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Stage Fright- looking into the faces
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About the Author:

Tanya holds a PhD in Dance Studies from York University in Toronto and she is a graduate of Canada’s National Ballet School Teacher Training Program. In addition to teaching ballet in private dance studios, Tanya has taught at the University of Toronto in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education since 2003.

Dealing With Stage Fright, by Tanya Berg PhD
Posted on June 20, 2017

The effects, symptoms, and coping mechanisms regarding performance anxiety/stage fright/nerves and/or “butterflies” in children and adolescents are (thankfully) becoming a mainstream discussion. I am a mom (not a professional psychologist) who has dealt with a range of anxious behaviours from two young children. As a dancer, ballet teacher, and now academic (of sorts), I often reflect on my career over the past 30 years to better understand my students and my own children. In this article, I offer examples of my children’s experiences to hopefully normalize the seemingly dramatic or sometimes alarming responses children can have to perceived stress. I provide a link to an article discussing a workshop conducted with young dancers on the subject of coping with butterflies. Finally, I relay advice from former SBAD student Patrick Blain, who is currently attending the Juilliard School in New York City.

To comfort my children, I often remind them that everyone gets butterflies. The flutter in my stomach as I arrive at an airport, is no different than the reaction my 6 yr old son experienced entering the theatre for his first dance recital. My son’s instinct to run from the theatre was an unexpected response that I was ill-equipped to handle. When we arrived at the Living Arts Center stage door for an annual SBAD recital, my out-going, easy-going, happy-go-lucky boy suddenly “freaked out” and started screaming “No, no, no!” Shocked and really embarrassed, I did what every traditional ballet teacher would do: I texted my friends back-stage to drag him physically through the door by his hands with his vocal protests ignored by my dutiful colleagues. His father and I ran- I mean really, physically ran- from the building. Apparently, as soon as we left his presence he was fine.

My son (now 8 yrs old) thankfully did not need prolonged coaching to recover from his stage fright. However, my daughter (currently 11 years old) has battled with anxiety all her life. From the time she was 2 years old, she has had daily physiological reactions to her fight or flight response. Until recently, she would cry daily during transitions: car to school, or car to studio building (although never into the class- she always loved the classes). She would feel anxious at bedtime thinking about the past day or worrying about the day to come. My daughter never had anxiety toward dance classes or theatre performances, which made my son’s reaction to the theatre so shocking to us.

The most recent example of my daughter’s anxious reactions, is one that we now laugh about and, in truth, makes me feel quit proud of her. At age 11, my daughter has learned that she cannot control her physiological response to stimuli, but she can control how she deals with the situation. She realizes that it is “ok” to have these reactions and that she is ”normal.” For many years when she would feel sick and I would say, “ You will be fine, if you throw up hit the garbage.” As it turned out, that advice was taken literally last July. My daughter (at the time 10 yrs old) was taking a placement class at Canada’s National Ballet School Professional Ballet Division July Audition (first day of a 30 day audition period). In front of a panel of world-renowned teachers, she asked if she could get a drink of water. They agreed and she calmly walked over to the garbage bin in the studio, threw up, and returned to her place in line. My daughter said she was fine and she finished the class. She did not tell me the story until 8 hours later during the car ride home. When I asked her why she did not call me from school, she replied, “You said to hit the garbage, and I did what you told me, I didn’t want them to think I couldn’t do this.”

To this day I agonize over my parenting strategies, and alternately, I marvel at my children’s resilience in overcoming the frightening situations they faced. Dr Chantal Lussier Ley writes about dealing with young dancers’ performance anxiety in her article, “Stage Fright and Performance Anxiety: Dancing With The Butterflies.”

Patrick Blain has returned from his training in NYC to dance the leading SBAD recital role in Swan Lake at the Living Arts Centre from June 24-26th, 2017. When asked about his dance career and how he has coped with nerves over the years, Patrick explains: “Getting nervous before you go on stage is perfectly natural. In fact, I believe nerves are a good thing; they are a sign that you care about what it is that you are about to do. The feeling of butterflies is unlike any other. Once I step out onto the stage I always find that the feeling disappears and I become fully engaged in whatever it is that I am doing.”

Many professional dancers and athletes have told me that they enjoy the adrenaline rush of performing and that it is the adrenaline that pushes them to new heights in their careers. However, they too had to cope with the butterflies before they learned to dance along with them.

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