“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.