How to help children overcome fear of dance performance

Having stage fright can be an extremely traumatic event in many children’s early school experience.  The Christmas performance, assessments for performance, showing work on parents’ day or just doing something in front of the class are all stressful for many children.

So how do we help children find their self-confidence to perform?

stage fright in children

What is stage fright or fear of performing? 

For some it could just be butterflies in the tummy but for many they are huge piranhas chomping in their tummies. Stomach aches, headaches, nausea, and tears are all physical symptoms of being anxious about performing in front of someone else.

Many years ago, when I was teaching a Year 1 class, on the side of the stage before a performance, one student was bent over, looking intently at her navel.  The little girl said that it felt like her tummy had flipped to the outside of her body and she was ‘just checking’.

Encouraging children to be uplifted, brave and empowered is one of the superpowers of the arts, if done right.

Some of the problem with this kind of anxiety is that different children respond in different ways.  For one child it could be that they are very anxious leading up to the event but perform with confidence.  Another child may be frozen with fear at the actual event and some may experience anxiety after the event.

Contributing factors may include the child’s innate personality, anxious parents, and previous experience (either personal or from feedback from a family member or peer).  It is not about the child’s ability to perform, and some children may become more anxious as they get older despite being confident earlier on.

Many children have high expectation of themselves and feel pressure that they may be judged or embarrassed.  Feeling the respect and appreciation of peers and family is important.

How can we help children with stage fright?

For each age group there will be different strategies that work better than others.  Teachers need to start early supporting the class to perform.  You can’t leave it to the last minute! It should be a part of your everyday teaching and learning strategies.

Here are five strategies to help ensure performance success.

  1. Small steps on the ladder to dance performance confidence

Showing work should be built into each dance lesson.  It could begin with the teacher performing a movement in front of the class.  Showing yourself as a performer of dance is important for the children to see.  It is not about being perfect but rather experiencing confidence and joy in showing your dance.

Then encourage students to show each other their movements in pairs.  This can then develop to small group showings in class.

These ‘works in progress’ could just be single movements, or small sequences, or children talking about their own choreography and ideas for making movement.

When the children are confident and rehearsed, they can show another class their work.

It is important to find the beginning level that is appropriate for your class.  If you are concerned about a particular student, encourage their parents to have the child tell stories at home, play charades as a family, or even have the child make phone calls to family members to practice speaking to others.  These activities are ways that they can gain confidence with the security of the family and build on it further in class.

  1. Reflecting on dance performance success

stage fright in dance performanceReflecting on performance success is crucial for children naming and getting in touch with their own feelings. Take time after performance experience to reflect on the successes and think about their emotions and feelings before during and after the performance.

What did you do to succeed and how did it feel? 

What was the best part of performing that movement for others?

When did you stop feeling nervous?

What did you do to overcome feeling nervous?

For older students writing activities or journaling is effective in working through their big feelings about performing.  Visualisations of success as a part of mindfulness and breathing activities can help students find pride in their dance preparation and performance.

  1. Name the feeling

Acknowledging children’s feelings are important. They need to know that they have legitimate reasons for feeling nervous about performing.

Therefore, showing compassion and empathy are crucial to them facing their fears rather then just pushing them down.  Listening to their fears and concerns gives you insight and understanding into guiding them to solve their problem.

Through this they also learn to be excited about what they are going to perform knowing that they are heard and supported.  They identify the difference between feeling nervous and excited, a bit like going on a rollercoaster.

The teacher’s enthusiasm for performance will be an essential part of this confidence building process.

  1. Be prepared

Rehearsal is an important part of performance for both children and professional dancers.  It ensures not only a polished performance where everyone comes out smiling, but confidence in knowing that everyone understands exactly what their job is in the performance.

The rehearsal process needs to be calm to ensure that children have a positive image about what they can achieve.  Avoid setting goals that are not achievable.  Unrealistic goals are disappointing for children and teachers alike

Try setting your performance goals together as a class and decide what is most important to everyone performing.  This could include remembering all the movements, supporting each other on the stage, or really enjoying the moment of performance.

Rehearsal also needs to be about practicing what you do if you make mistake.  Invariably someone always forgets what is happening in the heat of the moment and we have to be prepared to keep going and give support to each other where needed.

Moving forward with the performance, despite disasters, is an important part of the learning process.  And dealing with mishaps in a positive way is a great life lesson.  Therefore you need to practice this as a part of your rehearsal process.  What happens when something goes wrong?

If possible, arrange a dress rehearsal in the space where the children will be performing.  This really gives insight into what will happen on the day.  In addition, it shows students what may need to be the focus of the final rehearsals.

  1. Prepare slowly and calmly

Taking things slowly is important in two ways.  Firstly, leave lots of time for children to get used to performing.  Rushing the creation and rehearsal phase of the process will leave the children feeling underprepared and on edge.

Secondly, on the day of the performance ensure that you leave plenty of time to get slowly to the place where you are going to perform.  Speaking in a calm voice and staying unflustered is going to let the children know that everything is under control around them.

Leave time to come together as a class when you arrive and do some, previously practiced, calming breathing or grounding activities.


Dance activity ideas for different age groups

Of course, many of these strategies will suit older or young students in specific dance performance contexts.  Young and older children may feel stress at performing for others throughout their childhood.  Therefore, having conversations about fear and being anxious are worthwhile at any time.

An idea for younger classes

Fear of performance There are many books that cover this topic but Violet’s Tempest  by Ian Eagleton and Clare Anganuzzi, is particularly good for dance performance conversations as it is about performing a play.  It looks at nerves and worry and offers ideas of solutions through a very supportive Nan and delightful Uncles.

The illustrations in this book capture perfectly the feelings and emotions of sensitive children.  It could be a part of a movement exploration activity to assist with racing hearts and butterflies in the tummy.

Dance performance ideas for older classes

Turning anxiety into excitement is sometimes more difficult for older children as they may have experienced an unsuccessful performance experience already.  Ideas for this age group are to do with seeing themselves as being successful.

Role play the feelings that will happen after the performance.  This may be done as a class exercise or a private written one.

Grounding activities directly before the performance that relax their mind and release them from the roundabout of stage fright.  Have them spot five things they can see, four things they can hear, three things they can touch, two things they can smell and one thing they can taste.

Be gone sweaty palms

With these ideas in mind, you can help your class discover the excitement and pleasure in dance performance.  Always plan ahead, stay calm yourself, and show how much fun it can be to give others the gift of performance.

Next month Dance Teaching Ideas will be releasing some exciting news that makes dance lesson planning in Primary school even easier and more fun.