The Double-Edged Mirror

July 29, 2007

You enter the studio, drop your bag, and find your place at the barre. As you switch sides during your initial stretch, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. But that glance is often far from casual, and what crosses your mind in that split-second sighting can flavor the rest of your class. Are you happy with your visual image, or does it initiate a doubt-riddled downward spiral? If used as a means of self-sabotage, the mirror can be hazardous. But viewed mindfully, the mirror is a dancer’s most honest friend.

Donna Silva
, who teaches at The Boston Conservatory and Boston Ballet School, knows how the mirror can play havoc with self-esteem. Says Silva, “Dancers can get caught up in their imperfections and think, ‘I’m not good enough.’ ”

Once a dancer is caught in that downward spiral, says Silva, they “see” that they’re never thin enough, and that their legs are never high enough. “I got into such a habit of looking in the mirror and judging myself,” says Silva, a former Joffrey dancer, “that I never felt I was living up to my potential.”

Silva acknowledges that being thin is part of the dance aesthetic. “They’re always conscious of their weight,” says Silva about her students. “At some point they have to take off the baggy clothes, take a look in the mirror, and begin to work with what they have.”

Silva does think the mirror is beneficial for checking where the head should be, correcting arm and leg levels, and for assessing line. “I use the mirror to help students find their alignment,” she says. “If they’re in the process of changing that, it’s good to look first. Then I try to get them to feel it from the inside out.”

Recently, however, one of Silva’s students was doing an alignment check when she said, “I don’t want to look in the mirror. I don’t like what I see, and it never seems right.” When this kind of thing happens, says Silva, the teacher has to step in and help students to see themselves in a healthy light. She tells them to look at their good points, and reminds them that no one has the perfect body.

When preparing for performance, Silva recommends facing away from the mirror. This helps dancers’ muscle memory and gives them a chance to dance fully, using focus, expression, and artistic interpretation.

Stephanie Saland
, a former New York City Ballet principal, teaches in Seattle (see “Teacher’s Wisdom,” July, 2006). Says Saland of her days at the School of American Ballet, “I used the mirror to keep up with the steps when I couldn’t remember an exercise. I began dancing quite late and did not retain sequences easily.” Saland believes that if the mirror is not used carefully, its detriments can outweigh its benefits. “Dancers are often their own harshest critics,” she says. She believes the mirror can reinforce this dynamic of unforgiving self-evaluation, creating a distorted viewpoint. “The mirror reflects how things appear,” she says, “and the student can have a constant self-dialogue in response to what they think they see, and whether it measures up.”

According to Saland, using the mirror incorrectly can shift the focus of movement and alignment from an internal experience to an external one, where the dancer begins reading her progress (or lack of it) from a flat sheet of glass, rather than from what she feels.

Saland believes dancers need to nurture their sensory awareness and learn to trust their feelings, rather than relying on the mirror. “Students need to develop a connected sense of ‘right’ that is honed with the inner eye,” she says. “The dancer needs to shift to a feeling state and learn firing patterns and movement qualities that come from an ‘inner seeing.’ ”

Saland says that working away from the mirror and interfacing with it again at intervals is a healthy way to help dancers “take inventory.” Check to see if the feeling matches your perception of alignment, precision, and movement quality. “But don’t do it alone,” she advises. “Have another eye in the studio, an intelligent advocate.”

William Whitener
, artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, recalls the healthy use of mirrors in his early dance days at the Cornish School in Seattle. “We used the mirror as a tool, not as a crutch,” he says. “We weren’t transfixed by our image, because we were trained to interpret the music, and to use phrasing as a way to show we understood rhythm and expression.”

Whitener feels that “mirror-gazing” has increased in the past 20 years, leading to an erosion of the expressiveness of épaulement. “It’s OK to check your barre work in the mirror,” he says, “as long as the head keeps moving and doesn’t fixate.”

Gus Solomons jr
, who teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, began his dance training with Jan Veen at The Boston Conservatory. Early on, Solomons learned about moving in relation to the space around him—minus the mirror. “This enabled us to understand direction and shape in three dimensions and to pick up styles easily.”

Solomons thinks that many dancers are so busy examining everything they do, that they don’t experience movement kinesthetically. Like Silva and Saland, he feels that mirrors are a good tool to use on the way to attaining sensory self-knowledge. “The function of the mirror,” he says, “is to be able to see what you’re doing so that you can begin to feel it.”

Solomons notes that some of his female students are 5 to 10 pounds over a professionally desirable weight, and that the mirror makes this quite plain. “But we don’t make them neurotic about it,” says Solomons. “We let them become women, and then in time they slim down,” he says. “They see what’s out there and take steps to fix their visual image. I try to keep as many demons out of the studio as possible.”

Augusta Moore
, ballet program director of ODC Dance in San Francisco, thinks the mirror allows students to believe that they know a movement, but that their knowledge is not based on sensation. She thinks the mirror doesn’t let them feel movement fully. “When I taught without the mirror, dancers used their heads and necks, and there was a sense of innocence and joy,” she says. “With the mirror their movement was more self-conscious.” She aims for dancers to be absorbed by their own sensations. “You want to progress beyond what you see and start to feel it.”

anet Panetta
, who teaches in New York, and at Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal, remembers her classes with the legendary teacher Margaret Craske. “There was only one small mirror in the studio, and you’d look at it when you had to check what you were doing,” she recalls. “We learned to use the mirror as a tool.”

Panetta says that the discrepancy between what dancers feel they’re doing and what they’re physically enacting can be surprising, and that by using the mirror as a functional tool, they should be able to bridge that gap.

“Dancers should give in to their dependency on the mirror; they should give in to using it as an instrument,” says Panetta. “I have my class practice things away from the mirror to get it into their bodies. Then I have them do the movement straight on to the mirror, and they are often shocked by what they see.”

Panetta feels that dancers must work on being devoid of narcissism, and put themselves in a position of deference to the art form. “A lot of dancers get lost in their own images, but people who can’t stop looking at themselves are looking at the wrong things,” she says. “If your legs are two feet long, they are not going to become four feet long just because you keep looking at them.” Panetta urges dancers to “objectify” themselves when looking in the mirror and to envision seeing a skeletal version of their bodies.

Panetta says dancers should try to have an instinct about making the right movement choices. “Ultimately, the mirror is there to help you see things,” she says. “Later, you begin to feel them. Above all, you should be able to look in the mirror and respect what you see: a human being trying to attain an art form.”

Nancy Alfaro is a former dancer.