Mirrors have become an integral part of dance training; they allow dancers to receive immediate visual feedback and provide dance teachers with a tool for easily visualising an entire class whilst teaching and correcting students. Indeed it would be difficult to find a dance studio around without at least one mirror on-sight! However, can we become too reliant on mirrors?
Whilst mirrors are a fantastic tool for dancers to evaluate their movements and assist with self-correction, it is important to remember that when performing on-stage there is no visual feedback. Dancers must therefore learn to perform movement correctly based on how their body feels. This important skill is known as proprioception; the ability to recognise where our body is in space. Unfortunately dancing persistently in front of a mirror can distract dancers from focusing on this phenomenon and research has shown that a correction made using sight can actually be quickly lost if a dancer focuses on the way the correction looks and forgets how the correction "feels" (1).
Constant mirror use can also lead to the formation of bad habits with the head and eyes, something I know I struggled with when my teacher used to turn us to face another direction in our dance studio. I found that without a mirror I became unsure where to hold my upper body and look with my eyes; in particular the height of my eye line, having always looked straight into my own eyes in the mirror! In recent experiences teaching I have found that students need to be challenged to turn away from the mirror, in particular those 'perfectionists' who like to really focus on how their movement looks.
Interestingly, Gretchen Warren in Classical Ballet Technique (2) recommends that no mirrors should be used in beginner-level ballet classes. - The focus should instead be on committing to new movement and positions based on muscle memory. In some of my junior classes I have been incorporating exercises in which the dancers must close their eyes. This means they can really focus on how their body and placement feels - they also find this a really fun challenge! Rory Foster suggests in Ballet Pedagogy (3) that mirrors should only really be used periodically used throughout class to apply a teacher’s correction and that the majority of the class should be done facing away, or side-on to the mirror. Both agree that only at an upper-level is it appropriate to have dancers constantly face the mirror. I know most of my training was spent facing the mirror but perhaps mirror use should indeed be more sporadic.
Regardless of this, reminding dancers to really "feel" their movement is important, perhaps especially at a time when social media is prevalent and creating a lot of emphasis on how a certain position looks. As New York professor Barbara Montego notes, a trained dancer should be able to make aesthetic judgements on a movement based on how it is proprioceived (i.e., how the dancer perceives it feels) which is a difficult skill to master (4). This is in part because when something feels normal to a dancer but looks wrong, it can be so hard for the dancer to get the feedback needed to change it and the time to change an ingrained motor pattern. So teachers, how can we better encourage student's development of proprioceptive abilities?
Some ideas might be to:
- Regularly challenge students to perform classes without mirrors. Perhaps by alternating the direction of the class each week.
- Have a conversation with your students about the value of mirrors and what they they provide, as well as how they might impair dance training or performance.
- Emphasise the importance of learning how the body feels - try having your dancers perform an exercise such as port de bras with their eyes closed.
- Try emphasising other ways of learning to perform movement correctly, such as imagery or video (Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance by Eric Franklin is a great resource)
- Use video feedback to help students 'see' and understand what is happening. This can be very powerful with the 'I don't quite believe you' students (you know the ones!). It is great when they get that 'ah ha' moment. Slow motion and mirroring can also be really helpful. Get a (right turning) student to video a turn to the right and play this back using video mirroring so that when they watch it they are tuning to the left; get them to picture themselves doing the turn with the video first, then try the turn it should feel much more comfortable for them. The tricks of the mind!
If you would like to read more on mirrors in the dance class check out the attached article by Sally Randell written for the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science.
- Ehrenberg S. Reflections on reflections: mirror use in a university dance training environment. Theatre, Dance and Performance Training. 2010;1(2):172-184.
- Warren G. Classical Ballet Technique. Tampa: University Press of Florida, 1989
- Foster R. Ballet Pedagogy. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2010
- Montero B. Proprioception as an aesthetic sense. J Aesthet Art Critic. 2006;64(2): 231-242.
Picture a group of dancers during rehearsal for a performance. At one end of the studio is positioned a large mirror that takes up nearly the entire wall. This mirror, will normally be located so as to approximate where the audience will be seated during a performance. In the mirror, in other words, dancers see themselves as the audience will see them; thus, for many the mirror serves to show how dancers are viewed by others.