As we step into the New Year it is important to identify our students’ goals and find ways to help them achieve them by learning skills that will enable them to overcome the fears that are holding them back. Who said dancing was just about teaching technique? Because we are dealing with young children and young adults, we, as teachers, have the ability to build their confidence and life enhancing skills.

As we step into the New Year it is important to identify our students’ goals and find ways to help them achieve them by learning skills that will enable them to overcome the fears that are holding them back. Who said dancing was just about teaching technique? Because we are dealing with young children and young adults, we, as teachers, have the ability to build their confidence and life enhancing skills.


Of course fear does have a purpose. It keeps us on our toes and prevents us from taking unnecessary risks. However, when fear moves in, it not only occupies a large portion of your thoughts, but also, for a dancer, can paralyze you in such a way as to prevent you from accomplishing what you are capable of.


Dancers’ fears are numerous, starting with:


1.                 Failure

2.                 Falling

3.                 Humiliation

4.                 Pain

5.                 Injury

6.                 Performing


These are just six things that affect a dancer’s work habits and eventual success. It really doesn’t matter how old the dancer is, but as they get older and more advanced these fears can put a stranglehold on them and prevent them from being able to execute the technique that they are totally capable of doing.


In today’s society there is a tremendous emphasis put on not failing. Children feel the pressure of doing well in school and that same pressure carries through to their dancing. All students need to feel that they are succeeding in order to build their confidence, which will in turn lead to a good sense of self-esteem. However, it is your more dedicated students, the ones that spend all their time at the studio or in classes who will need the most help. They will hold themselves up to high standards mentally and physically and can sometimes be devastated when they perceive that they have failed to rise to the levels necessary to achieve their goals.


The number one thing I have found is that it is important to have your students recognize that we all have fears. Helping them understand that fear is always present and that by developing ways to confront fear and be able to function in a very positive way, all things are possible—it is not the absence of fear, but how we deal with it.


1.     Failure. I try to teach my students that it is all right to fail because I firmly believe that if you never fail, it will be difficult to succeed. Failure teaches us to be more resilient, more persistent and more focused and to have better work habits. No one likes to fail, but I always try to give my students examples of famous people who have failed numerous times, only to succeed in a big way further down the line: Thomas Edison, Sting, Fred Astaire and the list goes on. It helps them if they know someone else’s story and see what an important contribution each of these people made despite many setbacks. Let your students know that it is OK to fail as long as they use that failure as a springboard to take them to new heights.


2.     Falling. Every dancer I have ever known, including myself, has at one time or another been afraid of falling. The sensation of being totally out of control is not a pleasant feeling. You run the risk of falling in so many areas of dance, especially when doing pirouettes and leaps, that it is almost a certainty that sooner or later you will definitely fall to the ground. So how can you help your students to deal with this fear? First of all let them know that it is not a big deal—it happens to all dancers. I give them examples of when I fell while dancing. That usually brings a little humor into the class, which brings me to the most important point about falling: you need to be able to relax as you sink to the floor! Teach your students how to fall gracefully by understanding that the more they relax, the less it will hurt and the better they will be able to make it look. Sometimes I will devote a portion of my class just showing the students ways to fall—sideways, forward and even backward. Just like stunt men or women learn to fall off buildings and moving trains, dancers can be taught techniques to help them understand what to do with their bodies when they start to fall. The good news is they are not falling off a 10-story building, but merely from their own height! Keeping the knees relaxed and knowing that they WILL survive a fall will give your dancers a new perspective on the fear of falling.


3.     Humiliation. Dancers, especially in the pre-teen or teen years, have a tremendous fear of being embarrassed or humiliated in front of their peers. My answer to that is whenever dancers fall in any of my classes and I can see that they are absolutely mortified, I will applaud them loudly and let the whole class know what a tremendous effort they have just made. This helps them feel that they fell only because they were trying a step or sequence of steps that they have not yet mastered and that with more hard work they will be able to make it work. I also recognize the fact that they applied my 'falling' techniques well! Again, by bringing humor to the scene, it takes away the humiliation factor.



4.     Pain. Fear of pain is a big one. As we know, pain is often present in a dancer’s life and learning early on how to deal with it is extremely important. I like to put a lot of emphasis on breathing to help combat the pain issue. Often dancers experience pain while stretching their bodies, so it is helpful to really utilize the principles of yoga to help students understand their bodies better. Deep breathing, holding the stretches, making sure that the body is fully warmed up and learning to distinguish between a muscle stretch pain and a sharp pain are all important tools to counteracting pain. Growing pains are very common, especially with teenagers, and unfortunately often are unavoidable. Focusing on strengthening those areas will not totally alleviate it, but will certainly minimize it. Pain associated with pointe work can be devastating. Preparing the dancers mentally for that type of pain will help them understand what they need to do to prevent it. Nowadays there are many products available to ballet students to help them avoid that type of pain, and it is important to make sure that they use them. Teaching dancers to 'listen to their bodies' as far as injuries are concerned is vital. There are students who are simply lazy and will use the injury card as an excuse to sit out of class, but those who are experiencing a genuine injury should be encouraged to see a doctor and follow up with physical therapy. I try to work in tandem with the doctors on any injuries because, working as a team, we can get the dancer back on their feet as soon as possible.


5.     Injury. Injuries are always a possibility when you are working with your body. Apart from treating the injury itself, the most important thing you can do to help is to keep the dancer from feeling that they are out of the loop. The fear that they will be behind the other dancers and unable to catch up is almost worse than the injury itself. Once they are able to sit and watch class I like to encourage them to take notes and participate verbally by asking them questions and having them look at the other dancers to critique them in a positive way. This keeps their minds active and alert so that when they are able to return to class they are aware of all the corrections and, with your help, can start to apply them again.


6.     Performing. So many dancers are afraid of performing and, unless they are given tools to help them overcome these fears, this can really stifle their growth and prevent them from having success on stage. In their heart, every dancer yearns for their moment in the spotlight, but often what should be a wonderful experience turns into a nightmare. Most artists get nervous before a performance and those nerves if channeled correctly can push them to an electrifying performance that will leave them feeling exhilarated and loved every time. Not channeled correctly, the fear can leave them in the wings, throwing up and giving them a sense of worthlessness. Each dancer will need to find the ways that work best for them. I always needed space and quiet before a performance and it would make me very nervous if people were chattering or invading my space. I learned to have my own rituals before each performance that helped me give my best to each audience. Generally speaking I always encourage my dancers to be as prepared as possible before any performance, making sure that they have their makeup and their costumes in good order, as this will alleviate stress. Giving the dancers material that they feel extremely secure with will also help them enjoy the performance. There is nothing worse than going out onstage and doing a number that you feel unsure of. I have also found that getting the dancers to concentrate on the story line for their pieces helps them have an identity on stage. Warming up the facial muscles is important, too. Dancers take the time to warm up their bodies, but very often forget to use the face. I ask my dancers to perform from the first plie they do at the barre or in their center warmup. At the end of the day, whether they become professional performers or not, the experience of learning to perform onstage will help them in whatever path they choose to take.


Let your dancers know that we all experience fear—we just have to find ways to face it and to overcome it.