Breaking Bad: Getting Rid of Pesky Performance Habits

Princess Farhana, a guest of honour at BurlyCon 2014, has performed, taught, researched and written about belly dance and burlesque since 1990.  Now, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine can bring you the best of her guides and tutorials right here, starting with a guide to tackling bad performance habits…

We all love to watch a dancer who looks effortless and relaxed onstage because it’s a joy to see. This type of natural performance allows audience members to just sit back and become enthralled by the dancer’s personality and connection to the music. But this air of ease and confidence is often something many performers struggle with, because before we actually hit the stage, we’re hyper from performance adrenalin and nervous energy! Usually this type of laid-back grace isn’t natural; it’s a learned skill which has been honed and perfected, just like any other type of technique!

One of the things that drives me (and other audience members, whether they are professional dancers or not) crazy when watching a show is a performer who carries over bad habits from their rehearsals or classes into their performances.  It’s also the bane of every dancer’s existence, because at some point in our career we all have had bad habits that presented themselves in our performances. Dancers of all levels often have difficulties controlling unconscious nervous tics and stressed out gestures when they’re on stage, whether it’s holding tension in their jaws, a glassy ‘concentration face’ kind of stare, or mouthing the counts of the music. We’ve all seen it!

My own go-to nervous gesture used to be constantly playing with my hair, and not in a sexy, come-hither way! I looked more like an agitated fifth grader about to take a spelling test than a relaxed and capable professional dancer.

It took me a long time to break that habit, and it also took a lot of cussing out loud at myself in the mirror while I practiced! But the work was worth it; I finally laid that unconscious tic to rest, and now the only time I play with my hair onstage is if I do it intentionally.

To remedy our habits, we need to be vigilant during our classes, practice sessions and rehearsals so that we don’t take these audience distractions onto the stage with us!

Habits – in any form – are difficult to break.

These unconscious gestures have become automatic, and the reason they get repeated is twofold. First of all, our habits are almost always something that has been done constantly; whether it is physical, mental or emotional, habits are learned through repetition.

To illustrate this, think of a good habit (like your basic dance posture) and you’ll get the idea. Prior to your study of dance, you didn’t go about your daily activities standing straight and tall, with the muscles in your abdomen engaged, a lifted ribcage and your shoulders held back and down… did you?

Nope, you learned this posture!

And it took a damn long time to get to the point where this stance became normal for you! But once you got used to standing in dance posture, it became one less thing to keep track of, thereby allowing your brain to focus on more important issues – like executing difficult technique or getting your timing and phrasing down.

Secondly, many of these habitual behaviours have become comfortable, reliable and somewhat pleasurable, because for whatever reason, they make us feel calm and peaceful. Think of a child sucking its thumb and you’ll get the idea. A self-soothing habit (whether it is shopping compulsively, always having a glass of wine with dinner or making odd grimaces onstage) triggers the chemical dopamine in our brains, which in turn activates our brain’s Reward Center. Why does a dog beg? He knows he will get a treat!  It’s a habit.

Why did I always used to twirl my hair onstage? Because it felt good to do that in a stressful environment. Playing with my hair was a self-soothing ‘treat’, but it sucked because I not only did it in public during performance, but I didn’t even realise I was doing it, because I wasn’t thinking about it!

Once you understand these two concepts, any habit will become a little easier for you to break. You’ll still need willpower, and you’ll still need to really re-wire your brain to change the habit, but it can be done!

Princess Farhana: I made an 'executive decision' to play with my hair for this picture!  (Photo: Maharet Hughes)
Princess Farhana: I made an ‘executive decision’ to play with my hair for this picture! (Photo: Maharet Hughes)

Here’s how:

Identify Your Bad Habits

The best way to do this is to watch taped performances and practice sessions.

Some of the problem areas you notice will be physical, such as hunched shoulders, sloppy arm paths, or not finishing each and every movement fully.

Other habits will be more emotionally or mentally based, like mouthing counts in the music, looking at the floor, or making a face while reacting to an onstage mishap.

Remember that you’re not watching your performance to tear it apart, but so that you can become a better dancer! Take an objective detachment, become your own ‘casual third party observer’.   Watch your tape a few times and make brief notes on what you’d like to change or improve upon, and then let it go – don’t do anything about it for a couple of days. Watch it again, and see if your reactions to the performance are about the same, or less or more than they were when you initially watched it. Take notes, and compare the notes from both observation sessions. Now, what you need to work on will be clear.

Take Baby Steps

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your onstage habits weren’t either!

Once you’ve identified the habits you’d like to break, you can start re-training yourself to avoid them in performance. Most experts agree that it takes considerable time and dedication to discontinue any sort of habit; depending on the individual, breaking a habit or correcting a nervous tic could take anywhere from a couple of weeks to six months. It’s a process whereby you’re actually re-wiring your brain!

Practice Self-Awareness

Watch yourself like a hawk in class or rehearsals, be vigilant and merciless. By that, I mean in noticing and correcting the bad habits, not by emotionally beating yourself up! Remember, you are doing something positive here! Remind yourself just before you go onstage that you are NOT in any way, shape or form going to give in to falling back to your old habits. Tell yourself out loud if you need to! You might look like a nut in the dressing room, but it’s way better than looking compulsive or nervous on stage!

It Takes a Village

Well, maybe not really, but getting an objective, neutral party to help break your habits is a fabulous idea! Discuss your habit-breaking goals with your instructor, troupe leader, show director or a friend, asking them to point out when you engage in the practices that you want to discontinue. It will help to have another set of eyes on you, and it will also make you feel a little more accountable and supported.

Reward Yourself

Go all Pavlovian – every time you make it through a class, practice or performance without engaging in the habit you want to break, give yourself a little reward. A sweet treat, a new pair of earrings, whatever! And when you’ve broken your habit once and for all,  your biggest reward will be a better performance.

You can do it!

Princess Farhana

Internationally acclaimed dance star Princess Farhana (Pleasant Gehman) has performed, taught, researched and written about belly dance and burlesque since 1990. She has appeared in Egypt, Turkey, Hong Kong and Australia, and toured several times across Europe and The United Kingdom, as well as throughout North America. An artistic chameleon and a boundary-pushing pioneer, she performs many styles of dance with ease, from ultra traditional to contemporary belly dance and burlesque. Her diverse talents encompass visual, literary, musical and dramatic arts as well as dance. She has fronted three bands, is featured as an actor in several motion pictures and television shows, and has been interviewed for numerous feature-length documentaries, including director Steve Balderson’s Underbelly: A Year In The Life Of Princess Farhana.

The Princess is known for her high-concept, innovative performances, dramatic stage presence, and incredible abdominal work. Her warmth, enthusiasm, extensive knowledge and her adventurous spirit – both on and off stage – captivate audiences worldwide.

Get a signed copy of Princess Farhana’s books, The Belly Dance Handbook and Showgirl Confidential here.



21st Century Burlesque Magazine
21st Century Burlesque Magazine

Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.

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