Conquering Stage Fright
In October, I watched my daughter suffer intense stage fright in her first show.
Deafening cheers. Phones flashing in the dark auditorium like crazed fireflies. Other kindergarteners smiled—mine looked stricken with terror. Would she faint or throw up? Afterward, she sobbed with disappointment. It wasn’t fun, her stomach hurt, she didn’t expect the noisy dark and blinding lights. Then I remembered that she’d frozen before: as a wedding flower girl, walking the gauntlet of a semi-dark hall thronged with cheering strangers.
My girl bounced back, of course, and over the school year I watched her make friends, conquer the monkey bars, learn to read, and grow so experienced and sassy that I half expected her to ask for the car keys.
The thought remained: will she keep freezing up? Will she hate performing?
How sad that would be! Before I perform, my hands and feet go cold, and a hot pulse hammers in my ears. I gather my forces, breathe, channel fear into readiness. When the moment comes to step onstage, I’m happy. I love the dazzle of stage lights, the invisible audience radiating energy, and the relief when it’s over.
In April, the approaching dance and drama shows renewed my daughter’s anxiety. “What if my stomach hurts?” she asked. “What if I forget the steps?”
Hoping my little performer just needed mental preparation, I seized opportunities to start conversations about what she might see, hear, and feel onstage; about her fears, using peripheral vision, and coping with the unexpected. It was fun to share what I love about performing.
“What if that kid stands in my spot again? What if I mess up?” she asked.
“Keep going, keep smiling!” I said. “No one will know.”
One day, her internal tide turned. She knew her steps, lines, and spacing, she said blithely. She couldn’t wait for the shows! I thought, it’s in her hands now.
In May, the shows went off without a hitch. My girl stood bright-eyed and unafraid on the stage, proud of herself, meeting the crowd’s gaze, accepting the applause. —Tamsin Nutter
DSL associate editor Tamsin Nutter, now based in Berkeley, California, trained at Vassar College and The Ailey School, danced with Regina Nejman & Company and others, and has been a marketing writer at MoMA.
Hold the Flash
Enough with the pirouettes and the pyrotechnics.
Yes, we’re all impressed with double-digit pirouette counts. Triple sauts de basque, hummingbird-fast entrechats, reverse-twisting, leg-splitting steps you can’t even begin to name—all of those make us gasp. But every time I go online I’m bombarded with videos of dancers performing superhuman physical feats. And it’s becoming tiresome.
Virtuoso steps are always satisfying to see in a good dance work, but other elements—nuance, feeling, connection, commitment—are what make dance, well, dance, and not another X Games action sport.
Of course we know that. That’s why this obsession with high-powered physical wizardry seems like something of an apologia, a defensive stance that says to the world, “Oh yeah, American culture, I’ll show you over-the-top/better-than-anyone dancing. You think ‘serious’ dance is effete and irrelevant? Watch this.” But that’s not the field we want to compete on. We do not have to prove anything.
I recently watched a video of Baryshnikov in Giselle. In one variation he tosses off five immaculate pirouettes, then sails into an en dehors attitude turn. This is obviously impressive. But it’s the simple but glorious reach of his chest and gaze to the sky in attitude that make the steps speak.
Instead of “Superdancer” videos, I’d like to see clips of dances or dancers that might move us in more varied and subtle ways, and inspire more than garden-variety awe.
As practitioners and teachers who present dance to the world at large, I think we need to traffic in the exquisite, the courageous, the sublime, the fierce. Virtuosity alone isn’t representing us fully. We are much more than that. We can show the world that dancers are not just shiny objects to be admired and then largely ignored. The moving body can be powerful, smart, sometimes scary. It can open up veins of feeling and understanding in a way that little else can. We have a lot more to give than flash. —Lisa Okuhn
DSL associate editor Lisa Okuhn is a writer and a former dancer with Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians, ODC/Dance, and others. She founded arts-focused Okuhn Public Relations.