Happy March! I hope spring is making a welcome appearance in your part of the country / world!
We recently had an article on Mirrors in the Classroom, by Sally Radell, of Emory University in Atlanta, GA. The first
article was written more for the dancer — Sally has now written one for us which focuses on mirror use from
the teacher’s perspective.
It’s so important for teachers to understand the effect mirrors can have – both positive and negative – and how to best integrate them into classroom teaching, for the students’ best interests. As I mentioned in my intro for Sally’s
first article, I always remember the great Betty Jones (Jose Limon Company dancer and world-famous Limon teacher) saying, “mirrors put you outside your body, not in it” — good words to take to heart, and now we have recent research, such as Sally Radell’s, to give scientific support to them!
Happy Spring 🙂
It’s easy to develop a “mirror addiction” when teaching dance. This is particularly evident when teaching beginning level technique classes. I primarily use the mirror as a classroom management tool to visually “bring all of us together” in the learning of new phrases. I usually have the whole class face the mirror. I stand in front, also facing the mirror, as I demonstrate the new material with the dancers behind me following along. This enables me to watch the students as I guide them through the phrase while simultaneously calling out movement cues to help them through the challenging portions of the material. This can be a particularly efficient use of time in short dance classes where I am always pushing myself to make it through my lesson. However, I have noticed a certain level of dependence on using the mirror in my teaching; too much reliance on the mirror can create problems that are detrimental to students’ technical development and body image.
What are the drawbacks of mirror use in the dance classroom?
- Especially when I work with beginning dancers, I see that the visual reflection of their bodies in the mirror is a more powerful experience than the proprioceptive muscular sensation of performing a movement. Under these circumstances, a dancer “removes herself from her body” to the point where she cannot learn to fully trust her proprioceptive self. Yet without full access to this movement information, a dancer’s growth can be impeded.
- Research shows that mirrors in dance classes can contribute to the development of a poor body image for dancers. Often more advanced students will be more critical of their body in the mirror because they have a more highly developed eye for identifying technical weaknesses. They struggle to negotiate between the two-dimensional reflection of their body in the mirror and their three-dimensional body in motion. This heightened self-consciousness may cause a dancer to see her body as an object to compare to others in the room. This whole dehumanizing process can cause stress, negative self-evaluation, and ultimately a poor body image.
- Teaching with mirrors can slow down the development of a dancer’s technical skills, especially in the slower adagio phrase where students find plenty of time for mirror-gazing. The more they focus on individual positions, the less likely they are to learn the flow of movement and the muscular connections a dancer needs for smooth technical advancement.
- Remember that not all students have the maturity and objectivity to use the mirror constructively. Dance counselor Julia Buckroyd, who is an emeritus professor from the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, reports that most teenage students are unable to see an accurate image of themselves in the mirror. They cannot detach themselves from their reflection in order to benefit fully from the information the mirror provides.
So what’s a dance teacher to do?
The mirror is a traditional presence in dance classrooms, but it should not simply be taken for granted. We should recognize that each student develops her or his own relationship with the mirror, a relationship based on many factors. These might include:
-whether an individual student has had previous training with the use of a mirror
-what level of material was taught
-what individual expectations a student may have when enrolling in a dance class
-whether a student habitually compares herself to others in the classroom.
This relationship with the mirror is complex and unique for each student; because of this, the mirror is a tool that instructors of dance must learn to use knowledgably, if it is to be used effectively.
While most students prefer to use the mirror in the dance class and feel it is a critical tool to support technical advancement, as teachers we need to make choices on whether or not we will use it, and how we will use it. Here are some practical techniques I’ve found useful:
- Encourage students to learn to trust the proprioceptive feedback provided by the movement; ultimately, it is the most reliable and constant form of information a dancer should use.
- Guard against becoming overly dependent on the mirror in your teaching. If you’re not using it, cover it with a curtain. Move it to a non-central place in the room or change the facing of the students in the room. Develop ways to teach movement material that are not mirror-dependent. Research has shown that if a mirror is not present in the classroom only about half of the students will miss it, and some will even be relieved it is not there.
- Know your students, their individual needs and learning styles. Educate your students on how to use the mirror constructively. Present the mirror as only one of the many teaching tools that can be used in the studio, but explain that it is not essential. Integrate as many other methods as you can in the classroom to explain technical concepts including imagery, and rhythmic and verbal cues.
- When you do use the mirror in your teaching find ways to reduce “gazing time” for students who like to linger in front of it. It can affect how each dancer feels about his or her body image. Be aware of any students who appear discouraged or disheartened while using the mirror and redirect their facing to avoid negative self-evaluation.
- If you do elect to use the mirror, know why you are doing it. Be strategic and selective. Educate yourself on the power of the mirror in the classroom and use this information to develop the teaching techniques that will create your optimal teaching environment in the dance classroom.
1. Batson G. Proprioception. Resource Paper. International Association for Dance Medicine & Science, 2008
2. Buckroyd J. The Student Dancer. London: Dance Books Ltd., 2000.
4. Oliver W. Body Image in the Dance Class. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance. 2008; 79, 5
5. Radell S. Mirrors in the Dance Class: Help or Hindrance? Resource Paper.International Association for Dance Medicine & Science, 2013
6. Radell S. Body Image and Mirror Use in the Ballet Class. The IADMS Bulletin for Teachers. 2012
Sally Radell is professor of dance at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. She holds a BA in dance from Scripps College in Claremont, California, an MA in dance from The Ohio State University, and an MFA in dance from Arizona State University.
She came to Emory in 1987 to start a degree program in dance. The substantial growth of the program and success of this endeavor is one of her proudest professional accomplishments. Ms. Radell has been active as a choreographer, teacher, performer, administrator, dance critic, and somatic educator. Over the past twenty years she has conducted research on dancers, body image, and the mirror and has published in professional journals including Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, Research in Dance Education, and Perceptual and Motor Skills. Professor Radell has also presented nationally and internationally on this topic with different organizations including the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science. She is committed to the promotion of psychological wellness for dancers.