I was asked by a local student recently if I had any advice for beginning performers. I told her I would think about it and get back to her. By now she probably thinks I've forgotten about it (which admittedly wouldn't be out of character for me) but I've actually been busy letting her relatively simple question snowball into a huge monster of a concept in my head ever since. I thought it might be a good idea to write some of my thoughts down before my brain got too overwhelmed by the onslaught of half-formed ideas I tend to generate.
So now I will be writing some advice for new performers.
Well, before I get to that, I'll throw out some disclaimers. I don't consider myself an expert in this topic. I've only been performing bellydance for some five years (ish) and it's still always new to me each time. And yet, I have a bunch of other performance experience in my past that I've always been able to draw on. I can't remember when the first time I performed in public was. In fact, I'm such a godforsaken shameless ham that you could probably say that I've been performing in some capacity or another since I could move around or speak. So I don't remember what it is like to feel ill at ease with the idea of parading myself around in front of people. Also I am really wordy and I'm sorry if I get boring. OK, end of disclaimers.
It doesn't take long for most of us to realize that technical dance ability and performance ability are two different skill sets. Some people have a strong latent ability for performance, just like some people have strong latent kinesthetic awareness. I think most people will find that they begin strong in one area and weaker in the other. In my opinion, I'm pretty good at performing and I always have been, even when I was less than competent technically.
If you're fortunate enough to be naturally gifted in both areas, good for you, however, latent ability shouldn't be seen as a free pass to awesomeness. Even if you already feel pretty comfortable performing, or think you're a pretty good dancer, you still have room to improve. No one is born phenomenal. I believe in both working on your weak areas and learning how to milk your strengths for all they've got.
Just as you develop technical dance ability by practicing at home, taking classes, practicing at home, and taking some more classes, and then practicing some more, you develop performance ability by performing a lot. This sounds almost stupidly simple, but it's true. So where do you begin?
Some people will not feel comfortable with the idea of getting out in front of a crowd of strangers as their first venture into the world of performing. It seems like it might be more manageable to sit your significant other or members of your family down on the couch and perform for them first. However, I have personally found that it is actually easier to perform in front of a small-to-middlin crowd of random people, as long as they are vaguely interested in bellydance, than it is to perform for two or three people, ESPECIALLY if these people (and their opinions) are really important to you.
I have heard absolute horror stories about new students who decided to perform for their boyfriends (either vanilla performances or otherwise) only to have them exhibit one of the following reactions: confusion, boredom, disappointment, disinterest, or a combination thereof. This sounds like a quick way to start never wanting to bellydance again.
Even if your mini-audience is totally supportive, the immediacy of performing for so few people, especially if you are standing right in front of them, is really awkward and nervewracking. Where do you look? Do you smile or try to look serious? Is it ok to talk to them if you mess up? What do you do if they won't make eye contact with you? Basically, what do you do when they don't know what to do?
Instead, my advice is to seek out student events. More likely than not, the crowd will not be huge, but it won't be so small that you feel like you have to make eye contact with people, for example. The element of relative anonymity should also take away some of the stress.
If your teacher doesn't organize any performance events for students, ask another teacher if you can crash theirs. Most likely, they will be glad to have you. Keep expanding your boundaries. Once you feel pretty comfortable performing at student stuff, see if you can perform at haflas or workshop shows as part of a mixed amateur/professional lineup. Once you feel good about that, and you've built up a repertoire, consider performing at community events for the general public, like festivals. Most people will always feel nervous before and/or while performing, so you'll have to figure out what a tolerable level of nervousness is for you and work with that. You never want to be so scared that you're puking backstage, but you don't want to be so comfortable that you don't at least feel excited to be at the event.
If crowds absolutely freak you out, and you need another starting place, try asking your teacher if she (or he) will watch you perform as an alternative to performing for your family. Consider setting up a private lesson with your instructor for this specific purpose, if that option is available to you. I think this is a good place to start because your teacher is probably very used to watching dancers and will hopefully give you both a lot of encouragement and some helpful constructive criticism.
Okay, so performing all the time aside, what can you do to become a more comfortable performer?
In my opinion, performance skills are in large part psychological. Part of working towards a natural stage presence is negotiating your self-image as a performer, and part of that is figuring out what your goals are. Seriously, this is starting to sound like self-help crap, but it's true. Here are some things to think about.
You need to keep your expectations of yourself realistic in order to stay sane. If you have been taking lessons for six weeks and you want to perform next month and your goal is to be hired on the spot by a scout for the Bellydance Superstars who happens to be lurking at a student hafla, you're setting yourself up for disappointment.
No one starts out perfect. Hell, no one ends up perfect either. So being perfect is a crappy goal.
When thinking about your goals, don't limit yourself to thinking about things like improving your skill level or getting accolades from others. Becoming a professional or a fantastic dancer is a great goal, sure, and it's a goal a lot of people have, but it's also really vague. Try thinking instead about specific qualities you want to instill in your dance. Watch other dancers and figure out what you like about their persona on stage, and what you don't think works so well.
For starters, a helpful goal to have is just to learn how to look comfortable and relaxed on stage, so let's talk about how you might get there.
Even if you normally hate the way you look (which would be terrible), swear to yourself that you will spend the entire day of any given performance telling yourself you are radiantly beautiful, graceful, and absolutely enchanting. Once you have achieved that, try doing it the week of any given performance. Then the month. And eventually, every day of your life. You need to be at least somewhat comfortable with yourself in general in order to appear comfortable on stage-- unless you are an incredible actress, in which case you don't need my advice anyway.
Practice in costume beforehand, and don't wear a costume you don't feel at ease in. If you are getting a migraine from the 10 pounds of jewelry you're wearing attached to your scalp, perhaps you need to rethink your aesthetic a little. Don't wait until you're on stage to figure out you can't lift your arms above shoulder level in the new top you just bought or that your pants are way too long. This sounds pretty obvious but I often forget to do this myself.
Don't be afraid of your audience. They should already be on your side. If you find yourself confronted with an antagonistic audience, even still, don't be afraid of their reactions. Unless people start being offensive or openly hostile, just focus on how much you (hopefully) love what it is that you're doing. Sometimes individuals or entire audiences are "dead" and don't react to a single thing you do and there is nothing to do about it. Just remember that it's not you and it's not your performance that's at fault. Audience reactions don't always accuratly gauge everyone's enthusiasm. I don't know how many times I've performed to a dead crowd and had people rave afterwards.
Don't worry too much about messing up. Don't worry about impressing anyone. Don't worry about being the best dancer at the show. Don't worry about being the worst dancer at the show. Don't worry about costume malfunctions. Don't worry about music malfunctions. Just worry about doing a good job and enjoying yourself. This is hard, but you're not going to be able to do it if you allow yourself to become obsessed with negative thoughts.
If you still find yourself paralyzed with stage fright, there are all kinds of alternative therapies you can use to combat that problem, from mindfulness to aromatherapy to hypnosis. I don't know anything about any of them, so I can't vouch for their efficacy, but if you just can't loosen up it might be something to look into.
Once you feel comfortable performing, then you can start thinking about other goals, like adding drama, joy, mystery, or emotion into your dance. Or not. Some dancers are happy to simply focus on perfecting their technique and then neutrally presenting it onstage. This is absolutely fine. However, even if you are mostly interested in the technical stuff you should still probably learn to consider your relationship to your audience so that you can find that happy place where you enjoy performing and other people enjoy watching you.
This gets a little hard to explain, but I'm going to make my best attempt.
You should be able to articulate to yourself what you are trying to "do" with each of your performances. Are you trying to share the dance that you love? Are you trying to educate people about a specific style? Are you trying to impress people with your technical skills? Are you trying to get a specific idea or theme across? Are you trying to get people to like you? Are you trying to scare the crap out of people? Perhaps try to isolate one goal for each performance so that you can really focus on it.
For example, sometimes I just want to perform to express love. I am very into love right now. If my goal is that simple, I will literally stand backstage and think about how I love everyone, every single solitary person, in the audience. This is kind of weird, but it makes me happy and relaxed. I could not do this if I simultaneously had the goal of looking incredibly impressive. When I want to do that, I stand backstage and think "yeah yeah, I'm a badass" or something before I go on. My personality is such that I don't find "yeah yeah I'm a badass" too compelling unless I am saying it tongue-in-cheek, so that's what I do.
Just keep focusing on your motivation throughout your entire performance, and as you focus, project that goal towards your audience and engage with them. This means that unless your goal is literally to ignore your audience, you shouldn't do that!! Ignoring your audience does not make you cool, it makes you boring! You don't have to smile the entire time and you don't have to look them in the eye the entire time, in fact you probably shouldn't, because it will seem forced. But you do have to send your energy their way or else you will never be able to draw them in.
This is kind of scary, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. Eventually it starts to be fun. It becomes less scary when you learn to accept that not everyone in the audience is always going to play along with your game, and that is OK. Even if your goal is just to send out rays of love, I swear to God, there will still be people who are like "ew, no love for me, thanks". That's their issue, not yours.
Always remember that you can't expect your audience to do anything for you and frame your goals accordingly. Instead of "I want people to be impressed with me", think "I want to be awesome". Or what have you. In other words, make your goals active, not passive.
There are about a million other things I could talk about here, so maybe I will post some follow-ups at some point in the future. In any case, I am dying to get your feedback, so if I didn't put you to sleep maybe you'd like to leave me a comment?