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Resource Paper: Mirrors in the Dance Class: Help or Hindrance?

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At first it was known as "the flattering glass," "the see-face," or "that which is in eternity,"1 and for thousands of years people have gazed into mirrors’ reflecting surfaces to ask questions about themselves and their world. The history of the mirror is a long one. The earliest known manufactured mirrors date from 8000 years ago in Anatolia, now south central Turkey. Yet even before that time the very first mirrors were pools of water in natural bodies of water or vessel containers. Men as well as women stared at themselves either to admire their appearance or to see how to correct it. Because a mirror seemed to show how one looked from the outside, it has often been connected with the human experience of self-consciousness and also the desire for self-improvement: Who is the person I see looking back at me? What do I look like? How can I make that person look younger or smarter, more graceful, more confident, more beautiful?

Dancers too use mirrors for the same reasons, although historically the genesis of mirror use in dance training is not clearly documented. Their use likely began with ballet training sometime in the eighteenth century2 where the mirror was used to compare one’s reflected image with the perceived ideal image of the performance of a given step or phrase, and today they are present in most westernized dance studios to support the learning environment.

Mirror Use and Performance: Positive and Negative Aspects
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, as Helena Wulff writes in Ballet Across Borders,3 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. Many dancers tend to feel that the mirror is crucial for their success and serves as an important tool for technique training.

There are many positive reasons to use a mirror in dance training. For dancers the mirror provides immediate visual feedback; it allows them to evaluate the height and shape of their movement, to correct their placement, and to assess the line of their bodies. For teachers, the benefits of using mirrors as instructional tools also includes the opportunity to easily situate themselves to view many students at one time, although very little research has been conducted in this area.

Conversely, dance instructors frequently have reservations about the use of the mirror in the dance studio.4-11 Wendy Oliver12 describes the mirror as a tool which provides constant feedback about a dancer’s body and performance. However, Oliver also addresses the negative aspects of having a mirror in the classroom, where a dancer pays too much attention to the image she sees of herself in the mirror, this self-consciousness may overpower her own internalized sense of her body as it moves through space. Only a small amount of research looks at the overall impact that classroom mirrors have on dancers’ performance and body image. This type of research is interdisciplinary and generally involves teams of professionals with a broad range of expertise in statistics, dance pedagogy, health education and dance science (not to mention psychology), making the collection of useful information complex and costly. Here, dance science can draw from other disciplines, such as motor learning and psychology to better understand the importance of how we set up environments for learning.

Learning How to Trust the Body
How a movement looks may be less important than how it feels. The felt understanding of exactly where one’s body is and what it is doing is called "proprioception," and it is a critical ingredient to being a technically skilled, aware, and expressive dancer. Glenna Batson13 and Barbara Montero stress the importance of proprioception (sometimes called "the sixth sense") in dance instruction. As Montero writes,

[L]ooking at oneself in the mirror is often not the best guide to self-correction (to say nothing of the futility of looking at one’s body directly). Not only can turning one’s head to look in the mirror destroy the desired effect of the movement, but a trained dancer often trusts proprioception more than vision when it comes to evaluating aesthetic qualities of his or her movements and positions.14

If dancers practice dancing with a mirror for too much of their training, without developing other sensory systems, they may see detriments to their skill development when they are then required to work without the mirror. The mirror can become a "crutch” which inhibits dancers from fully developing their kinesthetic sensibilities and thus inhibits their full potential as performers.15 In this case, the removal of the mirror during training, argues Wulff,3 allows dancers to focus more on their internal kinesthetic feedback, which in turn may elevate their performance level. They progress from technique to artistry because they have a feeling for the movement, rather than being dependent on "seeing," and perhaps being distracted by their image in the mirror. As their movements become less self-conscious, they become more fully expressive.

Professionals disagree as to how the mirror is effective at different levels of a dancers’ technical training. Much of the information on the use of the mirror in teaching dance comes from either motor learning specialists or dance instructors who have extensive experience teaching in the dance studio. Kimmerle and Côté-Laurence in Teaching Dance Skills16 report that the mirror can offer valuable assistance early in a dancer’s training, but they caution that it should not be used to the point where it interferes with dancers’ developing an awareness of their kinesthetic sensibilities. Gretchen Ward Warren in Classical Ballet Technique17 recommends no mirror use in a beginning level class. She reports that without the use of a mirror, students commit the new movements and positions of the body to "muscle memory" much faster and learn them by "feel" more quickly and not by "visual imitation.” However, Ward acknowledges that the mirror is an important tool in an upper-level dance class because the dancers use it constantly to assess their positions and line in the mirror. Rory Foster in Ballet Pedagogy11 describes the importance of having dance classes taught with either a side or rear placement of the mirror towards the dancer’s body. This way the mirror would only be able to be periodically used to apply a teacher’s correction to a movement. He comments that only when dancers reach an advanced level is it appropriate to allow them to face the mirror in class. At this point, he says, the dancers have developed the experience to use a mirror as a tool, and they are not likely to become mesmerized and thus overpowered by their physical image to the point of distraction. In general, mirrors tend to be used more often in codified and traditional forms of dance that place high value on line and positions, as in ballet. The mirror seems to be used less in contemporary dance forms or in improvisations that tend to focus on sensations of one’s body and how movement is affected by them.

There have been a handful of scientific research studies with university dance students which explore how mirrors affect dancers’ performance in the dance studio. One study18 reported that university dance students who learned a dance phrase with the use of the mirror had better movement retention over a two-week period than students who learned the phrase in a non-mirrored dance classroom. It was also found that the use of the mirror for dancers with less than ten years of dance training may be distracting and delay the learning process.19 Other researchers9-10 found that beginning ballet students who learned and practiced an adagio phrase without the mirror developed stronger technical skills in their performance of the phrase than a comparable group of students who learned and practiced the same adagio phrase using a mirror. Perhaps this was because there was more opportunity for students to be distracted by watching themselves in the mirror while performing the slower adagio phrase. The researchers also saw no difference in technical growth between the mirror and non-mirror class in their classroom performance of the quicker allegro phrase. These researchers ultimately concluded that the use of a mirror tended to retard technical improvement in the classroom performance of an adagio phrase.

Mirror Use and Body Image
Every time we look in a mirror we are confronted with an image of our body, and what we see may or may not be the image we have --or would like to have -- of ourselves. Hence the concept "body image," (a term from psychology) which refers to the perception, thoughts, and feelings we have about our bodies.20 A dancer’s personal vision of her body is an important part of her psychological health and well-being, and it can help or hinder her dance performance in the studio. Heightened self-consciousness can sometimes cause a dancer to become overly critical of the way she looks. As a result, dance students frequently develop negative feelings about their bodies. This is a reality that many dance teachers understand from experience and witness on a daily basis. For instance, it is not uncommon for a dance teacher to observe a student standing in front of the mirror in a leotard with shrugged shoulders, looking down at the ground, seemingly feeling bad about herself.

Mirrors entice individuals to see themselves externally as objects and to imagine how others view them in comparison with others. Jill Green7 interviewed university dance students and found that the use of mirrors heightened their self-consciousness; the more they looked at their images in a mirror, the more they increased both their tendency and their capacity to see themselves as objects. In a dance class, students regularly stare at their external image in the mirror; they attempt to achieve a precise "look" while being corrected. Depending upon factors such as the technical difficulty of the dance phrase, the experience level of the dancer, and the degree of stress experienced when learning a phrase, this heightened self-consciousness may have positive or negative psychological effects. The dancer’s perceived "ominous" presence in the mirror results in physical self-evaluation, behavior regulation, body objectification, and competition. Repeated often enough, the experience can be dehumanizing. In the scientific literature this concept involving the mirror, objectifying oneself, comparing oneself to others and potential negative self-evaluation is called the Theory of Objective Self-Awareness.21

Research4,8,10 shows that dancers taught without mirrors, especially higher skilled dancers, felt better about their bodies. Dancers taught with mirrors, on the other hand, felt worse about the appearance of their bodies. Dancing without the mirror, for the higher-skilled students, may encourage them to be less self-critical, less distracted and thus feel more satisfied with their bodies. When using the mirror dancers can be self-conscious and compare themselves to others and ultimately feel bad about their bodies. In addition research4 suggests that higher skilled dancers, who have a more developed ability to access their technical progress, can be more critical of their bodies than less experienced dancers who may not yet have developed skills to accurately evaluate their progress in technique training.

Overall, research to date indicates that the effect of mirrors on dancers’ body image may be dependent on varying factors such as performance skill level, comparing oneself to others, and level of material taught. The relationship between these individual factors is complex and unique for each student.

The Dancer in the Mirror
Most students, especially those at the beginning levels, welcome the opportunity to view themselves in the mirror during dance class. In fact many feel the mirror is an essential tool in a serious dance class; this is especially true in ballet. However, research4 shows that in dance classes where a mirror is not present only about half of the students miss it, and some actually feel relieved not to have to address the potent and complex relationship between their self-perception and the reflection of themself they see in the mirror.

This conflict between what a dancer sees in the mirror and their bodily felt sensations while moving is acknowledged in the dance literature. Both Kimmerle and Côté-Laurence16 and Gay Cheney5 make reference to the scenario in the dance classroom where students become overly concerned with looking at the image of themselves dancing in the mirror rather than focusing on the internal kinetic sensations necessary to perform a movement correctly. Shantel Ehrenberg conducted a study which explored students’ conflicting and contradictory relationships with the mirror.22 Ehrenberg observed two variables in communication with each other when dancers discussed using a mirror: the kinesthetic experience of the movement and the visual image in the mirror. She labels the interaction of these variables the "dancer-mirror feedback loop." This "dancer-mirror feedback loop" can become dysfunctional when a dancer corrects herself in the mirror, is able to feel the correction kinesthetically, but then quickly loses the kinesthetic sensation and is unable to retain the corrected movement.

Frequently, especially with beginning dancers, the visual image is more powerful than felt, proprioceptive experience. As a result, a dancer cannot refine and learn to trust her proprioceptive self and her growth in technical performance can be impeded. Another way to look at this relationship is to compare the two-dimensional image in the mirror with the three-dimensional body in motion. When using a mirror, dancers struggle to learn to negotiate between these dual perspectives and this conflict can easily detract from their ability to focus in class. In Ehrenberg’s study, for instance, some of the students commented that the mirror caused them to lose "flow" or associated the mirror with a "demand for perfection." Others were intimidated by the mirror, and it provoked negative thoughts about their bodies or their performance. Dance counselor Julia Buckroyd23 discusses a teenage dance student’s emotional level of development. According to Buckroyd, a student who looks in a mirror cannot see an accurate image of herself, or even detach herself from the image to the point that she can use the information constructively.

Promoting Optimal Use of the Mirror
Dance educators should recognize the instructional benefits mirrors provide in the classroom, just as they must understand their less desirable consequences; teachers must use them knowledgably and selectively. Students develop individual relationships with the mirror, and these relationships directly influence how they feel about themselves in the classroom and how they perform. It seems clear that mirrors are useful for some aspects of dance training but detrimental to others. The mirror can be effective in a dance classroom where it allows students to evaluate their technical growth and to fully see all aspects of classroom material. It also can be an advantage for teachers by giving them greater visibility of their students. In other situations, however, the mirror can bring about undesirable levels of self-consciousness or self-criticism.

The mirror remains a potent tool in dance classrooms. Awareness of how mirrors can both help and hinder dance instruction should improve both the teaching environment and students’ overall well-being. The following guidelines and references provide some additional material for teachers to consider when instructing students in dance technique classrooms.

Considerations for Mirror Use in Teaching Dance

  • Present the mirror as one of many teaching tools that can be used, but note it is not always necessary for training. Most students want to use the mirror in class, and they view it as a critical tool for the study of dance.

  • Emphasize the long-term value of kinesthetic feedback (proprioception). Overuse of the mirror can delay students’ development in learning to utilize kinesthetic feedback. Integrate other methods of movement information into classes; include verbal imagery and other somatic approaches so the mirror is not framed as the primary mode of information-gathering for a student.

  • Be specific in instructing students how to use the mirror constructively. Give them limited time frames to avoid gazing at their bodies, a habit that can lead to negative self-evaluation. The mirror has a powerful effect on students’ experiences in the dance studio. The image students see of themselves in the mirror and the feedback it provides can frequently overpower the kinesthetic feedback students feel in their bodies and must learn to interpret.

  • Use the mirror sparingly, either by closing curtains over the mirror or having students face away from the mirror. As a teacher, be sensitive to negative body image issues provoked by mirrors in some students.

  • As dance teachers, we need to understand the backgrounds, goals, and needs of our student population; be clear about the goals of our classes; deepen our understanding of the benefits and disadvantages of the mirror as a learning tool; and finally, use the mirror selectively and strategically to support our teaching.



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Written by Sally A. Radell, MFA, MA, under the auspices of the Education Committee of IADMS.

This paper may be reproduced in its entirety for educational purposes, provided acknowledgement is given to the "International Association for Dance Medicine and Science."

©2013 International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS), IADMS and Sally A. Radell, MFA, MA.

About the author:
Sally Radell is at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.


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