Mirrors in the Studio: Do They Help or Do They Hinder?

            “Mirrors,' she said, 'are never to be trusted.” ― Neil Gaiman

         Mirrors – you will see them lining the wall of every dance studio you enter. Dancers are taught from a young age to fight for a spot in the studio where they can see themselves.  Teachers use the mirrors as a teaching tool  - they allow the teachers to face the mirror when demonstrating a combination, while being able to watch and monitor the students at the same time. Teachers teach dancers to use the mirror to determine if their legs and arms are in the correct positions, to determine if they are dancing in unison with other dancers, and to help determine where they are in space.

            Mirrors are a valuable teaching tool for dance. But, is it possible that dancers can rely upon them too much?

            Constant reliance upon the mirror can cause dancers to grow too mirror-focused. When this occurs, dancers tend to stare at themselves constantly rather than use their heads as part of their instrument to complete lines or to spot appropriately during turns.

            While some may argue that mirrors are invaluable tools for teaching combinations in class, several studies have actually shown that better learning occurs without the use of the mirror. Moreover, reliance on the mirror can also cause dancers to watch others when executing combinations. If the dancers are able to see others all the time, the mirror becomes a crutch, and dancers may not learn the combinations completely for themselves.

            The mirror may also become a crutch for balancing. Dancers typically rely heavily upon somatosensory information to help them maintain balance when executing movements and combinations. Somatosensory information is feedback that is received during physical activity from our muscles and joints. This information helps us determine where our bodies are in space and is also known as proprioception. Over-reliance upon what a dancer sees will compromise the dancer’s ability to develop his or her proprioceptive sense of balance.  A recent study published in the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science had dancers perform exercises in class with their eyes closed. The researchers found that when vision was limited, dancers were forced to rely upon proprioception, and balance  improved. 

            It is important for dance educators to consider all of these factors and also to remember why they are training dancers. The ultimate goal for all dancers is, and should be, performance, yet the ways we sometimes train dancers does not prepare them what they will encounter when they step out onto a stage. 
            There are no mirrors on stage for dancers to determine if their bodies are in the right positions, no mirrors to assist them if they forget what step comes next, no mirrors to help them determine where they are in space and no mirrors to provide visual cues for balancing.

            Mirrors can definitely be used effectively as a teaching tool in the classroom. They can be used to teach dancers how to spot, they can be used when teachers are trying to monitor the progress of the class, and they can help dancers place their bodies into correct positions when learning poses or movements for the first time. It is important, however, to remember that training needs to be specific to the desired goal. Incorporating exercises into class that are executed with the eyes closed and covering the mirrors are both valid ways to achieve this end. In addition to covering the mirrors, having the dancers use different “fronts” in the studio is also valuable. Having to re-orient themselves to face a different direction, forces dancers to constantly be aware of where they are in the space and is a perfect way to prepare them for dancing on different stages and in different venues.

Ballet Glider Giveaway!

            “Where a new invention promises to be useful, it ought to be tried.” – Thomas Jefferson

           A pointed foot, a high relevé, a fully stretched foot in a jump – these are all sought after in dance.  Whether dancers study ballet and are constantly on their toes, study tap and dance on the balls of their feet, study Irish dance and are always in a relevé, or study modern and jazz and are stretching their feet in jumps, they demand a lot from their calf muscles.

            Since these muscles are constantly worked, they tend to grow very tight in dancers. The calf muscles are connected to the calcaneous, or heel bone, by the Achilles tendon, and when the muscles are tight, the pull on the Achilles tendon increases. As a result of this increased pull, the tendon becomes irritated and inflamed, and dancers often develop Achilles tendonitis. The Achilles tendon can be irritated further when a dancer partakes in a barre stretch. In a barre stretch, the ankle of the leg is placed upon the barre, putting additional pressure upon the Achilles tendon and possibly irritating it further.

            Often dancers drape towels or folded sweaters or legwarmers over the barre to act as a cushion for the Achilles tendon and to decrease any friction that might be caused as the dancer slides his or her leg along the barre.

            After watching dancers do this during her 25 years of teaching, Kathryn Sullivan designed a dance accessory for dancers called the Ballet Glider. The Ballet Glider is made of plush fleece, fits around the barre, and is held in place by velcro. Although Kathryn’s original goals were to reduce friction and pressure on the Achilles tendon during barre stretches, dancers have developed other uses for the Ballet Glider as well. In Kathryn’s classes at Steps on Broadway, Peridance Capezio Center, and Barnard College at the Columbia University, dancers have begun using them to hold their places at the barre, to help remind them to hold the barre lightly without gripping it, to cue placement of the hand on the barre after a turn, and to help eliminate germ transfer on barres that are used by many dancers in the same day.
            The Ballet Glider can be purchased through Kathryn’s website and will also be available soon through Discount Dance Supply. The Healthy Dancer is also giving away 2 Ballet Gliders this week. To enter the giveaway, simply comment on this post by 11:59 PM on Thursday, April 10, 2014. I will be in touch with the winners on Friday, April 11, to find out where to send your Ballet Gliders!