When you perform—whether it’s giving a speech, an artist talk or telling a story on a stage—you will eventually get thrown off. Somebody will look bored or somebody else will walk out or any number of things may take you out of the moment and into your head. This isn’t a problem—it’s just what happens. The key to recovering is to get grounded in your body again by remembering to breathe, feel the bottom of your feet and focus on the audience.
But sometimes you will be really thrown and need something more to recover. A couple of years ago, when I was performing in a cabaret with several other people, someone knocked me off my feet moments before I took the stage. Here’s the story of how I regained my footing:
I’m standing behind the curtain, with minutes to go before I sprint onto the stage and there’s this other performer, a man, also about my age, attractive and fit. I’ve been pacing because I’m nervous and that’s the way I am before I perform. It’s not a problem; it’s just my process.
This man, a stranger, comes up to me, apropos of nothing, and leans into my face in a teasing way and says, “Don’t be nervous. Just breathe,” which on the surface, is fine, but I don’t know him and I haven’t asked for advice. But this isn’t about breathing, you know this.
Old habits die hard, especially with attractive men, especially when you’re 50-ish and you live in the land of the ignored, so I smile at him and then I laugh, betraying myself.
This happens three more times. Him telling me to breathe in a teasing way and each time I smile less. By the third time, I’m not laughing or smiling. I think he has finally gone away.
Now, they’re introducing me and I’m about to step on the stage.
Out of nowhere he walks by me and thrusts his hand onto my waist and whispers something into my hair. I shake free. “Get away from me,” I yell—the audience is clapping—so nobody hears me, not even him because he’s running off the side of the stage and into the darkness.
My whole body sinks. I feel crushed, used, pushed down. It may not sound like a big deal—just my waist, just this stranger’s hand, just this man’s face in my hair—but it is.
I can’t go on like this, I think. So, I stretch my arms in the air. I reach my hands far above my head, as high as I can. I call the dead: I call my father; I call my stepfather; I call my Russian grandmother, my mother, I call all of them going back centuries. I ask them for power.
And they give it to me. These ancestors—some I didn't know and some where our relationship was complicated—but no matter—they show up with a golden light and I let it flow into me.
I walk onto the stage. And I tell you with gratefulness for the generations behind me that I nail my performance.
I never saw the man again. But now I know—if this happens again—who I will call.
How have you regained your footing? Let me know by leaving a comment here.
Dancers tying shoes, by Edgar Degas, 1883.