July 29, 2012

Dancing with Stage Fright. ~ Vrinda Sheth

My Experiences with My Shadow Side.

Usually, it’s called stage fright. I’ve come to call it people-fright.

It’s not the stage I’m scared of, nor the dancing I’m about to do on it, but the people who are watching. This is a distinction that I discovered only recently. Initially I faced an actual stage, though I did not know I had stage fright until it was all over me, gripping me from every corner, tossing and turning me like a ragdoll in the wind.

You see, I spent four years dancing and perfecting my art at Kalakshetra, the most revered institute for Bharata Natyam. Even if you think you don’t know Bharata Natyam, I bet you’ve seen movement derived from it, particularly the articulation of the neck and eyes from side-to-side (how a white girl like me came to embrace this art-form is, as they say, another story for another day).

With a lifetime of dance in my system, and most recently four years of relentless practice at Kalakshetra, I had prepared well to venture onto the stage, had I not? Out of the classroom and into the world, a step every student must eventually take.

For a dancer, it is out of the classroom and onto the stage.

When that life-changing step came, I was prepared, in-sync with my classmates, decked out and ready to go. What I wasn’t prepared for is how unnatural and stiff I felt in this new environment. Instead of my teacher’s familiar eyes on me, there were now hundreds of eyes. What on earth were they seeing? Did I want to be seen?

These were questions that only hit me once I was up there, dancing like that wind-up ballerina in a box, stuck in a twirl forever. That’s really what I felt like, a dancing doll, moving with strings attached to my limbs and a frozen face. The performance had barely started yet I knew with every piece of me that “I can’t do this.”

But the show must go on; so it did and I with it. It’s not that I committed some faux pas or that I tripped on the stage. It was stealthier than that.

Outwardly, I did the required movements but inwardly, I was paralyzed. Afterward, most people offered hearty congratulations, but one of my teachers named Mohan Sir expressed disappointment: “I expected more from you.”

I actually felt relieved hearing his words because it resonated with what I’d experienced. If not seeing that I felt trapped inside my body, Mohan Sir had at least sensed that all wasn’t right within me. In my journal I wrote, with a clenched jaw and tight grip on my pen, “I’m not confined or defined by this experience.” I repeated this like a mantra, a lifeline. I just knew that there was more to be had, a depth that I had somehow missed.

Yet, I was simultaneously frightened by the thought that “this is it.” I had failed to be a powerful and confident dancer. I was a failure, a joke. Truly, that first performance at Kalakshetra was one of the worst performance experiences in my life. My hope then was that maybe I could make it right next time. Next time would be better.

That was in 2007. Now it’s 2012, and has my stage fright kissed me goodbye and taken a seat in the front row? Hardly.

I still have the most paralyzing bouts of stage fright (I say stage, but really it’s any situation that is unfamiliar and new). It’s about a 50/50 chance. Either I will find joy in what I’m doing, or I will freeze up and just go through the motions. Imagine walking into a situation fully aware that it has a 50 percent chance of being very painful; I can’t help but ask myself if it’s worth it.

Counting the pros: I’ve used a huge chunk of my life learning this dance. I seem to have a natural talent. People tell me I’m good. They consistently ask me to dance. Those are the facts.

Counting the cons: the painful paralysis that we otherwise call stage fright has chosen me as a companion. But why have I allowed it to become so close to me?

For the longest time, I just couldn’t figure it out. The world barely has room for the confident artist, what to speak of me, sitting there with a pounding heart, questioning my own worth.

And that’s my own truth, less factual perhaps than my pros-list above but no less impactful. When I’m on a stage with people’s restless eyes on me, I feel like my worth as a person is being measured. Until recently, I really thought I had danced awfully that night on my graduation in 2007. I was actually shocked when I sat down and watched the video:

Aside from certain shyness on my face, I can’t see much that indicates the amount of inner turmoil I experienced. Discovering what I look like on the outside compared to what I feel on the inside has been another conundrum.

Even now, with at least a hundred performances under my belt (yes, I’ve tortured myself that many times!), I cannot say that I’m free from stage fright. If anything, my stage fright has spread out its claws further into my life. This might make more sense if I remind you that I don’t see it as stage fright as much as people-fright. I eventually discovered that it wasn’t the stage itself that I feared, but the people who would watch me. Whenever I venture out to do something new, step out of the known, I’m gripped by this people-fright.

What will people say? What will they think? What will they do?

But here are four things that have helped me become free:

1. I talk to the person next to me.

A group of people can be frightening, especially when I don’t know them. But most often, one person isn’t. When I interact with another person, I’m often reminded that I’m not as alone as I imagine. Really, few things have worked as well as this, the simple reminder of how much we share as human beings.

2. A personal mantra that soothes me.

I’ve stopped being afraid to use affirmations when I need them. It can be a phrase like, “I’ve got what it takes to do this” or words, “I’m strong and confident.” It might feel silly at first, like indulging a self-delusion, but it works. For me, it’s been important to find the right words. Certain words make me tingle and feel warm. This lets me know that I’m telling myself something true.

3. Do in private what I want to do in public.

If you want to speak confidently, begin at home. It’s a smaller and more forgiving audience. The more I’ve built my own personal practice, the less self-conscious I feel when I’m in action publicly.

4.  When all else fails, shake it!

Seriously, this works every time. Just get your whole body into a vibrato, shaking and moving each and every part of it. It’s very hard, impossible actually, to remain serious and stiff, when you’re literally shaking your whole body. The first time I did this, I couldn’t believe how incredibly loose and free I felt. And it’s worked every time since, so shake it, shake it, shake it.


Vrinda Sheth is in the process of discovering what she wants to do with her life. Meanwhile, she dances, writes, and performs with The Mayapuris. She also recently graduated from University of Florida with a B.A. in English and has published an award-winning book titled, “Prince Rama: Son of the Solar Dynasty.” To find out more about her or read other thoughts by her, visit Like Telling a Secret.


Editor: Cassandra Smith

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