Imagine it: You’re 12, and your mom just dropped you off at your most recent dance convention (one of six this year, Nationals included). The ballroom you’ll be dancing in is about 65,000 square feet – yet somehow filled with a sea of talented young, neon-clad dancers oscillating between deafening chatter and intense focus. In the next two days you will learn about seven different groups, in seven unique genres, from seven different choreographers (each of whom you spent your young lives worshiping). Between seasons, you’ll compete in 10 numbers, including your team’s standard pieces, singles group, mini group, extended line and triple. Each dance will take place in front of a row of like-minded judges (many of whom tune into dancing on you in the first place), unreasonably early and unreasonably late hours. The results of their assessments, along with the results of the scholarship exam you will be participating in, will tell you how well you do against your peers – forcing you to deal with feelings of intense pride, or insecurity.
It’s the kind of high stress/high standing environment that would give complete anxiety to adults, not to mention pre-teens. We spoke with dance psychologist Dr. art school; 2021 NYCDA Senior National Dancer Featured Dancer), on how to stay grounded in intoxicating dance moments like these.
The thing about success
When it comes to staying grounded, some of the biggest obstacles for dancers are awards, titles, and scholarships. For many, success can become an extrinsic motivation to dance. “You can get organized by being successful and doing well,” Clements says. “It can be quite addictive.” To combat these feelings, Clements recommends reconnecting with deeper reasons to dance, so whether or not you’re successful, your happiness doesn’t depend on external things like likes on social media or winning prizes. “The best thing someone could say to me after winning a competition is, ‘Yes, I won, but the most important thing is that I was on stage, I felt good about myself and I had fun,’” Clements says. External verification can come from any A hobby or a passion. The point is, do you really enjoy performing?
Alyssa Allen learned this lesson as a young conference dancer, overcome with nerves, anxiety, and high expectations. “For me, winning was everything,” says Allen. “I would do anything to get noticed. I was only able to get into competitions because I was surrounded by really great dancers my age and they had a different approach.” According to Allen, her friends didn’t see winning as particularly important. Instead, competitions and conferences were additional training and performance opportunities to complement their studio training. If she could go back now, Allen says she’d work even harder to cherish the dance of happiness it brought her when she first started. “I would tell myself not to let someone else’s opinion take my love of movement away – it is sacred and individual,” she says.
Jemoni Powe feels similarly. “The value of the awards goes down when you think that they are just opportunities to learn and advance,” he says. “Once you go to college, no one cares about any of it anymore.”
Photography by Frank Eschmann
For many young dancers with high aspirations within the industry, any given opportunity can feel like a do-or-die experience. In those moments, students must seek perspective. “I know you want to be noticed and recognized,” says Allen. “But there are different kinds of rewards in life and dance is not material. Be true to what brings you joy in dance, and things will turn out exactly the way you want.”
Developmentally speaking, most competing dancers are at a point in their lives where the comparison is through the roof. Clements recommends dancers use this comparison as a positive, not a negative. “Find someone older than you who follows a path you might want to follow,” she says. For example, a dancer you like won a competition last year and would like to try to succeed this year. Make sure that their goals are achievable for you. Most importantly, realize that they also have a history of failure, so if you don’t achieve the same goals you did, you can see that they are not final and you can keep moving forward as well.
Image courtesy of Dance Awards
How do you manage your stress?
According to Clements, anxiety can be easily confused with agitation. For example, your feelings on your birthday are similar to what they are in a show. “Feelings of excitement and pressure can be good if you allow them to be positive, not negative,” she says. Allen can be associated with walking a fine line of anxiety and excitement in competition. “I often got very anxious when asked to improvise on stage at the Nationals,” she says. “Often my mind is completely empty of tension. However, some of my favorite dance moments happened in that empty space where I was dancing out of instinct rather than trying to impress anyone. I try to remember that when I am nervous.”
While some dancers find the good in moments of anxiety, others struggle. For those in the latter camp, Clements recommends not focusing on their negative thoughts. “Don’t get over yourself, because stress can spiral upward,” she says. “When you are anxious, your thoughts are being internalized. Try to take the idea and imagine it outside your head. Place it on a cloud or balloon in your mind. Allow it to remain there, but make it separate from you.” If that doesn’t work, Clements recommends inhaling and exhaling for four seconds each while spelling a four-letter word (such as “love” or “hope”) backwards. This would help prevent your brain from racing.
Powe has his own process for dealing with stress: vigilance. “I try to focus on simple things that are easy to understand, like the beats of the music,” he says. “It’s the only way to keep myself grounded.”
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