Love 'em or hate 'em, whether they cover one wall or four, mirrors abound in dance studios. But are they a useful learning tool?

Sally Radell, a professor of dance and movement studies at Emory University, says, "That's a good question. Because the more research I do, I haven't found that yet." And she's done a lot of research.


Body-Image Blues

Radell's most recent study on the complex dancer/mirror relationship looked at how mirrors affected the body images of beginning and advanced female college ballet students.

At the end of the 14-week semester, the beginners said the mirrors made them feel more self-conscious, and they would use them to criticize themselves and compare themselves to others in the class. While the advanced dancers said they had tried to develop ways to avoid the mirror—feeling the movements rather than continually watching their reflections—their body-image scores also fell. This was a bad predicament, since they were even lower than the beginners' to start with.

Also likely due to the mirrors, beginning dancers felt their physical fitness dropped over the course of the semester. While advanced dancers felt more in shape—probably since they were enrolled in several dance classes at a time and exercised more overall than beginners—they also felt worse about their bodies as they became more preoccupied with weight.

"Even with the knowledge that mirrors are problematic, they can cause dancers to be overly critical and create lots of body-anxiety issues," says Radell. "If a dancer has a poor body image, it's psychologically damaging. It impacts their ability to be successful in the classroom. If you feel really bad about how you look, it's hard to perform your best."

Slowing Progress

Previous studies also show mirrors affect ballet education in other ways (and Radell is currently studying if and how they affect modern dance students, too). By removing the mirrors, or at least seriously limiting their use, students:

  • remember dance steps better
  • advance from focusing on body parts and individual positions to movement and flow
  • become less self-consciousness and more expressive

Removing mirrors also improves technique. Two of Radell's studies showed that, while learning a slow adagio phrase, students without mirrors progressed farther technically than those with mirrors. Why? They weren't preoccupied with staring at themselves.

This also links to proprioception, or the ability for a dancer to feel where her body is in space and what it's doing. If a dancer becomes visually reliant on a mirror, she doesn't learn to trust her other senses—which become essential during a performance, for example, when that crutch is no longer there.

Top Mirror Tips x 2

So when does mirror use make sense? With college-age students (the only age Radell has studied), she has found mirrors can come into play beneficially with lower-level beginners.

"A lot of them were drawn to ballet because it's a beautiful artform; it's graceful. So watching themselves in the mirror was part of the fantasy of living this," she says. On the other hand, "The higher-level dancers, the ones who are more skilled, saw themselves and could identify, 'Oh my gosh, my hip is out of place, my alignment is poor, I'm not having good turnout.'" This ability to self-criticize brought their body images down.

Radell also believes mirrors are useful as a last resort. If, for example, a student's leg is bent but she absolutely can't feel it, the brief use of a mirror can help a teacher point it out by sight.

Otherwise, Radell says, "I'm very cautious about the use of a mirror. I wouldn't say never, ever use it. But I would say really limit your use of it, big time."

Dance Buzz
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."



The Boy Factor doesn't just have to do with competition scores: It's how we treat boys throughout their dance education. "We idolize the boys," says Ashley Harnish, a teacher at a competition studio. "We build entire dances around one boy, and we teach them that we need them more than we need the girls."

On the surface, The Boy Factor is flagrant sexism. But what's really behind the phenomenon? "So often, young male dancers are bullied because our culture says that dance is for girls," says a second national competition adjudicator. "This stigma pushes some judges to reward boys by scoring them higher than their female competitors." The Boy Factor also stems from a simple fact: There are far more girls than boys in the dance world.

"Judges see boys as valuable commodities," says Marissa Jean, a staff member at Broadway Dance Center's new building for children and teens and a teacher at several competition studios. "To encourage their career in dance, judges will throw a little extra their way. It could be placing them in the top ten or giving them a special award. They nurture them a bit more than the girls."



But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."

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In order to keep us all inspired to stretch our toes until they are drool-worthy, DT compiled a list of five dancers whose feet we have a very real crush on. Honestly, these guys should get their toes insured! Truly, they are perfect.

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It could be argued that half the battle of owning a dance studio is getting people to follow the rules. To ensure your business will run like a well-oiled machine, it helps to have clear expectations in place for students and their families—and, most important, to make sure everyone knows them from day one. Of course, every school is unique, and behavior that may be acceptable to you might be out of the question for someone else. "There are so many studios out there," says Dana McGuire, a studio co-owner in North Kansas City, Missouri. "Know and stand by what you're about." Here, four seasoned studio directors discuss the issues they consider non-negotiable.

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