic is indescribable and very real…until the music comes up. Then, as if by magic, everything is ok.
As dancers, our bodies know exactly what to do when the music starts because it’s ingrained in our muscle memory. It doesn’t matter whether we’re taking a class, teaching a class, or stepping onto the stage, our bodies understand why we are there and what we need to do. The only problem is, our minds don’t always get the memo!
Or maybe you have extreme stage fright or are feeling unmotivated. Perhaps you feel like you’re falling behind in class even though you work as hard as you can, or that you’ve hit a plateau and are stuck in a personal rut.
The reason all of these things come up is because we don’t train our minds to perform in the same the way we train our bodies.
Intellectual preparation for dance is not something that most instructors teach-or even address- in their classes. Dancing, of course, is a physical activity. But in order for a dancer to excel, there needs to be mental and emotional technique in place, too!
Physically, we’ve learned to dance through repetition by constant drilling or rehearsing. Through repeating and perfecting technique, combinations or choreography sequences, we unconsciously merge the mental memory of those actions with our motor control skills, so we barely need to think about what we’re doing. This is why we can perform every day tasks with little or no thought, or why we can go ten years without riding a bicycle, then hop on one and ride away as though we’d never stopped for an entire decade!
Mental preparation for dancing is hugely important, because it actually helps your brain to stay focused intellectually on what you are doing physically. It also helps you to get emotionally “ready” for what dancing onstage, in rehearsal or a class.
Here are some ideas that ought to help you get mentally prepared for dancing.
Before you enter a studio for rehearsal or class, Focus on what you’re about to do. This means completely clearing your mind of any non-dance clutter that could interfere with what you’re about to do. If possible, arrive a little bit early, and start warming up your own. The warm-up will prepare you physically, but it’ll also help you to shift gears, providing a smooth transition into your dance headspace.
If you tend towards stage fright, as you warm up for class or rehearsal, take note of your muscles, where they are tight and where they’re loose. As you work each muscle, think or say these cue words: Loose and Tight. If your shoulders feel like steel, think “tight”, as they loosen up, acknowledge that they are now feeling supple by saying or thinking “loose”. This might seem strange, but if you make this a regular part of your warm up, it will become a habit, the same as your muscle memory. When we get stressed or nervous- like in an episode of stage fright- many of our muscles automatically clench up. If you’ve taken the time to train your mind to be aware of this, when you’re at a show, audition or competition and experiencing stage fright, you can put this concept into play and your muscles will co-operate by limbering up and relaxing. Also, remind yourself to Breathe. Often when we concentrate, we unconsciously hold our breath. This can make your dancing look stilted cause it impedes flow. If you’re nervous or anxious before a performance, taking a few deep, even, slow breaths will calm your jitters.
During Tech Rehearsal especially, stay focused. Teching is a long and sometimes boring process, but if you don’t pay strict attention to what you’re doing, the odds are against you for having a quality show. As you wait for your turn onstage, watch the other performers doing their tech, and take note of where the lights are the hottest and where the stage is dark- this will save valuable time when you’re onstage for your own tech.
If you’re working in a venue where there isn’t a tech rehearsal, scope out the stage or performance area thoroughly. You’ll want to look for lighting, but also other things, like a uneven floor surfaces and possible areas of danger, such as cords, musical equipment or sound monitors on the stage. Also look for the best places to enter and exit the stage smoothly.
Observation is a powerful tool. It’s something you can do with your eyes in class, and with your mind’s eye before a performance. In a class or workshop, watch the instructor demonstrate combinations or choreography before you try to perform it. This is hugely important, because your brain will then have a visual frame of reference when it comes time for you to act physically. You know how everyone says that little kids absorb everything like a sponge? That’s literally what they’re doing! They simply sit back to observe and absorb, allowing the all the information soak into their brains completely before attempting to do what the adults around them do. Watch your instructor run whatever it is you’re learning before you jump right in and start trying the moves yourself. At first this may seem counter intuitive, but believe me, it’ll make a huge difference.
For Performance Preparation, we warm up and run our number, but often don’t address the mental and emotional aspects of our dance. On the evenings leading up to a show, go over the choreography in your head just before you fall asleep. Envision yourself dancing to it onstage and excelling at it. Connect to the character you’re portraying; think about their motivations. If you’re not going into character, but just dancing as YOU, imagine the lights on your skin, the way your costumes feels, and picture yourself looking out at the appreciative crowd as you glide across the stage.
Research has proved that going over the movements mentally will help to ingrain them into your psyche as well as your muscle memory. It’s the same for your character work- your pre-sleep “fantasy” will allow you to connect emotionally to your characater and the music as well.
Once you’re backstage, it’s a given that everyone’s out in the hallway with their iPods on, dancing full out. Instead of joining them, try avoiding the hallway (it’s pretty crowed anyway!) and find a quite corner to get into your zone. You’ll notice that from the previous nights you’ve spent running your number before sleeping, that your connection will now be full and effortless. Run the number in your imagination a few times, both with and without music. This quiet time will center you and allow you to re-familiarize yourself with your piece in a calm, serene way, so you can really own it once you get onstage.
Positive Self Talk is something we humans-let alone dancers- don’t engage in nearly enough. We’re constantly judging ourselves, and often the “judging panel” can get awfully vicious. We’re too fat, too skinny, too old, too dark skinned or white as a ghost. Our noses are too large, our eyes are too small, our legs are too thick, too thin, or they don’t have enough muscle tone. Oh yeah, and we can’t dance: our technique sucks, we can’t retain choreography, and we’ll never be able to master certain props.
Stop that right now!
Stop that right now!
Anytime you have a negative thought about your body, your technique, your learning curve- whatever- you’re literally wiring your brain to believe that it’s true. Would you be this blunt or mean with a friend? It’s highly doubtful. So whenever a negative thought rears it’s ugly head, take a moment to assess it. Be logical and rational: is what you’re saying actually a fact? Are you devaluing yourself? Why? Is this coming from a moment of exasperation? Would anybody else think this about you? More importantly, would you actually talk like this to a family member, friend or another dancer? No, you wouldn't. We all have our moments of self-doubt, but constantly putting yourself down is emotional abuse. If someone else spoke to you like this, you’d probably cut them out of your life!
Change the tone of your inner voice from critic to cheerleader. You can’t constantly degrade yourself and then expect to perform to your best capabilities. Do whatever you can to be gentle with yourself without allowing mediocrity. Acknowledge your weak points, but give yourself credit for trying… and then try harder. Be constructive in your self-critique, not destructive. If you feel like making affirmations out loud or leaving encouraging notes around the house for yourself, then by all means go for it, but just start focusing on urging yourself to excel. Executives do it, athletes do it, actors do it… and they do it cause it works. Try it.
For dancers, there’s almost nothing as important as getting enough Sleep, unless it’s Nutrition. Without sufficient rest and fuel, your body cannot perform to its best ability…and the same goes for your brain! These days, eating and sleeping well seems like a tall order. We’re always rushing around, focused on getting everything done or being distracted by calls, texts and social media. After a great show or inspiring class, sure, we’re all jacked up. But there’s ten million other things that happen every day, and they sometimes prevent us from eating nutritious food or getting quality slumber.
Make conscious choices about what you’re putting into your mouth, and prepare healthy snacks to bring to gigs and classes. Put your damn phone down, get off Facebook, and get into the groove of relaxing before going to bed. We need sleep to keep our brains alert and stay on top of our game. With poor sleeping habits, your dancing will suffer. Your memory disintegrates and you won't be able to retain anything you learned in class or practiced at rehearsal. You’ll be so tired that you won’t get those flashes of creative brilliance while you're building a performance. If you’re running on empty, you also might get cranky and emotional, which can potentially lead to diva-like behavior that’ll alienate those you work with- including show producers...and you want to be doing more gigs, right? Show and festival orgamizers hire performers who are easy to work with and behave professionally, not those prone to flakiness or temper tantrums. Be vigilant about getting your rest and it’ll make you a better dancer- and better to work with all around.
Last but not least, before you take the stage, remind yourself to Relax and to Believe In Yourself. Whether you’re a newbie at your first performance or a seasoned pro, remind yourself that you’ve been working towards your goals for a long time, and right now is when all those endless hours of training and striving are about to pay off. You can do it!
Wanna get yourself fully prepared for the stage physically and mentally?
Dangerous Beauties’ Wicked Drills And Elegant Technique covers everything from technique, combinations and conditioning to acting excercises, breath work and stage makeup.
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