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Chelsea: Hi, it’s Dr. Chelsea. This is the Passion for Dance podcast where we talk about mindset, motivation, and resilience in dance. I was working with a group of dancers recently, and after our discussion about competition mindset, two dancers came up to me and asked, “What do I do if I’m standing backstage about to go on and the negative thoughts are just going crazy? How do I stop it?” In this quick-tip episode, I’m gonna give you one tool to stop the backstage negativity spiral.
[Motivational Intro Music]
Welcome to the Passion for Dance podcast. I’m Dr. Chelsea, a former professional dancer and dance team coach turned sport psychologist. This podcast focuses on four main pillars: motivation, resilience, mindset, and community. Each week, you’ll learn actionable strategies, mindsets, and tips to teach your dancers more than good technique. This is a podcast where we can all make a lasting impact and share our passion for dance. Let’s do this!
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Backstage Nerves – 1:04
Let’s talk about backstage nerves for a bit. I bet we have all experienced that panic where the routine before you is onstage. You're trying to block out the music, you shake out your hands over and over again, you're trying to just go over the choreography but then you forget something so you start to freak out, your heart rate’s too high, and your thoughts start to spiral out of control.
Negative self-talk is probably one of the biggest issues that dancers talk to me about. Like the dancers at the workshop I mentioned in the beginning, most of them understand what negative self-talk is and how it’s not helpful, but they can't always stop it from happening. That’s because once we start, we’re feeding the beast, and those negative thoughts are just going to take root and get stronger.
Unhelpful and Unhelpful Self-Talk – 1:51
Before I get into the specific tool for today, I also want to say I started shifting my own language around this lately, and I want to let you in on my new perspective. Rather than positive and negative self-talk, I’m now trying to refer to it as helpful and unhelpful. I’ve worked with probably thousands of dancers at this point, and I’ve learned that what might be positive to one is negative to another, so that isn't always a good way to think about it. Instead if what you are saying to yourself is getting you in a good headspace and excited to dance, it’s helpful. If what you're saying to yourself is making it hard to focus and causing stress, it’s unhelpful.
One common example of this is thinking about the fact that lots of people are out there to watch you. Maybe you're thinking about how your parents are there to watch or the judges are there. For some dancers, thinking about how many people are there to watch you is helpful and exciting. For other dancers, thinking about how everyone is there to watch you is unhelpful and stressful. So thinking about other people watching you isn't inherently positive or negative. It’s about how it helps you prepare to get onstage and how you're feeling. So keep that in mind. I’m starting to think about it as more of helpful versus unhelpful.
Taking Control of Your Mind and Body – 3:03
Okay, back to the specific dancers from the beginning and their question. During this specific workshop, we talked about energy management, how to get your body and mind at the right level of activation for dance. Everyone has a different ideal state. Some like to be really amped up and energized. Some like to be really calm and zen before they take the floor, so we spent some time identifying our own ideal and then talking about how to take control and get your mind and body to your ideal state before you take the stage.
These two dancers were so polite afterwards. They came up and said, “Okay, I understand the concept.” They felt like, normally, it would work really well. But they were worried because at a particularly stressful or high-stakes competition last year, the unhelpful thoughts just kept building and building as they waited backstage, and it turned into a horrible spiral they couldn't stop. When they told me about it, I asked if on that occasion they rushed the music and made some mistakes on stage, and they both said yes. It felt like getting shot out of a cannon when the music started, they could never get it under control. That initial panic led to a mistake, which led to thinking about that mistake, which led to another one, and so on.
As a teacher and a coach, I have seen that spiral take place onstage where they start by dancing too fast, then one mistake leads to another leads to another. But what’s happening in your mind right before the music starts is where we want to focus because, unfortunately, that experience is all too common. When dancers feel immense pressure from themselves or those around them or the situation, the unhelpful thought spiral can take over.
So what do you do? I will start with the disclaimer that this takes time and training to work through. Just like if we are trying to help a dancer break the habit of waiting until the top of a battement to point her foot, right? So many dancers get in the habit of waiting until that last minute, rather than using their foot on the floor, and that's a bad habit. They're in that habit, and we have to work on fixing it for a long time. If your dancers are in a habit of standing backstage and listing all the possible horrible things that can happen, it will take some time and effort to change that mental state backstage. So let’s start with one tip.
The Tip: Reverse the Unhelpful Thought – 5:23
One really good place to start is to reverse whatever that unhelpful thought is. For many dancers, the unhelpful thoughts are what ifs. “What if I fall? What if I make a mistake? What if I forget?” Many dancers try to use a positive statement in its place. So if they're thinking, “What if I fall,” they’ll try to say, “I’ve got this. I’m a great dancer.”
That’s a great idea, and it works for some. But what I’m hearing from so many dancers is that positive affirmations can feel fake. If you're in the middle of a panic spiral and trying to tell yourself how great you are, it can be hard to believe, especially for dancers who have been saying mean things to themselves for years. Of course, I’d love them to get to a place where a positive, encouraging statement feels real and helpful, but if they aren't there yet, reversing the unhelpful thought might be more effective in the moment. Here are a few examples of what I mean.
Examples of How to Reverse the Negative Thought – 6:22
Let’s reverse the negative thought. If a dancer says, “What if I fall,” well, what if I feel grounded and solid the whole routine? “What if I make a mistake?” What if I have a flawless routine? “What if I forget my choreography?” What if I remember everything? I think this simple strategy helps dancers so much because, one, it’s an easy rule to remember, and you can apply it to just about anywhere your brain goes while you're waiting backstage.
Something amazing happens when you say the reverse. Usually, it’s still a what if, so it’s not easy to just ignore it and say, “That’s not real,” but you feel a little lift in your spirits. “What if I have this amazing experience? What if I have so much fun and enjoy every bit of being onstage?” It’s hard not to smile through that. So, for many dancers, this is a great place to start if the what ifs and the unhelpful thought spiral is happening backstage. As soon as you notice that thought, try to say the reverse.
I hope this gives you a new idea to try. If you and your dancers ever have that unhelpful thought spiral, as so many of us do, right before you take the stage. If you found it helpful or if you have other questions, leave me a note at www.chelseapierotti.com/message. I always love to hear from you! If you are new to the show, this is episode 117. It might be a little overwhelming to know which episodes to listen to. There are lots of other episodes that have tips like this, plus interviews and other areas of focus. You can always go back to the beginning and binge listen, of course, but I also know we don't have a lot of spare time as dance educators. Many of us want a roadmap.
So, to help you decide where you start if you're new to the show, I have a short five-question quiz that will tell you which episodes will help you with whatever is going on right now. It’s kind of like a personality quiz, but after a few quick questions, you get a curated podcast list with the top five episodes that will help you right now. Maybe you need some motivation or inspiration. Maybe your dancers need something to listen to for help, or maybe you're looking for help with confidence. Whatever support you need, take the short quiz to find out. It’s at www.chelseapierotti.com/podcastquiz to get started. The link is below in the show notes as well. And that’s www.chelseapierotti.com/podcastquiz.
Thank you for being here! I really do hope this was helpful and you're willing to give it a shot. I’m so happy to have you as part of this community and keep sharing your passion for dance with the world!
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