Performance Anxiety: Fear or Excitement?

I continue to confer with clients who confess their performance fears to me. It’s a fascinating experience to both witness in others and experience in myself. Over the years, I’ve worked through this performance fear and use this technique with clients in an effort to assist them in working through their own performance anxiety.

GlitterGirl Flag Poi Dancing at One Dream, summer 2006 The first thing I do with performers is ask them what is going on inside their body when they are experiencing this thing they are calling “fear” or “anxiety.” Specifically, what sensations are they noticing. Most people I’ve talked to about this — which has got to be hundreds if not thousands — say any number of the following things:

  • butterflies
  • heightened awareness
  • cramping
  • adrenaline rush
  • faster heart beat
  • things seem to slow down
  • flush skin
  • more body heat
  • more energy in the body

In a sense, when you look over this list, much of what is being articulated can be named as sensations one might associate with fight or flight. The actual experience the performer is having though is that they are experiencing sensations and only sensations.

What then happens is the performer interprets the sensations in their mind to mean performance anxiety.

Some years ago I was preparing to do a set on the playa and my coach was there. I conveyed my experience to him and he asked me about the sensations I felt in my body. I proceeded to describe a good number of things on the aforementioned list. And then he said something which changed my entire relationship to performance.

He suggested, “What if you only think these sensations you are feeling are fear? What if what is really going on is your body is getting you prepared to do something dangerous so that you are safe while you’re playing with fire?”

That moment changed my relationship to performance anxiety permanently. Not because the sensations went away, but because I started experiencing the sensations in a way I had not experienced them before. I began experiencing them as a gift — a means of keeping myself safe. Then, when I started having “performance anxiety” with LED poi, I realized it wasn’t necessarily my body giving me these sensations because of the fire I was about to play with, but rather it was my body helping me get prepared to be as on in my performance as possible.

I then started to apply this in all areas of my life when I felt the sensations — giving a presentation, public speaking, toasting friends, and when I was “nervous” about teaching new material. Instead of focusing on my interpretation of the sensations, I focused only on noticing that I was having sensations and instead of naming the sensations as “fear” or “anxiety” or even “nervousness,” I stopped naming them and simply went about my business.

I’ve been a professional fire dancer for 7 years and I still feel those sensations when I go out on stage. And I’m really glad I do because the adrenaline rush gives me that extra edge that makes the performance come off better than a practice session would. I’m grateful to have learned to embrace the sensations rather than be at odds with them.

Photo Credit: Neil Girling,