Despite the hours of rehearsal and preparation, our young dancers can still get super nervous just before going on stage and let stage fright get the better of them.
Helping young children discover techniques to overcome anxiety is vital – for the stage, and for life!
Here are some practical ways we’ve found over the years to help children deal with pre-performance worries, some of which you can suggest parents do at home beforehand and in the lead up, to help the transition from studio to the theatre go more smoothly…
It sounds simple and yet when you get nervous you can “forget” to breathe!
The basic science behind why it helps is that deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness. So it makes sense for us all to take some deep breaths when we need to relax and calm our nerves!
Teachers can add imagery and phrasing that can often help enhance the effectiveness of deep breathing: “Breathe in the good energy, breathe out the nerves,” or “blow the tummy butterflies away.” (The Groove Child Dance syllabus training includes lots of quick, fun, and imaginative breathing exercises that can be practiced in your dance classes, and used for any situation to help calm and focus).
The benefits of practicing short breathing exercises with young children – and teenagers – is that it can strengthen their mind/body connection and help them manage emotions that may seem overwhelming at times.
Apart from deep breathing, having a little ‘ritual’ or something easy to repeat can help. For example, always having the same warm up before a show, or a simple stretch routine backstage, or even singing along to a favourite song in the car on the way to the theatre. Teenagers may prefer to use earphones and listen to calming music to get into the zone whilst getting ready.
Use Your Older Dancers as Helpers & Mentors
Older teenage girls can be wonderful role models and helpers with the younger children, particularly during full company rehearsals, which can be the first time young children see the school as a whole and begin to see they are part of a bigger performance. Older pupils can talk to the little ones during rehearsals about how exciting the show is going to be and what happens on the day!
We like to have four full school rehearsals at the studio in the month prior to the performance, so that children new to performing start getting used to being part of the bigger performance, seeing all the older children, watching each other perform, and becoming familiar with who all the people are that they will see around backstage.
Sometimes there is nothing a child can do about nervous energy (adrenaline) but release it! So as part of a whole school warm up we like to include simple energy burners like running on the spot or quick walking round the room – with silly poses. Including movements in the warm up which allow children to wiggle everything from head to toe, helps them release excess energy that may be fueling nerves. (A fun track for this might be Taylor Swift ‘Shake it Off’).
When the children have practiced something with you many times and are ready to perform, it is helpful to get them to also practice sitting with eyes closed and start visualising the performance whilst listening to the music – imagining themselves performing it beautifully and confidently.
Visualisation of this nature is also a proven method of talent growth. A book we recommend that highlights this is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle (a great read!)
Practice in the space
It sounds obvious but if rehearsal in the actual performance space is possible, be sure the children practice on the stage/the performance space at least twice prior to the performance itself, so they can feel the floor, hear the music, see the lights and view where their audience will be. This can help reduce any fear they’re feeling that’s connected to the unknown.
We also think its a good idea for little children new to performing on stage NOT to introduce EVERYTHING all at once, for fear of overwhelm. This is why its good to have at least 2 rehearsals on the stage beforehand; one just in their normal dance-wear, with the teacher nearby or on stage with them, just as you would if rehearsing the dance in your studio; then the second time in costume and make up, etc.
Positive Language / Rename the Fear
Instead of seeing it as fear, talk to the children about what they may be feeling in more positive terms – “excess energy,” “excitement” or “passion.” Try not to focus on the symptoms they might have (upset stomach, or shaky hands). Shift the focus to the overall feeling and with younger children even giving their fears a funny name can help dissolve the seriousness of it – like Jessie Jelly-Belly or Silly Sid – the children may come up with their own ideas when you talk about it a few weeks before!
Another book we’d recommend to help children (in general) with confidence and anxiety issues when taking part in new things is ‘Silly Limbic’ by Naomi Harvey. So clever…
If a child is really struggling and it’s not the first time they’ve had anxiety issues its worth finding someone (if their teacher can’t) to talk calmly with them and get them to remember a previous time they felt nervous or overwhelmed, and how they overcame it. This helps build confidence and builds their ability to conquer their fears.
Focus on the music
Sometimes our older dancers become fearful of making a mistake on stage, and spend all their time just before the performance frantically going over and over it, too focused on the steps. Get them instead to focus on the music and imagining the flow and feeling of the routine.
These are just a few ideas we’ve tried over the years that have worked, and we’re sure every dance teacher has a toolkit of their own! If any of these ideas are new and you try them – with success – let us know in the comment section below. We’d love to hear your ideas also.
At the end of the day, whatever we do to conquer stage fright, it helps to remind our dancers – young and old – that they have done the work, they know the routine, and their job now is to ENJOY and share their love of dance with the audience.