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Is Anxiety Holding You Back? What's Normal, What's Not and When to Seek Help

This story originally appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Pointe.

Lying awake in her hotel bed in Washington, DC, the night before her audition, Richmond Ballet dancer Valerie Tellmann-Henning was tormented with anxiety. At 31 years old, she was comfortable in her career. So comfortable that she decided to seek new artistic challenges. With the support of her director, she decided to audition for The Suzanne Farrell Ballet with the hope of juggling two contracts. The only thing that stood between her and her goal was a bout of anxiety. "I felt like I was 19 again trying to get my first job," she remembers. "It made me second-guess a lot of things about myself: Is Suzanne going to like my body type? Will my legs be high enough?" The anxious feeling made Tellmann-Henning irritable, and she even found herself holding her breath during the audition class, as a stream of insecurities cycled through her mind.


Anxiety is an irrational sense of fear that pairs perfectly with perfectionism. Most, if not all, ballet dancers will feel anxious from time to time. In fact, the psychologists we spoke to said it is one of the most common reasons dancers come to them for treatment. While a dash of nerves before you go onstage can add electricity to your performance, anxiety can kill your confidence and even limit your ability to live your life normally if it goes unchecked. In a field that's filled with stressful situations—like casting, audition jitters, contract renewals, mounting bills and stage fright—it's important to learn how to identify anxiety, evaluate the seriousness and take steps to cope with it before it holds you back.

Anxiety 101

Even seasoned pros like Valerie Tellmann-Henning face anxiety. Here's Tellmann-Henning in George Balanchine's Mozartiana with students from The School of Richmond Ballet. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Tellmann-Henning.

"Dancers are kind of a self-selected pre-anxious population," says Dr. Brian Goonan, a psychologist who works with dancers at Houston Ballet. "Wanting to go out there and please and perform is part of what creates the anxiety in the first place." But anxiety has many mental and physical symptoms, meaning that each dancer will show it in a slightly different way. According to Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet, physical symptoms include a fast heartbeat, sweating, shaking, diarrhea, stomach pains, difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, shortness of breath or headaches. Mentally, you may feel a sense of dread or panic, or worry that things are going to go wrong. Most often, Kaslow says, anxiety manifests itself in some combination of both kinds of symptoms.

As the manager of Kansas City Ballet II, Anthony Krutzkamp sees this firsthand, since he works with dancers at one of the most stressful and uncertain periods of their careers—the space between student and professional. "Mostly, I see that they are worried about the future," he says. "So much so that I don't think they are enjoying the present." Krutzkamp says that his dancers become most anxious over things they can't actually control, like casting, how many company positions will open up or how the director or other dancers perceive them. "It all comes from that underlying feeling that they haven't made it yet," he says. While your perfectionism and desire to succeed help you maintain the focus required to become a great dancer, those same qualities can leave your head spinning with uncertainty.

Creating Balance

Drawing or writing in a journal can both be useful in managing anxiety. Photo by Daniel Chekalov via Unsplash.

Fortunately, since your mental and physical wellness are interconnected, there are concrete, tangible solutions to help manage anxiety. Because being a dancer is inherently stressful, Goonan says, it's important to keep your mental and physical "resource pool" high. This means getting proper sleep, eating well to fuel your body and having "good emotional hygiene," such as maintaining hobbies outside of dance and making time to unwind with friends.

In fact, if you are depleted physically, your mind will allocate more of its effort to sustaining your body. As a result, you will be less psychologically able to deal with things that make you anxious. "You can't pull from a resource pool that's drained," advises Goonan, who says that dancers are more likely to experience anxiety when they are feeling run-down.

Creative and athletic hobbies actually have therapeutic effects and can be instrumental in managing anxiety. But since dance falls into both categories, it can't serve as your sole emotional outlet and your job. Goonan encourages dancers to find creative or athletic outlets—like cooking, art or yoga—where the pressure of evaluation is off. "Draw, write in a journal or go bowling on Saturday nights with your friends," he says. "Can you figure out the subtle nuance as to which cheeses to add to homemade mac and cheese?" Maybe you like swimming, sewing or want to learn to play the guitar.

Coping in the Moment—and Afterwards

Krutzkamp coaching summer intensive students at KCB. Photo Courtesy Kansas City Ballet.

When you feel anxiety coming on, say while you're backstage before a big performance, breathing and visualization techniques can help calm you down. "Imagine the situation making you anxious, and picture yourself handling it well," says Kaslow. Deep breaths will also slow your heart rate.

If your anxiety is persistent over a long period of time, it may be worthwhile to evaluate if you are in the right company or training program for yourself and your health. "You are always the best dancer at the place that likes you the most," says Krutzkamp. Sometimes the grass is actually greener somewhere else. Don't be afraid of being open to moving to a place where you can handle the pressure and still push yourself to improve. "You're not just changing grass, you're changing directors," he says. "Every company is very different."

When to Seek Help

Psychologists can help you to learn coping mechanisms to manage anxiety. Photo by Kira auf der Heide via Unsplash.

Kaslow assures that a certain amount of anxiety is normal. "Some people tend to be more anxious than others and that's okay," she says. For example, if you are feeling anxious before opening night, Goonan says that's reasonable. But if you are throwing up before the performance, the anxiety doesn't lessen over subsequent shows or you experience debilitating panic attacks, he warns that you may have a disorder that needs to be treated.

Ask yourself: How often do symptoms show up? How long do they stay? And how intense are moments of anxiety when they happen? More specifically, are you able to perform, attend auditions and take class regularly, or do you find yourself passing up opportunities due to bouts of panic or an overwhelming sense of worry? Unfortunately, there are no universal benchmarks to tell you what frequency, length or intensity of anxiety is "normal." But if it's getting in the way of your life or your dancing, you need to be evaluated by a professional.

If you do go into treatment, Kaslow says that your first meetings will revolve around the psychologist getting to know you and your situation before they teach you specific coping mechanisms. "The only time you would think about medication with anxiety is if it is really quite significant," she says. Traditional medications are highly addictive, so they are avoided if at all possible.

In Tellmann-Henning's case, she sensed that her anxiety was rooted in her perceived shortcomings. So she worked to mentally refocus her thoughts on her strengths before‚—and during—the audition. It worked: She landed the job with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, where she now dances when she's not performing with Richmond Ballet.

"So much of being a dancer is being confident in what you can bring," she says, but that's not always easy, especially when anxiety comes into play. In hindsight, Tellmann-Henning says her bout of anxiety actually reinvigorated her love for what she does. "I think if you don't have moments like that," she says, "then maybe your heart's not fully in your career anymore."

3 Tips for Keeping Things in Perspective

  1. Focus on your strengths as much as your weaknesses. "Instead of walking into class with a new teacher assuming that they will hate your extensions, remind yourself that you've got a solid triple pirouette to the left," says psychologist Brian Goonon.
  2. Understand the full range of your capabilities and know that you can' t perform at your peak every day. Goonan asks dancers to spend two weeks rating their performance after each class on a scale of 1 to 10. Some days you will be a 2, but others might be an 8 or 9. "On any given day there are some things that you do well and some things that you do not so well," he says. Adjust your expectations, and cut yourself some slack.
  3. Control the controllable and let the rest go. For example, you can't control it if an audition has multiple turning exercises and you hate turning. "But can you approach the turns with a positive attitude?" asks Goonan. "yes."

Managing Anxiety with Breath and Visualization

Feeling anxious before a performance or audition? Try this deep-breathing exercise recommended by psychologist Brian Goonan.

  1. Find a comfortable position sitting, reclining or lying where your torso can remain long.
  2. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  3. Breathe in through your nose to a count of 3 and out through gently pursed lips to a count of 5. Take a 1-count rest after the inhale and exhale to create a smooth, 10-second cycle of 6 breaths per minute. Continue for 5 to 8 minutes.
  4. Try adding this visualization while you breathe: Imagine cool, crips and refreshing white air entering your body on the inhale, and low-energy, negative gray air leaving you as you exhale.

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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