I much prefer the term “stage shy” as opposed to “stage fright”. It feels less scary, which in turn can help the actual fear be less scary. I would use “stage anxious” but anxious is not a word little kids can easily grasp.
There are actual real things to be frightened of in this world. Not that I advocate fear, but the truth is, I will be scared when my 16 year-old drives off for the first time on his own. And rightfully so. This fear helps me teach him how to drive responsibly right now while I am still in the car to help.
I can’t think of a time where being shy (anxious) has been especially useful. There is nothing to be genuinely shy about in life. Sure, we can feel shy/anxious about our bodies or our skills or a slew of other things; but when we are honest with ourselves, we know our shyness comes from our insecurities and past traumas, not from real threats.
Teaching Students About Stage Shyness
I am a firm believer in being direct and upfront, even with my young students. Because they are so immature, they lack the discernment to know if they feel shy or if they feel scared.
I speak to them about these two things and how they are different. We talk about what kinds of things people might feel scared about when it comes to going on stage. I help them determine if there is anything to actually be afraid of when it comes to going on stage. Things such as:
- Forgetting their dance.
- People laughing at them.
- Their costume falling off.
- Falling down.
I allow them to express these fears freely. Then I speak directly about whatever items they named off and how we can help them feel less concerned/shy/anxious.
EX: Let’s talk about your costume falling off while you are on stage. (everyone giggles) I know! That would be pretty crazy, right? I have been teaching ballet to kids your age for a very long time. A very looooong time. I have never seen a costume fall off before. This is because we measure you so well for your costumes and the company that makes your costumes builds them so well. When your costumes arrive we have you try them on and dance in them to make sure everything fits and absolutely won’t fall off. Being afraid of your clothes falling off in front of people is definitely something I can understand. That would be kinda embarrassing. But you can know your ballet costumes are made to stay on! So what do you think? You think your ballet costume falling off is something we should keep on our list or can we scratch that off? (everyone yells ‘scratch it off!’)
Preparing Students for Butterflies
If we can help our students understand the tickling feeling that happens in their tummies we can help them distinguish between being excited and being scared. The two feelings are so similar. One is saying, “You are so ready for this! Go do it!” The other is saying, “There is danger! Run away!”.
I tell my students that butterflies in their tummies is a good sign. It means they want to do well. They have worked so hard and it is important to them that people see that. Often times my young dancers will say, “I don’t ever get nervous!” Of course, this would be untrue. As teachers, we need to help our students stay honest in their feelings and find power in their feelings.
Even though I do a lot of talking with my students, I also try not to place value on negative thought processes.
Allowing students an opportunity to express their concerns is valid. Allowing students to wallow in anxiety is harmful. This is why we have the conversations up front. So when the shyness returns we can say, “I can see you still feel some shyness about falling down on stage. Do you remember the things we talked about that could help you feel safer with that?”
Redirect the negative to the positive and help the student engage in productive thoughts.
When all is said and done, what we want is for our dancers to have had a positive experience. That might look different on each dancer. A very stage shy little one might not even go on stage. Maybe he gets right to the edge and then runs away. Or maybe he gets on stage but the lights are too much and he runs away. This is ok. He progressed as far as he could in that moment. What happens next and how he remembers that memory is largely up to the adults in his life. Will we shame him and insist there was nothing to be afraid of? Or will we say “I am so proud of you for trying! You became even braver tonight than you already were. The world is so blessed to have you in it!”