The alarm goes off. Immediately the jitters start. My stomach drops. My heart is pounding. It’s the morning of, the day I’ve prepared for for the past several months. For a split second, I ask myself why I’m doing this. I lay in bed for a few minutes, slowing down my breathing and telling myself in just a few hours, it will be here. I get up, go to the bathroom, and begin the preparation for what’s to come. I’m afraid to face myself in the mirror and see the nerves in my eyes.

I take a deep breath and put my iPod earbuds in my ears, relying on Common, Talib Kweli, and Christina Aguilera to pump me up. For consistency and partly superstitious reasons, I put on the same outfit I wear every time I do this—red tank top, gray and red Adidas sweats, gray and pink Nike Frees, and black sweatshirt. My breathing goes fast and shallow as I realize that with every step I take to prepare myself, I’m one step closer to doing the thing I’m nervous about. I apply my makeup with a shaky hand, stopping every once in a while to wipe off the beads of sweat forming on my upper lip and forehead. My stomach still turns. My mouth goes dry. I close my eyes and exhale, trying to force the nerves out of my body. I try to combat every racing thought that comes into my head.

I make eye contact with the girl in the mirror and tell her, “You’re strong, you’re not afraid, you can do this.”

I begin fixing my hair, hopping from one foot to the other repeatedly as a result of the adrenaline pulsing through my veins. The bad nerves subside as I repeat to myself that the anticipation is the hardest part. I know that I’m ready and I’m prepared … and today I don’t have room in my mind for doubts. I finish preparing myself and get out of the bathroom. I force-feed myself some breakfast that will provide me with lasting energy. I guzzle water, even though I can never drink enough to quench my thirst. I check the clock and realize that time is running short, and I need to head out.

We head to the venue while I sing my songs in my head and try to stay mindful of how I feel. I find my quiet spot in the venue. My iPod keeps playing as I begin warming up. The nerves and apprehension slowly leave my body as I run in place, breaking a sweat and waking up my body for the task coming in only a couple hours. My legs feel unusually heavy, and I tell myself that it’s mind over matter. My hands shake as I lace up my dance shoes and go through each step one at a time. It feels good; I feel strong.

I have some downtime so I eat a snack and listen to my iPod. I think about what’s to come. Suddenly my heart feels full of emotion. At this point I usually find someone I trust so I can cry and relieve my stress. After that, I feel much better and ready to go out. The announcer calls us backstage to start the competition. I look in the hall and the judges and musicians have taken their spots. All right… it’s time.

I put on my dress, and suddenly I feel like a different person—the better version of myself. I hug my support team and head backstage. As I walk back, I think of all I have experienced and learned over these past several months: drive, trust, teamwork, desire, perseverance. I smile. No matter what happens, I can be proud of myself for the personal growth I’ve experienced.

I get to my place in line backstage. This is the point of no return. As my turn gets closer, my resolve sets in. The only nerves within me are the kind that will make me dance my hardest. I take a deep breath. This moment is finally here. I go through each step in my head, thinking of all the corrections I need to remember. No matter what, I purpose in my heart to perform it as I’ve practiced. As the line of girls gets shorter and I get closer and closer to going up the steps to the stage, the excitement in my heart grows. This is what I’ve prepared for. This is what makes me feel proud. It’s finally here… I better make the most of it. I catch sight of myself in a mirror hanging on the wall and smile at myself. “You’re gonna do it,” I say aloud.

The pair of girls in front of me is walking onstage. I will be up next. I hop up and down and visualize my dances as I step into that place referred to as the Zone. The music ends as the girls ahead of me point, bow, and return to their spots. This is it now. As is tradition, I make the sign of the cross and repeat, “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” I take a deep breath. With one last thought, I step out onstage and look out into the faces of seven judges and thousands of audience members. I smile and sigh. That familiar feeling settles in; it’s a mixture of adrenaline and nostalgia, and most of all, a feeling that everything is all right in my world. That’s why I do this.