Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: A Dance Teacher’s Perspective

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 :)



137_3791by Sally A. Radell, MFA, MA

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?

Read more


Stretching Healthy…A Primer For Dancers


Know the difference between a good stretch and a bad stretch? (Hint: This isn’t a good one!)

by Jan Dunn MS

Stretching feels sooooo good!

Dancers love to stretch–we do it all the time, whenever we can–before class, during class, after class, watching TV, waiting for the bus (seriously–haven’t you ever done a quick calf stretch while standing there?) –but how many of us really know that much about stretching?  -i.e, the Do’s and Don’ts of doing healthy stretching?

Ankle-on-the-barre stretching….one of our favorites, and found in almost every ballet class……but–the problem with this position is that it puts so much weight on the Achilles tendon, on the back of the ankle—and can potentially lead to Things You Do Not Want To Have, like Achilles tendinitis.  Far better to stretch your hamstrings (back of the leg) or adductors (inner thigh) — which is what that stretch does — by sitting on the floor, or using Theraband lying down, etc.

Watching cold (as in not-warmed-up) dancers sitting on the floor stretching was the impetus for getting this particular article out to you, especially as you start off 2014!

So here’s what you need to know about stretching (in no particular order of importance):

1- WHEN to stretch:  When you are warmed-up.

Think of it this way–if you take a cold rubber band and pull it taut, what might happen (Yikes!)?  Yes, it might snap. Your muscles are like that. When we stretch stone cold (as in before a class or rehearsal), that’s what we are doing. We are potentially pulling small muscle fibers that may tear as a result.

LIGHT stretching before a class, which means alternating contracting and releasing a muscle is OK–(the stretch comes when you release), but heavy duty stretching (the on-the-floor or leg-on-the-barre variety) is not advised.

You want your muscles good and warm before you start heavy stretching–as in the middle of class, or at the end.

2- How LONG to stretch:  Again, if you’re warmed up–

Usually a minimum of 30 seconds is recommended–that gives the muscle fibers time to really lengthen. If you don’t have a second hand around, timing it to last about 3 nice long breaths is usually about 30 seconds for most people (or take the deep breaths with a second hand in front of you, and see how many you personally might need).

Sometimes in rehab, physical therapists will have you hold a stretch longer than the 30 seconds–but that’s a different situation.

3- If you have some very tight muscles that you want to hopefully permanently lengthen, it’s recommended that you do it at the end of a class / rehearsal / performance (i.e, when you’re really warm). Take the desired stretch and do 3 or 4 sets of the 30 second stretch, with a slight pause (maybe 10 sec.) in-between, doing this as your body cools down.

4- If you have really held a stretch for a long time, for whatever reason, don’t ask the muscle to contract immediately afterwards. They lose that ability briefly when heavily stretched, so you want to be careful.

5- We’ve already talked in this column, about how weather / age, etc. affect your body, but here’s a brief reminder when it comes to stretching:

-the colder the weather / room, the longer it takes to warm-up — i.e, the longer it will take to get to a good stretching place for your body!

-a muscle that has been injured may take longer as well.

-the older we get, the longer it takes / the more careful we have to be — we lose some of our flexibility as part of the natural aging process, so be aware that you can’t stretch as fast / easily at 40 as you can at 20!

6- There are different types of stretching–the two main types that we use are usually:

-Static: where you take the desired stretch and just hold it.

-Ballistic: bouncy stretches –not recommended (they can inadvertently tear small muscle fibers).

There are other types – such as Prolonged, Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF), and Dynamic, which I won’t go into in this article. But if you go to the IADMS website, there is an excellent Resource Paper on Stretching, which goes into considerable detail on this topic.

7- A word here about the difference between general flexibility / joint mobility, and Joint Hypermobility Syndrome (JHS), which is a very different thing. It’s a very specific condition which has to be medically diagnosed by a physical therapist or other medical practitioner – it takes the joint beyond what we think of as general overall flexibility. It’s something that both dancers and teachers need to be aware of, as studies have shown that a good number of younger dancers may have it, and if they do, it does impact their dance lives (and their everyday lives).  It doesn’t mean you can’t dance if you fall into this category, but it does mean you and your teacher should know about it, and about how to train properly.

We will have a special article coming in the next few months on JHS.

8- And last but not least:

Research has shown us that stretching before a class, when cold, actually decreases such things as strength, power, endurance, balance, jump height and other factors that we use in dance movement. So when you are sitting on the floor stretching before class, you’re not only potentially injuring yourself, but also negatively affecting the dance activity you are about to do–whether it’s class / rehearsal / performance.

SOOO……I hope all of the above has been informative and helpful–and even better, maybe just a good reminder, because you already know all of this and are already Stretching Healthy!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Jan Dunn, MS

Jan Dunn, MS

Editor Jan Dunn is a dance medicine specialist currently based on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, where she is owner of Pilates Plus Kauai Wellness Center and co-founder of Kauai Dance Medicine. She is also a Pilates rehabilitation specialist and Franklin Educator. A lifelong dancer / choreographer, she spent many years as university dance faculty, most recently as Adjunct Faculty, University of Colorado Dept. of Theatre and Dance.  Her 28 year background in dance medicine includes 23 years with the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) – as Board member / President / Executive Director – founding Denver Dance Medicine Associates, and establishing two university Dance Wellness Programs

Jan served as organizer and Co-Chair, International Dance Medicine Conference, Taiwan 2004, and was founding chair of the National Dance Association’s (USA) Committee on Dance Science and Medicine, 1989-1993. She originated The Dance Medicine/Science Resource Guide; and was co-founder of the Journal of Dance Medicine & Science.  She has taught dance medicine, Pilates, and Franklin workshops for medical / dance and academic institutions in the USA / Europe / Middle East / and Asia, authored numerous articles in the field, and presented at many national and international conferences.

Ms. Dunn writes about dance wellness for 4dancers and also brings in voices from the dance wellness/dance medicine field to share their expertise with readers.


Mirror Use In The Dance Classroom: How Much Is Too Much?

“Mirror, Mirror on the Wall……..”

I’m happy to introduce you to our guest author, Sally Radell, a faculty member at Dance at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Sally has been researching the use of mirrors in the dance classroom –how they can help us, and how they can hinder us. I first saw her present her work in this area in 2004, at the Taiwan International Dance Medicine Conference in Taipei. It is fascinating research, and well worth knowing about, both as a dancer and a teacher. Her article this month is geared towards what dancers need to know –coming in March: what teachers need to know, to promote the healthy use of mirrors in their students!

A personal note here — like most dancers, I grew up with mirrors in the studio, and never thought anything about it….it was a part of the dance world. But at American Dance Festival, in the 1980′s, I encountered Betty Jones, the world-famous Jose Limon dancer and teacher, who literally changed my dance life in many ways — including the use of mirrors in teaching. Betty was firmly against using them constantly — she had a small one in the studio, to use if necessary to point out something to a student. But her mantra was “Mirrors put you outside your body, not in it” -
knowing what I know now about the science of movement, and neurology, I completely understand what she meant.

I studied 10 years with Betty, and started integrating many of her classroom techniques into my own teaching, including the use (or not) of mirrors. I would make the dancers face away from the mirrors (we did not have drapes to cover them) for much of the class. It was fascinating to see the gradual change in their bodies, facial expressions, and movement.

Something to think about…..!

Aloha -

Sally Radell, photo by Jon Rou

Sally Radell, photo by Jon Rou

by Sally A. Radell, MFA, MA

When I reflect on my own time as a student training in dance I see myself staring at my image in the ever-present classroom mirrors. I recall a nagging voice in my head telling me that I was never thin enough, that I was not sufficiently strong, or that I was not as fluid as the other dancers. The mirror is indeed a potent tool in the dance classroom. Each dancer develops a personal relationship with the mirror, a relationship that is influenced by various factors including the technical level of the material taught, years of training, previous experiences in the art form, and comparison to others in the classroom. Often this relationship is combative, and it becomes a common part of a dance classroom culture.

Advantages of Mirror Use

There are positive reasons to use a mirror in dance training.  The mirror provides dancers with immediate visual feedback and is helpful in self-correction. It allows them to evaluate the height, shape, and line of their movement, and to adjust their placement. It enables them to easily see the performance of the movement from several perspectives, which can help dancers learn a new movement phrase more quickly.

Disadvantages of Mirror Use

When dancers spend too much time looking at themselves in the mirror, however, they can become overly self-conscious and self-critical. This presents several problems in a dancer’s training.

  • High levels of self-consciousness and self-criticism can cause a dancer to develop poor body image, which can lead a dancer to have negative thoughts and feelings about her body. This can easily happen when a dancer ends up comparing her physical image to other dancers or to the teacher in the room. Research has shown that negative body image in the dance classroom can slow down a student’s technical development.
  • Spending too much time looking at oneself in the mirror can cause a dancer to focus excessively on her visual image rather than the muscular sensations of a movement.  The sensation of one’s body in movement and the instinctive awareness of exactly where one’s body is in space is called proprioception, a critical ingredient for becoming a skilled and expressive dancer. Limited access to our proprioceptive self can slow down technical growth in the classroom.
  • Overuse of the mirror can negatively affect the development of a dancer’s performance skills. Consistently staring at one’s body in the mirror can cause a dancer to be overly focused on body parts and specific positions rather than on movement and flow, which are essential qualities for a smooth and dynamic performance. After all, dancers in performance do not dance for the mirror, they dance for the audience. It makes sense they would practice this way.
dancer and mirror

Dancer Ivy Kilpatrick, photo by Lori Teague

  • Remind yourself that the mirror is an optional tool in the technique class and train yourself to limit your use of it.  Most dancers prefer to use the mirror in class and view it as an essential tool in the dance classroom. However, research has shown that if the mirror is not present in the dance classroom only about half of the students will miss it, and some students are actually relieved if it is not there.
  • Focus on learning to trust the muscular feedback (proprioception) a movement provides; spend less time looking at your image in the mirror. This will accelerate your technical growth.
  • Look for the full range of cues a teacher may give you when learning movement (i.e. imagery, rhythmic patterns). Work to expand all the ways you learn in technique class other than focusing on your image in the mirror.
  • Observe yourself and note how you feel after using the mirror extensively in class. If you notice yourself having negative feelings about your body, this is a cue that you may need to further limit your use of the mirror in technique class.
  • When you have the option, stand in a part of the room where mirror visibility is limited or choose a facing where you cannot see yourself in the mirror. Use the mirror strategically and selectively in class. Only use it when you have a specific purpose in mind.
  • Set a goal of developing a personal, healthy relationship with the mirror, one that will fully support your own learning style. Listen to the cues your body gives you as you dance and act upon them. Take responsibility for creating your optimal learning environment in the dance classroom.

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.


The Healthy Dance Practice Certificate

Happy New Year to everyone! I hope the holidays were wonderful for you, both in your dancing and personal lives, and that you are feeling fully ready and already on the go, dance-wise, for 2014!

We have more great Dance Wellness information / articles / authors lined up for you this year, but first I would like to tell you about an exciting event that just took place in Boulder, CO:

sidi_1inch190-2The first Safe In Dance International (SIDI) / IADMS (International Association for Dance Medicine and Science) course for teachers in the USA.

I was privileged to participate and teach in the recent (Jan. 9-12) SIDI / IADMS Preparation Course for the Healthy Dance Practice Certificate–the first such course to be offered in the USA. It was hosted by Universty of CO-Boulder Dept. of Theatre and Dance, and headed by Erin Sanchez, an American dance medicine specialist currently working in London for Dance UK, as the Healthier Dancer Programme Manager.

The course has been offered in the UK the last several years, but it is now beginning to be offered in the US.

The weekend was a major success, with 21 teachers coming–mostly from CO–but also  from other parts of the US.  There was a large contingent of faculty from the Colorado Ballet Academy, as well as from several other major ballet conservatories in the metro Denver area, and graduate students from the CU Dance Program.

It was immensely gratifying to be there and participate, especially as offering dance medicine courses for dance educators has been a dream of mine for over 20 years.  The enthusiasm and energy generated by the students, in their desire to learn this material and take it home to integrate into their teaching, was palpable.

The Safe In Dance International (SIDI) Healthy Dance Practice Certificate program, and the collaboration with
IADMS, is one which we hope will continue to grow and offer more such courses in other parts of the country. If any of you are interested in hosting such a course (which means basically housing it, providing the studio space–as CU Boulder Dance Program did), please let me know, and I will connect you with the appropriate people — and spread the word !

Aloha, and take care —more coming soon on the Dance Wellness segment of 4dancers.org!

- Jan


Dancing In The Dark – Dancers Need Vitamin D

Happy Holidays to all!

Today’s article is from Dr. Matt Wyon, Professor of Dance Science at the University of Wolverhampton, in Birmingham, England, who recently wrote an article on 4dancers.org on the importance of supplemental physical fitness training in dance.  We are happy that Matt, who is also the Vice-President / President-Elect of IADMS (International Association for Dance Medicine and Science) has contributed a second article–this one on how important Vitamin D is for dancers.  It’s something of interest to everyone, in terms of general good health, but recent research has shown that it may be especially important for dancers.  Read on!

Hoping everyone has had a wonderful holiday season, with Nutcrackers abounding!

- Jan


sun-background-1Dancers spend so much time indoors, with classes / rehearsals / performances, that they get little exposure to sunlight. Even when they live in sunny climates they don’t get enough sun exposure on their skin, because we automatically cover-up with sunblock.

Direct sunlight is the main way we can increase vitamin D levels in our body. We can get the vitamin from our diet, through foods such as fortified cereals, oily fish and diary – but for the majority of us this is not enough to meet our needs. This has left vast numbers of people, including dancers, deficient in vitamin D.

Why is vitamin D important? It used to be known as the “bone hormone”, important for bone growth and development, but new research has shown that it  is involved in lots of other important systems in the body, including the immune system.  It also plays a part in diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and tuberculosis.

All of this is important for everyone, dancers included —but in addition, recent research points to an important link for athletes such as dancers.  There is a connection between muscle strength and vitamin D:  deficient levels of Vitamin D has been linked to decreased muscle strength.  In our recent study at the University of Wolverhampton (Birmingham, UK), we gave vitamin D supplements to ballet dancers and saw that jump height and leg strength increased for those on the supplementation, compared with those who didn’t take any.  The group who took the vitamin D tables (2000IU a day) also got fewer injuries over the 4 month period, probably because their legs were stronger.

In summary, as a dancer you should ask your doctor to check your vitamin D levels at least once a year.  This is just a blood test and doesn’t take long but could have a major effect on your stayer healthy and dancing longer / dancing stronger.

Matthew Wyon, PhD

Professor in Dance Science,

Research Centre for Sport Exercise and Performance, University of Wolverhampton, UK

National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science, UK

Photo courtesy of FreeDesignFile.com, under Creative Commons License 3.0