DANCE ‣ Mirrors in Ballet Training
Updated: May 16, 2021
Victoria Parker, Senior Editor, Dance
Mirrors have been an integral part of the ballet dancer’s classroom, or studio, since the turn of the eighteenth century. As the mirrors are such a common tool in a dancer’s training, most dancers do not realize the full extent of the effects that the mirror can have on them. Dancers are so used to the mirror being there that day-in and day-out they become immune to its presence and the reflection of themselves. Most dancers are so hypersensitive to the mirrors, as to be able to point out which section is distorted and deemed the “fat mirror” or the “skinny mirror.” There is no secret that the mirror is present and shows dancers the closest perception of how others see them, although what is sometimes hidden is the complicated relationship between the dancers and the mirror. While most dancers and teachers alike brush over the topic and excuse the mirror as a vital training tool, there is more to this relationship. The daily act of looking in a mirror can have detrimental effects on, not only ballet dancers’ psyche, but their nutritional health as well.
Often dancers begin taking ballet classes at a very young age. In the average classroom of high school or university-aged students, the majority of dancers I have come in contact with have said that they started ballet around the age of three of four. This then translates to the fact that these men and women practically grew up in front of a mirror. From a very young age dancers become accustomed to walking into a studio at least once a week and then, as they get older, multiple days out of the week. In Kathy Diehl’s article The Mirror Ballet Training: Do you Know How Much the Mirror is Really Affecting You? she quotes Twyla Tharp who said, “…dancers see themselves in the mirror since their first day in a dance studio and that is often the only way they perceive themselves” (pg. 2). Separating the past and present in terms of body image can be difficult for dancers to adjust to as they age. Many dancers will remember the exact age when they were their ideal height and weight. They then desire to return to this size, even if it was an unhealthy or pre-pubescent one that has become unachievable. Puberty can play tricks on young dancers and how they see themselves every day. With puberty comes normal bodily changes that happen to everybody. Unfortunately, these changes are seen all too well by dancers in their reflection. Normal changes for women consist of increased height, wider hips, breast development, and the overall body fat percentage increases. Observing these changes daily can upset young dancers, as they no longer look like what they were used to seeing in the mirror. While the changes are normal, they are still difficult to adjust to as dancers age (Allen and Miller 3). Not only does puberty come with bodily changes, but it is also a point in a dancers’ training when there is a shift to more serious training. Young dancers are picked for exclusive programs around this time in their lives and then from there primed to become professionals. Often times they are chosen from summer intensives and competitions, where numerous teachers can observe their performance skills. This added stress can provide a harmful effect on a young dancers’ psyche. Puberty is already such a difficult time in everyone’s life and having a mirror in front of you along the entire process can be difficult.
Most professionals in this field advise a limited use of mirrors, or at least caution when using them consistently. Some even recommend no mirrors for beginners in order to have the optimal training environment. Personally, I agree with these recommendations. The risk of eating disorders and depleted mental health is not worth the benefits of being able to self-correct constantly and for a teacher to be able to see more students at once. As a ballet instructor I would reduce my class size and use mirrored studios for advanced dancers, but have them train facing away from the mirrors for the majority of class. Mirrors can induce detrimental effects on dancers’ psyche and nutritional habits that follow them for years. More dance instructors should take into consideration these effects mirrors have and make an informed decision of how they would prefer to incorporate or not mirrors in their dance classrooms
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