A lot of dancers experience feeling nervous at competitions, or maybe even in lessons or at practice. We have all felt the sensation of becoming nervous and suddenly we forget our choreography or we are not able to dance our best. We start sweating and our mind is suddenly a mess and unable to focus on the task we are about to perform. Within sport psychology we usually call this anxiety, but for the purpose of this article we will use the word nervous.
When we become nervous it is because we feel that we are being threatened. This is evolutionary and was used as a protective mechanism to protect us from attacks. Of course, these days the risk of a lion chasing us is minimal but our body still reacts in the same way. The great news is that we can use this nervous feeling or increased arousal in a positive way. Keep reading and I will explain how.
First let’s understand what anxiety is. There are two types of anxiety. One is called cognitive anxiety. Cognitive anxiety is all the thoughts we have that make us nervous. For example you might feel insecure and feel like you can’t do what you are supposed to do, that you are not a good enough dancer or that you don’t look good enough. When all those thoughts come into your head then you start feeling anxious and you might even catastrophise in your head and suddenly you might go from struggling with one dance step to feeling that you are the worst dancer in the world. All those thoughts are what we describe as cognitive anxiety.
The other is called somatic anxiety. Somatic anxiety is all the things that we feel in our body. For example, if we start feeling nervous and we start sweating more than usual, our hands start shaking and we can feel our heart racing. In dancing, we can also feel that when we get nervous we experience tension in our muscles and we are not able to move as freely as we would like.
So is anxiety a bad thing?
In general cognitive anxiety- our nervous thoughts- is detrimental for performance. When we are spending our time and energy worrying then we don’t use our energy on the things we need to focus on to perform well. So it is a good idea to try and eliminate cognitive anxiety as much as possible. Somatic anxiety on the other hand- our “physical anxiety”- can be positive when it is at the right level. Anxiety is generally considered a negative emotional state. When we use the word anxiety it immediately makes us think that it is something negative, but actually the feelings that we feel in our body when we are nervous are very similar to how we feel when we feel excited. Like for example when our heart starts beating fast. This is something we experience when we are nervous but also when we feel increased levels of arousal. Our somatic anxiety can help us feel that we are ready to perform and make our body alert and ready. The way that we think about what we have to do changes everything. The key is, if we feel that what we are about to experience is a challenge or if it’s a threat. If we perceive it as a challenge then it can be positive and we will just feel that we are excited and ready. If we think that it is a threat then we will feel like we are nervous and not able to perform.
If you are about to go and dance an important competition and there are a lot of people watching it is completely natural to feel some emotions. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but the key is to think of this as a sign of your body being ready to perform and that it’s a signal that your body is alert and ready.
If you become so nervous that your performance suffers then we need to look at some ways to control those nerves and get them to a level where you can manage them better.
For every sport there is an optimal level of arousal. Basically this means how nervous or excited you should be. For some sports you have to be very calm – for example if you have to do something really precise like shooting and for others you have to be really excited for example high intensity sports like boxing. Dancing is somewhere in the middle- we need to be excited to have lots of energy for our dance but still calm enough to interact with our partner and the music. Once you have found what your optimal level is then you need to try and recreate that for every competition. So try to think back at some of your best performances, were you really relaxed or really excited?
One way of coping with anxiety is avoidance. So simply avoiding the situation that makes you nervous. This is not a particularly good technique because it can sometimes make the situation seem worse than it actually is, as avoiding something for lengths of time can result in us making it worse than it is in our mind. Also if you are a competitor it is not really possible to avoid competitions or performances. So below are some better ways to deal with anxiety.
So how do we control our nerves?
Music is a great tool to either relax us or make us more excited before we dance. Put on some relaxing slow music and lie down to calm you down or put on your favourite party track and move around to build arousal.
Make sure that you are prepared for what you are about to do. If you have never danced with a new pair of shoes, or if you have never danced your choreography with music, of course you will feel more nervous, so make sure that you have done everything you can to prepare yourself for what you are about to do.
3. Positive Thoughts
Try to challenge any negative thoughts in your head. For example, if you are telling yourself “ I am the worst dancer on the floor”, try and challenge that and see if it’s really true. Think of all the things that prove that it’s not true. Maybe you have beaten some of the dancers in other competitions. Try to write down the negative thought and change it into a positive one. Think positive thoughts and have positive sentences that you tell yourself before walking on the floor. For example positive mantras like “ I can do this” “I am a great dancer”. Sometimes we might not even completely believe it but just telling ourselves these words will change something in our mind and we will start believing it.
You can use a relaxation and focusing technique called imagery to calm your mind and focus on the important tasks before you dance. This is a technique where you imagine yourself dancing your best and that will calm your mind and prepare you to do the same on the floor.
5. Focus On Your Success
Think back to experiences where you danced really well and maybe you even had a good result and remind yourself of the feeling that you had in your body and the sense of achievement that you felt. This will give you a feeling that you are able to do it, and put you in a confident frame of mind to perform.
Use deep breaths to calm both your body and your mind.
Don’t ignore your feelings. Acknowledge your feelings but don’t judge them. If you are feeling very nervous accept how you are feeling and try to use some of the techniques to get to the right level of arousal.
Keep focus on the things that you need to focus on to dance. So focus on your warm up and your job at hand to get you prepared to dance. If you have a clear focus then there is less chance of negative thoughts entering your mind.
The goal is to find our optimal level of arousal by being able to either psych ourselves up or down to that optimal level. In addition using our nerves to our benefit and thinking of arousal as a positive thing as opposed to a negative.
I hope you enjoyed this article and if you have any questions please let me know your thoughts. If you enjoyed it and think some of your friends might benefit from it, please feel free to share it with your friends.
Best of Luck in Your Dancing,
The Ballroom Coach