For dance teachers, the mirror is both a blessing and a curse. Although it can be a useful learning tool, the mirror can also hinder dancers who become dependent on using it, particularly when transitioning from studio to stage.
“Mirrors are so important for dancers to be able to see their lines, but on the other side of the coin, students who rely on them too much can become ‘mirror dancers,’ which is extremely distorting and not aesthetically pleasing,” says Janette Sullivan, owner of State of the Arts Studio in Westminster, Maryland. Where do you draw the line? Sullivan and several other dance teachers share their advice for maintaining the mirror as a friend rather than foe.
Simulate the onstage atmosphere.
To prepare students for performance, transforming the familiar studio environment can be an invaluable tool. At Curtain Call Studio for Performing Arts in Indianapolis, Co-Artistic Director Michelle Allison covered the mirrors about halfway through rehearsing last season’s concert pieces. “Dancers were less distracted and less likely to notice others’ mistakes in the corner of their eye,” says Allison, who recommends using black plastic tablecloths or curtains hung with PVC piping. “As soon as you cover the mirror, it becomes apparent who knows the dance and who is relying on others.”
At State of the Arts, Sullivan has taken the coverage concept one step further by converting one classroom into an actual black box theater. Black curtains conceal the mirrors on all four walls, and the room is outfitted with risers that can seat up to 80 audience members. The room has played host to outside community performances and the studio’s dance recital—along with providing intrinsic educational value. Last winter, Sullivan and her dancers were able to block and perfect their rendition of The Nutcracker in just six weeks by taking advantage of the space.
“It’s remarkable what it has done for the quality of the teaching,” says Sullivan, who has taught ballet for 35 years. “When we close the curtains, things are exponentially different. The dancers transform not only physically, but also emotionally and mentally by pretending they’re in the theater. When we finally perform, they’re totally into it and in character, and I think it’s because we implement ‘theater mode’ while teaching. It’s not so obtrusive and different when we actually go onstage.”
Take students out of the comfort zone.
If you don’t have the resources to cover the mirrors, doing an about-face can be just as effective. When the dancers at Summerlin Dance Academy in Las Vegas prepare to compete, instructor Kevin Leon simply has them face away from the mirror during rehearsal. Typically, Leon starts the process about one month prior to competition, at which point, he says, some dancers realize they don’t have a grasp on the number without the mirror and begin to panic. To build their confidence and knowledge, Leon takes it slow. “We start by going through all the spacing and formations, then we’ll mark the choreography bit by bit,” he explains. “By the time the music comes on and we do it full-out, they’re confident in what they’re doing and it’s not a shock to them.”
Emphasize focal points in choreography.
When dancers are accustomed to watching themselves in the mirror, they risk sacrificing performance value and integral parts of the choreography. For example, a dancer won’t be able to properly execute first arabesque, which requires the gaze to follow the line of the arm extended en avant, if she is craning her neck toward the mirror.
Allison’s solution to this quandary is to emphasize the role of the head when teaching choreography. “A lot of times, teachers are guilty of choreographing legs and arms only,” she says. “Head positions are very valuable in terms of getting eyes away from the mirror—adding in varied focal points has been a useful tool in my modern and jazz pieces. The dancers trust themselves to execute the movement without looking for it because they’ve learned it that way.”
Mirror dependency can also result in a lack of eye contact with the audience. “The mirror can make [a performance] impersonal and safe,” says Allison. “Tappers especially are used to looking at their feet in the mirror, and as a result, they often look at a strange downward angle during performance. It’s all about muscle-memory habits.”
Let’s face it—mirrors are in the dance studio for a reason. A quick glance can tell dancers whether their tendus are properly placed or if their movements are out of alignment. According to Allison, this is especially important for beginning students. “The older kids seem a bit more willing to trust themselves without the mirror; the younger ones get a bit more insecure,” she says. Sullivan agrees: “Little kids feed off the mirror, and it helps them get into straight lines.”
As your dancers grow, however, it’s important to foster the sense of self-trust that comes with feeling proper placement rather than constantly looking for it. By encouraging your students to see beyond their own reflections, the results will reflect positively on you. DT
Jen Jones is a freelance writer and certified BalleCore instructor in Los Angeles. Her website is www.creative-groove.com.