• Emma Acton

5 Things The Mirror Has Taught Me As A Ballet Dancer

Reflection is an important part of learning lessons and creating self-improvement. For dancers, this is just as true in a physical sense as it is figuratively.

A dancer’s relationship with the mirror can at times become obsessive or degrading. But throughout my own tumultuous relationship with my reflection, I’ve come to learn from what I see, and appreciate just how important the mirror is as a tool for improvement.

I’ve heard many ex-dancers explain their reasons for giving up dance, and for most of them, being in a studio scrutinising their body in a mirror everyday was one factor in their decision. Perfectionism is a trait that should not be applied to body-image, however in dance, understanding and being aware of your body is crucial to mastering the craft. Growing as a dancer involves many skills, including learning to activate specific muscles, perfecting body lines, and creating artistic and dynamic quality. All of these things require tremendous focus and attention to detail.

These 5 lessons have become imperative to my own dance training, as well as in my pedagogy as a dance educator:

1. Translate what you see into muscle memory

Among other art forms, such as music, painting or photography, the artist is always able to review their own work in first person. However in dance, the performer is unable to witness their own movement first hand - except for what they feel internally and what they see in the mirror.

Dance students often can’t yet feel that the lines they are creating are incorrect, or that the angles and shapes they’re demonstrating are not what their teachers and choreographers are requesting. This is why when correcting students, teachers often ask them to repeat the step while watching themselves in the mirror. This creates awareness and muscle memory, so that once the correction is applied the dancer is able to begin to trust what they feel.

2. Project your focus outwards and upwards

The end goal of rehearsing for a classical ballet is to prepare a dancer to be ‘stage ready’. One aspect of being stage ready is projecting your performance to your audience. Obviously, there won’t be an entire audience in every (or any) studio rehearsal - therefore a mirror is an excellent way to create depth in a studio so that a dancer’s eye-line can be projected out and up. A mirror gives the illusion of a larger space, and so it allows a dancer to rehearse as if there is something beyond the walls of the studio.

3. Understand your strengths & weaknesses

A question I’ve been asked multiple times from teachers, choreographers and directors, is “what are your strengths?”. In the competitive world of dance it is important to understand your own strengths and weaknesses, and your ‘stereotype’. Dance institutions, companies and competitions will often have a specific look or type of dancer that they’re looking for. By utilising the mirror, as well as feedback from others, dancers will eventually begin to understand what they’re naturally stronger or weaker at than the other dancers in the room. Knowing these things about yourself will ultimately assist you in gauging your realistic chances of succeeding in any audition.

4. Learn to work as one and see the whole picture

Although as ballet dancers we all dream of performing unique characters and principal roles, the reality is that we all at one stage or another, will have to dance in a group.

During my full time training, I remember learning corps de ballet repertoire from Swan Lake, and the Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker - and it was perhaps the most physically demanding and tedious work of my life to date. We spent hours upon hours watching carefully in the mirror to perfect every minuscule detail of that choreography, so that when it was performed we would dance as one. During that time was when I really began to understand the benefit of utilising the mirror in rehearsal.

Musicality is a skill that is extremely difficult to teach, and it can be frustrating when trying to dance together with a dancer who is perhaps less musically inclined. The mirror is a tool that can help us to see the whole picture in a corps de ballet piece, to understand the formations, patterns and musicality of an ensemble piece. Dancing as a corps de ballet member is a skill that requires incredible attention to detail and creates dancers who are focussed, attentive, and able work well together.

Students of Melbourne City Ballet

5. Look past what you cannot correct

When you do something every day, it’s easy to become obsessive. As much as dancers need to use the mirror to watch and correct themselves, it is vital to their mental wellbeing that they learn to look past what they cannot correct. Unfortunately there are many dance educators who are determined to nit-pick at their student’s shortcomings. Obviously this is necessary to an extent when correcting technical or alignment issues. However, in my two-plus decades as a dancer, I have witnessed teachers who take corrections to a much more personal and hurtful level. When somebody in a position of power and authority points out or casts negative light on something beyond your control, such as bone structure or facial features, it is difficult to then look at anything else when you see your reflection in the studio mirror.

Remembering that nobody is perfect and that everybody is focussed on themselves is something that’s helped me personally to begin to look past what I cannot correct about myself. To become successful in the dance industry, being a unique dancer is a huge benefit. Aim to embrace your quirks and choose a positive mentality. It may take some time to truly accept yourself - in the meantime, focus on improving the things that you can control, and learn to show off your strengths.

We can learn many things from our reflection; things about how we see ourselves, about how we are seen by others, and about how we can grow and improve. However, we also learn from the mirror being taken away from us. If a show goes to stage before dancers feel one hundred percent confident with their movement, musicality and performance aspects, it will be obvious to the director, choreographer and even to the audience.

This is why although we must utilise the benefits of the mirror, we mustn’t rely on it to instil confidence. We must instead use it to create inner confidence by understanding and accepting our bodies, our strengths, our weaknesses and our uniqueness.

Emma Cheeseman

17th July, 2018