Katharine Hepburn said she never got over stage fright. But she reasoned that her nerves gave her an edge, because she never took a performance for granted. Laurence Olivier once had such a bad bout of the shakes he had to be pushed on stage by his stage manager.
Carly Simon is said to combat the dread of performing by poking herself in the hands with safety pins. And Barbra Streisand gave up singing live for 30 years after the time she blanked on some lyrics during a Central Park concert.
Public speaking makes more people’s hands sweat than standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon. Meryl Streep says she can still become terrified at the thought of walking out on stage in front of people.
With all those pros a mass of jitters, think how it must be to be five years old, dressed in yellow and black striped tights and a too-small leotard that is cutting into your shoulders when the music starts and your teacher says go. And it’s show time for bumblebees.
There you are out on a real stage and even though you know that your family, including three sets of grandparents, is in the audience, you can’t see anyone because they’re in the dark and the lights are on you. So, you dance.
The dozen bumblebees twirled and jumped and stayed in a pretty even line-up and no one ran off crying. They were a triumph, as were the ladybugs, the bluebirds, the rabbit and the butterfly and others in the ballet presentation of What Makes a Rainbow by Le Studio Danse in Santa Rosa.
It is a big deal, at any age, to push yourself into the spotlight. You’re vulnerable. People are watching you. You’re it. We live in an edited world. Performing live, in real time, no retouching, no chance for a do-over is an increasingly courageous feat.
We watched our dancer’s strong little body, also built for soccer and gymnastics, move across the stage with determination, focused on the cues coming from her teacher standing in the wings.
I think she might be hooked.
Later, when I asked her what part of the dance she liked best, thinking maybe an arabesque or pirouette, she clapped her hands and said “the applause.”
Unless they’ve blanked it out most people remember the first time they took a turn in front of an audience. My first was also ballet in a theater in New Haven, Conn. wearing a green tutu and pink top with gold glitter. I don’t remember what we were supposed to be but I remember worrying I’d throw up on stage.
When I took improvisational acting, one of the scariest challenges I gave myself as an adult, our instructor told us that the audience is always pulling for who ever is up there. They want you to do well. Nobody wants you to screw up, unless you’re the Broadway star’s understudy.
In improv class I watched my friend, a normally reserved poet, never a hair out of place and dressed by Nordstrom’s, turn into a zany jester when given the spotlight. Same way, a shy kid I know turned into Mr. Cool when he soloed with his high school jazz band, becoming as fluid and smooth as his saxophone.
The bumblebee called her debut better than a birthday party. I didn’t need to tell her that if she thinks about the audience all being naked it’s easier.