1. Breathe - when we get nervous or excited we breathe much more shallowly. From my early days of performing I remember walking off the stage and being so out of breath because I had barely inhaled or exhaled throughout my entire performance. If you're not breathing normally during your performance, your audience might not be able to put their finger on what's wrong, but they will subconsciously feel that tension. So you have to breathe for your audience! By breathing deeply, you signal to yourself that you can relax and let the present moment envelop you. In turn, it will also signal to those watching that they can do the same.
2. Make Eye Contact - it's surprising how scary making eye contact can be during a performance. As a performer, you are already putting yourself in a position of vulnerability, and making eye contact is inviting in even more vulnerability. Who knows what type of judgment or opinion of our performance we might see reflected back at us? Regardless, making eye contact is one of the key ways to display our confidence. So if it doesn't feel natural, force yourself to do it. I have a bad habit of looking down when I start to get nervous, so I have to remind myself to look my audience in the eyes. It doesn't (and shouldn't) mean that you are staring someone in the face your entire performance, but play with your gaze. Make eye contact for a few seconds and then look away. Repeat on a different audience member. The more you practice, the more natural it will start to feel.
3. Change Your Facial Expression - dance is a conversation, and just like in a normal conversation, your facial expression should change as you express yourself. Imagine how you would feel talking with someone who either failed to make an expression or just had a stiff smile for the length of your conversation with them. It would be awkward and uncomfortable. If you do this to your audience while performing, they will feel the same way. So make sure your expression changes to match the nature of the music. When appropriate, smile naturally, which includes smiling with the eyes as well. And keep in mind that you don't have your mouth closed for the entire length of your performance. When we talk, we have to open our mouths. Same goes for a performance. If your lips are sealed the entire time, you're closing off the figurative dialogue between you and your audience.
4. Slow Down - we've all done it; when that nervous energy takes over we start to move faster and faster. We feel we have to remain in constant motion or we're going to loose our audience's attention. But a performance needs nuance and dimension. It needs both fast and slow, smooth and sharp. But if you're dancing like the energizer bunny, your audience will get tired with you. So take a deep breath in and slow down. Stopping completely can even add in great dramatic effect. Especially when you make your entrance, it's very important to remember to keep the speed down. When you first walk out onto the stage, your audience really just wants to look at you. They are trying to determine who you are. They want to see your costume, jewelry, hair, and makeup. So let them! And remember, you don't have to do every move you've ever learned each time you take the stage. Sometimes less is more!
5. Remember, Your Audience Wants You to Succeed - no one goes to a belly dance performance hoping to see the dancer fail. No one wants you to trip and fall, have a costume malfunction, drop your sword, or forget your choreography. They came to be entertained and have a good time. They came to be happy. Some of my favorite performances to watch were not because the dancer "wowed" me with her technique, but were when the dancer conveyed her joy to me. So stop worrying, relax, enjoy yourself, and your audience will too.
Photo Credit: Picture of Saida from www.cadernosdedanca.wordpress.com