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Messing Up Onstage and How to Cope with It

It was too late. I had been somewhat unsure of which knee to kneel on, so I guessed. I didn’t have time to ponder it; the music’s tempo was fast. I had already committed to kneeling on my left knee and I was on my way to the ground, sliding into the position. Of course, kneeling on my left knee meant I had my left arm above my head instead of my right one. As I was doing this, it felt totally right; it had to be right, this was the correct choreography.


Then, I forgot what came after this brief pose. Did we stand up? Did we jump one by one into the next formation? Did we wait eight more counts? I thought about it as hard as I could, and as I was concentrating on what the next step was, I realized I was going to kneel on the wrong knee! The five other girls in the formation with me were going down on their right knee, not their left! I was ruining the pattern of our formation, and the audience would spot it immediately! No longer was I worried about being a graceful snowflake, or even what step came next, so I frantically, awkwardly switched knees and arms before kneeling. I managed to clunk down onto the correct knee, with the correct arm raised, just in time, and it felt like I had escaped the biggest disaster imaginable.


Of course, the next step was about to begin, and I still had no idea what it was. My brain short-circuited, and a sinking sensation of dread settled into my stomach. The confidence I had stored inside myself before setting foot onstage had disappeared, leaving me unsure and incredibly anxious. The warmth of happiness that had spread throughout my body at the start of the dance turned cold. All of this happened in about a second and a half, but it felt like days.


There is nothing worse than messing up or forgetting choreography (or if you’re like me, somehow accomplishing both in the same dance!)


The good news is, it happens to everyone! The best dancers in major Broadway shows and big companies mess up onstage, too. The above story is just one of my many mess-ups, and it happened while dancing with a professional company. It is bound to happen at least once in your life, because our brains aren’t perfect, but that’s ok! Part of dealing with this common occurrence in dance is knowing that it’s not just you who forgets a step, it’s dancers everywhere! So take a deep breath, because we’re all in this together!


Not only is messing up universal, it’s also somewhat avoidable!


That’s right, there are things we can do as dancers to reduce the number of brain fart moments we have onstage. It all starts with remembering that a big percentage of dance is mental. How we think about steps, technique, choreography, and performing all play into how we actually dance. The big thing to remember here is that executing choreography correctly is about memory. And just like everything in the dance world, it all begins in class.


Class is the best place to start training your memory.


Exercises and combos in class are like mini pieces of choreography, so treat them as such! The better you can be at picking up information in class, the better you’ll be at storing it and executing it onstage. It’s so easy to “nail it in” during classes that can feel repetitive. Try not to do this, and instead treat any style class as a way to improve physical and mental technique. Force yourself to go in the first group or stand in the front line. Don’t watch other people as you go through an exercise. Attempt to remember counts and accents the first time a combo is shown. Taking steps like these in class will strengthen your memory before you know it, decreasing the chance of confusion onstage.


Aside from class, take initiative and go above and beyond with memorization tools! My personal favorite is writing it down. There’s no right way to write choreography. I like to write the counts down the margin of the page, then each corresponding step on the lines next to the counts. It helps me visualize the dance in a way that makes sense to me. I know dancers who just write down the general order of a dance too, and even some who draw diagrams of where they need to move onstage.


The mere act of writing things down has proven to be a great way to get information to stick in your head.


Try it out, and if it doesn’t work for you, move on to another method like speaking your dance out loud. I do this with friends all the time. Before your rehearsal, go through the dance without movement and just talk through it. Say each step and accompanying count, too, if you want. Go slowly enough that you cover everything, and maybe even say the corrections or notes you got for certain key movements.


Hearing the steps said out loud reinforces their sequence in your mind.


There are a lot of other memorization tools out there, like marking through a dance with just your hands, listening to its accompanying song, or even making up silly names for each section of a dance. (While I was dancing as a snowflake in the story at the beginning of this article, we were in the middle of a section we called “pie” because we were in a wedge-shaped formation, like a piece of pie!) Do what works best for your brain.


Know that even when you use tools like these, mess-ups can still happen, and that’s ok! We all mess up sometimes.  All that matters is that you are having fun and trying your hardest. Plus, the occasional moment of forgetting steps makes for a funny story!


Emily Strickland is a professional ballet dancer and writer from Fredericksburg, Virginia. She is currently dancing with Nevada Ballet Theatre in Las Vegas, where she’s had the opportunity to perform ballets like The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake, as well as in a collaborative performance with Cirque du Soleil. Previously she was an artist at Columbia Classical Ballet and a trainee at Richmond Ballet, where she was the featured soloist in Connor Frain’s premiere piece “Inertia”. She has trained with Richmond Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Festival Ballet Providence, Nashville Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen, Denmark. In addition, she is a ballet instructor at Avery Ballet.

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