The Relationship With Your Reflection

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson in the studio. Photo by Aimee DiAndrea, Courtesy PBT.
How to use the mirror to improve—without getting lost in a cycle of self-criticism

Every day, the dancer looking back at you in the mirror looks different. Often she's disappointing. Her neck seems too short, or her bust too big. She has floppy wrists and an ironing board where her arabesque should be. Nonetheless, you are captivated by her, and on the hardest days it can feel like it is your reflection and not you who is really living and dancing.

Dancers need the mirror—it provides immediate feedback about line and movement quality in a way that nothing else can. But our reflections can be hard to face as they bend and curve with the distortions of our self-confidence. In a visual art form that prizes physical excellence, your demon can be your own likeness inside a polished surface. A healthy relationship with the mirror negotiates an appreciation of this vital tool with an awareness of the emotional fragility that can come with a life of constant self-examination.

Look at the Whole Line

Part of what makes our relationship with the mirror so difficult is how much importance we place in it. “The mirror is often the lens through which dancers have a relationship with their body," says American Psychological Association president Dr. Nadine Kaslow, who has worked with Atlanta Ballet dancers. But is this healthy? Kaslow points out that there is rarely such a thing as an accurate reflection. Almost all mirrors are distorted by the walls on which they are mounted (hence “good mirrors" and “bad mirrors"), but also by our own perceptions and insecurities. “Dancers often end up having relationships with parts of themselves rather than their whole body," she says. When looking in the mirror, our eyes tend to gravitate to what we don't like: a thick torso, bowed legs, less-than-perfect feet. “Our bodies are whole and we need to get a sense of them as whole," says Kaslow. Train yourself to see your entire body—focus on the big picture of your line or the shape you are making. Of course, droopy elbows or other technical problems may catch your attention; fix them, then let your eyes pan out. “Honestly, sometimes I would blur my vision so that I wouldn't go crazy on myself in the mirror," says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson of her days as a hyper–self-critical student.

Focus on What the Mirror Offers

How you think of the mirror can influence how it affects you. Finis Jhung, famous for his thoughtful training of teachers and dancers alike, teaches his students to approach the mirror as an instrument for their own empowerment. “I want you to learn to teach yourself," he says. “We all think we're doing something, but we're doing something else—unless you look in the mirror you're not going to see that." By viewing the mirror as a tool for your independence, your relationship with it can become more professional, less personal.

Only Look Deliberately

Teachers will often turn students toward a wall so they avoid getting lost in their reflections. “Certain steps are impossible to execute well while looking in the mirror," Erickson says. “How many times has a dancer tried to look at themselves doing penché and then fell over?" The same can be applied to the maintenance of your mental state. We've all had classes where we can't escape the disappointing image of our reflection. And yet we continue to look back at it compulsively, as if it might change between combinations. Cut yourself a break and attempt to look only while you are dancing and not to mentally measure your thigh gap.

Erickson points out that you'll often find girls preening in their reflections even between rehearsals. “We've all been in a studio talking to another dancer and they're looking at themselves in the mirror while they're having a conversation with you," she says. “It's not that they're vain; they just can't get out of the cycle of self-examining. If you can, brush that little devil off your shoulder." Try to make sure that when you are looking in the mirror it is deliberate—and only for the purpose of bettering your dancing.

Kaslow says you may benefit from taking a break from mirrors in the outside world. Dancers can become so reliant on their reflection that they seek it out without realizing it. The next time you pass a dark shop window, acknowledge that you want to sneak a peek of yourself walking by, then deliberately choose not to.

Find the Positive

Ultimately a negative relationship with your reflection is a result of depleted confidence. Some of this is up to you; Kaslow advises that you point out something positive about yourself when you are struggling with the image looking back at you. Instead of mentally whittling away at every single thing that makes your feet look less than perfect, take the time to compliment yourself on your high arabesque or nicely toned arms. But both Kaslow and Jhung agree that teachers need to be involved with establishing this habit, too. Kaslow believes dancers should be taught how distorted a reflection can be early in their training. Jhung feels strongly that throughout a dancer's career, it is the business of the teacher to ensure his dancers feel confident by using positive reinforcement as well as corrections to shape them. “Find a giving person to be your teacher," advises Jhung.

Know You're Not Alone

The complexity of a dancer's relationship with the mirror is nuanced. At its worst it can feel like a private struggle in an effort to really see yourself. But no one is immune. Even Erickson, whose striking image is often plastered on buses and billboards all over Pittsburgh, admits that when she moves to center floor in company class, she still looks for the “good" mirror.

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