A singer’s voice may get shaky, a violinist’s palms sweaty and actors sometimes have complete meltdowns. That’s when some turn to Dr. Judith Kupersmith, a professor of clinical psychiatry and former ballet dancer who helps artists control their anxiety.
Kupersmith works with musicians, actors, dancers, other artists as well as athletes at the School of Medicine and Georgetown University Hospital’s Performing Arts Center for Health.
Before she began providing
psychiatric treatment to actors
and musicians, Dr. Judith Kupersmith
was herself an artist. She trained
with the School of American Ballet
and danced professionally with
the New York City Ballet.
“The purpose [of my work] is to provide professional consultations, recommendations and treatment for career-related pressures and stress that can affect the artist’s progress and well-being,” she says.
The psychiatrist says the strength of any performance -- artistic or athletic -- depends on the body’s condition, training and an ability to control anxiety and stress.
Kupersmith recommends talk-therapy as well as relaxation and visualization techniques used by sports psychologists. She also prescribes medication for anxiety before a performance or on a longer-term basis for chronic anxiety.
Artists display a wide range of anxieties.
“Some symphony players are fine as long as they blend in with the group, but if they have to play a small solo, catastrophic thinking can occur, and they see the lines of a music staff simply fall off the sheet-music page,” she says. From Ballet to Medicine
Kupersmith has personal experience with on-stage anxiety.
She trained at the School of American Ballet and later danced with the New York City Ballet Company from 1957 to 1962. By age 18, she was dancing in Tokyo on an international tour. Ultimately she decided to pursue medicine.
“After I stopped dancing, I didn’t want anything to do with ballet for a long time,” she says. "Kupersmith received her medical degree from New York Medical College in 1969.
It wasn’t until a chance meeting with a former New York City Ballet colleague that she began to think how her dance background could relate to her medical career.
“My friend inspired me to get back into something I knew well but had avoided for many years, and I was able to come full circle and work with people in the performing arts because I understood their stresses and anxieties,” she says.
She and former dancer Marian Horosko wrote a series of articles for Dance
magazine about stress and performance and recently published The Dance’s Survival Manual: Everything You Need to Know from the First Class to Career Change
(University of Florida Press, 2009).
"The “be quiet and pull yourself up by your bootstraps” approach to dealing with performance stress has given way to an increased acceptance for expressions of anxiety, she says, “and that is as it should be.”