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Triumph or Train Wreck:  Perception and the Thin Line

Scenario one:  You have just held your pose for those last few seconds before graciously bowing to the audience or danced your way off stage to applause that sounds thunderous in your ears.  The culmination of years of study, hours and hours of drilling, days and weeks of practicing, listening to your music until you can hear snippets and know exactly where you are in the song (and to the point that every member of your family can sing the song even though they hate Middle Eastern music) and rehearsing in full costume more than once.  You are thrilled because you feel good about what you've presented.  You danced smoothly and with presence.  You've had so much fun.  The audience is appreciative.  Other dancers even compliment you!  Everything has come together. You feel FANTASTIC and are brimming with self-confidence because you feel like you've just conquered the world.  

Scenario two:  You have just exited the stage with a smile pasted to your face.  Inside you are crumbling.  You don't want to see or speak to anyone because you are in shock.  You either feel like having a temper tantrum or running to the nearest dark corner in order to lick your wounded pride.  Why?  Despite the years of study, the hours of drilling, the days and weeks of practice, the listening to that one piece of music ad nauseam, rehearsing in full costume and with props forwards, backwards, sideways and upside down, something went horribly wrong.  Or did it?

Behind every performer's self-appraisal are perception and the thin line.  

The Thin Line

Dealing with the thin line first, let's face it:  you can practice your piece 100 times and do it perfectly every time but Murphy's Law dictates that something is always bound to go wrong at any given time and at your crucial moment it just might be you that's on the receiving end.  Your music will skip, you will trip on your harem pants, a string from the hem of your skirt will wrap itself around your toe, strands of your fringe will break dropping tiny glass beads all over the stage, your veil will catch on your costume in a spot you can't see, your earring or necklace will fly off.  Those are all chance things that cannot be foreseen and are unavoidable even if you have done every bit of practical preparation that you can.  The audience and other dancers are very forgiving of such things and they are quickly forgotten if you manage them with equanimity, grace and/or humour as the situation dictates.


Then there are the missteps that have nothing to do with music, costume or prop malfunctions.  They are also unpredictable.  What if your mind goes blank and your body freezes because the unconscious connection between your brain and body suddenly gets blocked?  What if your excellent zill skills disappear because the rhythm in your fingers suddenly falters? What if you lose your balance on a turn because you weren't grounded going into it?  What happens if your cane or your sword won't balance because your “knock 'em dead” full body shimmy is actually from an adrenaline rush and not intention?

Is the disaster really as bad as you think?  You may have been feeling “off” or suffering from unexpected stage fright and know that it affected your performance. You may have messed up your choreography or done something in your improvisation that didn't quite hit the right mark for yourself.  But is it true that the audience and other dancers know exactly what happened?  It may be painfully obvious to yourself but if you could go back and see what they saw perhaps things actually looked pretty darn good from their perspective.  Or perhaps the “misstep/s” were noticed but minimal in their eyes.  Have you ever heard your favourite dance star reveal that she/he messed up a performance and thought that you would love your best work to be as good as her/his “off” moment?  Two things to learn from this:  (1) These sorts of missteps happen to EVERYONE and (2) they have more to do with the standards we place upon ourselves rather than the standards imposed upon us from outside.

As someone who suffers from “hit and run” stage fright I've had some fantastic personal performance triumphs thus far in my very short troupe and solo dance career and I've had some spectacular train wrecks.  At least in my eyes they were train wrecks and they felt pretty spectacular.  Funny thing is, though other dancers may be able to discern moments when you falter, for the most part they are not nearly as critical of us as we are of ourselves.  In fact some are very supportive and encouraging because they may have passed through or deal with the same experiences in their dance journey.  Furthermore, the average audience member probably didn't notice a thing.  They are more impressed with your presence and your capacity to entertain than how technically proficient you are.    

So what's a gal (or guy) to do?  Well, you can either give up performance altogether and save yourself the risk of disaster and defeat. OR you can forge ahead continuing your studies, your drilling, your rehearsing, your preparing and then get out there and perform in appropriate venues as often as you can.  You know, the odds are your capricious muse may just decide to smile upon you more and more often that not!


October 12, 2008