“The adrenaline that leaves him nervous before every battle ends up helping him in his performances.”
This quote is straight from a biography of Sunni, one of the best B-Boys in the world, holding titles like 1st place in the 2016 and 2017 UK B-boy Championships. Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, it’s completely normal to feel jittery before a dance performance or competition. This feeling can take over our bodies and cause us to freeze, and not in the B-Boy sense — it’s the dreaded “choke". This feeling can also give us the energy needed to perform at a world class level - its just a matter of learning how to harness this feeling and digest it in the right way.
One common phenomenon at work here is the fight-or-flight response, which helped our ancestors survive, yet gives us butterflies when we speak in public. The fight-or-flight response is a stress response caused by a perceived danger or threat. Dancing isn’t dangerous, but the stage fright can still trigger the response. When “flight” takes over, we choke. So try the following tips to avoid being overwhelmed by anxiety in your next dance:
- Be prepared, and believe. Dance events aren’t so scary if you know your moves forward and backwards. Good preparation allows you to tilt the scales towards “fight” over “flight”- action over choking. When the nervousness still seems insurmountable, it’s time to add the concept of perceived control: you have to believe in your own ability to influence outcomes. A study conducted on elementary school students showed that higher perceived control leads to higher engagement, and thus better performance. If you want to be a dancer who battles a lot - you should practice battling one of your friends or even someone you don't know at each practice. If thats still too scary, maybe make it a goal to practice-battle someone at least once every week.
- Get enough sleep. You might be thinking that these tips are way too obvious, but this one is worth repeating. Sleep regulates the reactivity of the amygdala, a part of the brain that is involved in processing emotions. Sleep deprivation leads to overreactions to negative stimuli — in other words, you’re more likely to choke under pressure if you don’t get a good night’s sleep.
Sleep makes a difference! (Source: Yoo et al., 2007)
- Cognitive reappraisal is an emotional regulation technique that involves looking at situations from alternative perspectives. Some questions to ask yourself include “What’s really the worst that could happen, and would I live through it?” or “If I were in a better mood, how might I be thinking about this situation?” Your answers should help you to feel more balanced, and once again, avoid failing in high-pressure situations.
The key is to manage the fight-or-flight response so that it helps you more than it hurts you. You’ll need to find your own sweet spot — everyone has different emotional reactivity levels and thresholds. For example, some people perform well under stress, especially those that harness intensity in their dance style (looking at you, Breakers and Krumpers). These individuals can be lenient with regulating their emotional response, because they’re more comfortable with the increase in adrenaline.
The rest of us should try to be more mindful of our emotional reactions. We’ll still get increased energy from our bodies’ inevitable adrenal response, but hopefully less of the extreme heart rate, tunnel vision, shaking, etc.
Regardless of whether you feel like you are confident and won't get nervous, or if you are deathly afraid of performing in public - the best advice is to practice. The only way that you can guarantee optimal performance is to practice, and practice correctly. Keep you goals in mind and practice accordingly. If you want to be an aggressive battle-dancer then practice battling someone (or even yourself in the mirror) at each practice. If you want to be able to convey emotion through your dance then practice tuning into how you feel and just sit with your emotions at practice until you can derive a physical representation of them.
Put simply - you are less likely to choke if you’re prepared, rested, and in a healthy state of mind but behind every great performer is years worth of practice, self analysis, and patience put into their work.