I still remember the first time fear overcame me as a young choreographer. At that point, I had not really given much thought to the fact that other people would soon be watching my work, and I definitely didn’t consider that they may judge or have negative opinions of my choreography, my dancers, or me. It wasn’t until I was driving to our first competition that it hit me...other people are about to see what I’ve created. In that instant, I was consumed with fear. What had once been a creative process for myself and my dancers, turned into an internal game of worst-case scenarios. What if everyone hated it? What if people made fun of me? What if that other studio down the road beat us? What if my dancers mess up? What if I don’t know how to handle any of these things?
Since then, I’ve seen how fear can show up in so many different ways for dancers, teachers, and parents. In my Mindset Coaching, with my dancer clients, I most commonly hear about fears surrounding: others’ opinions, disappointing parents/teachers/teammates, auditions, learning or messing up choreography, others’ expectations, yelling or harsh criticism from teachers or parents, and not being good/skinny/pretty enough. With my teacher clients, the fears are very similar and also tend to include: expectations from parents, comparison with other studios, dancers messing up or not doing their best, losing students, how choreography will be received, and if they are teaching the “right” things in class.
No matter what is at the root of the fear, there are biological responses our bodies go through when we perceive we are either in physical or emotional danger. In her book, Playing Big, Life Coach Tara Mohr explains, “The human brain is hardwired to be overreactive to potential dangers. This functioned well for our physical survival in much earlier eras.'' Evolutionarily speaking, it was vital to our existence that our body responded to any sign of threat, however small, by activating our fight-flight response.
The problem is, in class, auditions, and performances, we aren’t typically in any imminent physical danger that would have life-or-death consequences. But as Tara goes on to explain, “In our contemporary context, the fight-or-flight response fires not just in the face of rare physical threat but also in response to any potential threats to our emotional safety--possible embarrassment, failure, hurt feelings.” Ah yes, so years ago when I was driving to competition for the first time and was hit with the possibility of embarrassment and failure, it triggered a similar response to what would happen if I suddenly ran into a bear. I felt panicky, my chest tight, thoughts swirling, and I couldn’t think logically.
As helpful (and crucial) as the fight-flight response was to our ancestors, it isn’t very productive or supportive of moving past these perceived emotional threats we face today. Once triggered, as Arlin Cuncic from VerywellMind explains, “the amygdala triggers a sudden and intense unconscious emotional response that shuts off the cortex, making it hard for you to think clearly about the situation. As your brain triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, you find it increasingly hard to problem solve and concentrate. This whole process takes a toll, and you may not recover to your original level of functioning for several hours.” (If you’re interested in learning more about what is happening in the brain during the fight-flight response, this is a great article to start with).
Yikes, that response doesn’t sound conducive to creativity, learning, performing, or thinking rationally. Even in the instances when the fight-or-flight response isn’t activated, fear can still be overwhelming and paralyzing to our creative process. That’s why it’s so important that we, as a dance community, have resources and tools to explore our fears, know when they’re triggered, and how to move past them.
Because of our body’s physical response to perceived threats, it’s really difficult to think rationally and move through fears until we are calm. Here are some techniques to use in the moment when fear, anxiety, or worries arise (teachers and parents, these are great ways to help your dancers when they are too in their head in class or before/after performances and auditions):
-Pick a color and mentally list all the things you see around you in that color.
-Bring awareness to the bottoms of your feet for 1 minute. Put all your attention on the sensations of your feet and how they feel on the floor.
-Count all the windows or lights around you.
-4-7-8 breathing. This is my favorite calming breathing technique where you inhale for 4, hold for 7, exhale for 8. While doing this, think of your stomach as a balloon. As you breathe in, feel your stomach expand like a balloon and as you exhale feel it deflate. Click here to hear me walk you through it.
Once calm, we can begin to bring awareness to our fears and how our bodies respond. Grab a journal or pen and paper and explore these five questions:
After you’re more familiar with your fears and responses, check out these tools from Tara Mohr which are categorized into heart-based tools, cognitive tools, and somatic tools. I’ve also created this short visualization based on her methods to help you move through your difficult feelings. As with all the exercises I share, try a few out and see which resonate with you. We are all so different, so experiment until you find what you feel works best.
If you’d like support while you go through this process, or if you’re interested in my work, head to my website to learn more and see how we can work together to build your healthy mindset to navigate the dance world at your best. You can also find me on Instagram for more free tools, resources, and inspiration.
Ashley Mowrey is a Performance Mindset Coach and Educator located in Fayetteville, AR. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Arkansas and is a trained facilitator in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Leadership Program for Women. Ashley trained as a competitive dancer out of Dallas, TX before teaching and eventually directing a company and dance studio in Fayetteville, AR. It was during those years that she felt drawn towards the dancer’s mindset and the need for training and tools in the dance community. Now, as a Performance Mindset Coach, she is also a dance specialist with Dancers for Doctors. Ashley has also recently been featured on Dance Studio Amplified Podcast, (Ep. 14), Dance Boss University Mastermind guest presenter, and episode 58 of Dance Boss Podcast.