Preparing Dance Students Mentally for Exams

By Terry Hyde MA MBACP. Psychotherapist/Counsellor and Retired Professional Dancer

Exams can be an inevitable part of life as a dancer; so teaching dancers how to manage anxiety and stress can be a crucial factor in their success or failure in these situations. I believe that helping dancers to become mentally and emotionally resilient, is as vital to their well-being as building physical resilience. Looking back on my own experiences, I can still remember how nervous I felt about the annual auditions for my RAD scholarships and exams where getting every step and combination right was essential.  Fortunately I was less affected by nerves when it came to auditions, and generally felt more excited than anxious about them.

Stress and anxiety are linked to the natural survival instincts relating to the ‘fight or flight’ responses to the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones work to make us hyper-alert and focused, causing the heart to pound and the stomach filled with butterflies. Most of us will experience this at some point, with some students being more badly affected than others.

Helpful techniques

In my work as a psychotherapist, working with dancers of all ages and abilities, this subject is one that I regularly encounter. Fortunately there are a range of simple exercises that can be learned to manage the sometimes debilitating effects of stress and anxiety in relation to exams, auditions and performances. The methods my clients have found to be most effective are visualisation, re-framing, and a simple breathing exercise that can easily be taught.

There’s a natural tendency for us to focus on what could go wrong (what if), rather than what could go right. In some cases this then becomes a self-fulfilling thought. Rather than using precious energy on worrying, dancers should be encouraged to use the brain’s remarkable powers of imagination to repeatedly mentally rehearse performing a routine or technique perfectly. If they don’t think they can do this simply ask them to think about sucking a slice of lemon to show them how their brain responds – they will salivate! Regular visualisation practice will make the process easier and more effective for them and can lead to rapid improvements in real life.


Re-framing is another useful strategy to change how a dancer thinks about a forthcoming event. I suggest they try changing how they talk to themselves or frame their thoughts from ‘I’m feeling really nervous’, to ‘I’m feeling really excited’  the physical symptoms of fear and excitement are very similar, it is just their interpretation that’s different.

Anxiety can sometimes result in hyperventilation so this breathing exercise helps to restore the proper balance of oxygen and CO2, while focusing on counting also helps to refocus the mind. Take  a deep breath in through the nose for a count of four, then hold for a count of four, breathe out for a count of eight through pursed lips, and then breathe normally for four breaths. Repeat this cycle four times.

Finally – please never mention the words ‘nervous’ or ‘anxious’ to your students, as this will put ideas in their heads from an early age, talk about ‘excited’ regarding exams and performances.  See the difference it makes.


Terry Hyde MA MBACP

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