Training

The Mirror: Friend or Foe?

PNB's Margaret Mullin in company class. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB

Suddenly, all I could see in the mirror was a fuzzy, dancer-shaped outline. I had accidentally rubbed out my contacts right before pliés and, frustrated, resigned myself to an unproductive two hours. As class progressed, however, something strange happened: I felt far more relaxed and placed. My balances at barre were steadier, I didn't have a single wobble in center adagio, I nailed every pirouette and even my jumps felt freer. Could the reason for this stellar class be that I wasn't depending on my reflection?

So much of dancers' training is through sight, usually with the mirror as an aid. From toddlers to top-ranked company members, nearly every hour of studio time is spent in front of the mirror, honing technique in class and perfecting choreography in rehearsal. Too often, however, the mirror becomes a crutch, and the very reasons you need it for your training can become detrimental. Luckily, awareness and refocusing can help break the habit.


A Helpful Point of View

There are plenty of reasons why the mirror is ever present in ballet studios. “It's a tool to get symmetry, to get perfect lines, to see the positions that you're supposed to make every time," says Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet school principal Alecia Good-Boresow. Each glance at your reflection is an opportunity to improve your technique. LeeWei Chao, a teacher at the Alonzo King LINES Ballet Training Program, sees the mirror as “a third person," an intermediary between the dancer and instructor. When your teacher corrects you, he says, you can use this third view to help apply it.

In rehearsals, the mirror is a necessary aid in setting ballets—especially, says Good-Boresow, in corps de ballet work: “With the mirror you can make straight lines, make sure that the shapes you're trying to create in choreography are visible to the dancers."


CPYB school principal Alecia Good-Boresow teaching class. Photo Courtesy CPYB.


From Habit to Hindrance

Constantly staring at the mirror, however, causes as many problems as it solves. Good-Boresow calls dancers' tendency to rely on their reflections “mirroritis." While scrutinizing your image can help you self-correct and improve some aspects of your technique, it can be detrimental to your port de bras and épaulement. When your head and eyes are always focused on your reflection—likely favoring the legs and feet, Chao says—you aren't reaching the full extent of your positions. Your head placement won't match the reach of your lines, and arms become an afterthought rather than coordinated with the movement.

This lack of coordination is more than cosmetic. “If you use your eyes to find balance," Chao says, “you're not using your mind–body connection," and you'll lose stability when static poses become movement. To demonstrate his point in class, Chao will ask his dancers to do an arabesque. Many automatically look in the mirror to find their placement. Next, he'll have them try an arabesque turn. The line they created with the help of the mirror isn't there, and the turn is often unsuccessful.

The problems multiply when transitioning from studio to stage, where the mirror is replaced with the theater's “black hole," says Good-Boresow. Well-rehearsed spacing and traffic patterns devolve into minor mishaps at best—chaos at worst. Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Margaret Mullin often witnesses this when PNB Professional Division students are thrown into corps spots, as they're unaccustomed to using their peripheral vision. “When dancers have been relying on the mirror," Mullin says, “people can panic onstage."

In addition, when your movement is entirely based off your reflection, it's not coming from within—or projecting out. “You're robotic," says Good-Boresow. “You're not actually dancing." Waiting until you're onstage to make the adjustment is too little, too late.


American Ballet Theatre corps member Gisele Bethea checks her form during grand battements at the 2014 USA IBC. Photo by Jim Lafferty.


Refocus

So, how do you prevent your relationship with your reflection from becoming a dependent one? The most obvious way to gain stability and confidence sans mirror is to practice sans mirror. Both Chao and Good-Boresow will remove the temptation by closing a curtain or by asking the dancers to face the back of the room.

If the teacher doesn't provide this impetus, however, you have to break the habit on your own. When you must use the mirror to check your placement, Mullin says, don't just look for correctness and move on. Instead, pause and internalize what “correct" means on a deeper physical level, maybe even briefly closing your eyes. Sense where your limbs are in space, which muscles are engaged and which have feelings of length or opposition. This trains your muscle memory, allowing you to more easily reproduce the position without the mirror.

Chao recommends taking some cues from modern-dance training, which focuses less on how high the leg is or how arched the feet are. In modern, he says, “you learn how to move." Try bringing this mentality to daily technique class. Instead of obsessing over those last few degrees of turnout, focus on transitions, movement quality and artistry.

Finally, remember that the audience won't scrutinize your technique nearly as closely as you do. The whole point of using the mirror to improve your technique is to eventually take it away. In the end, it matters less how you look. It matters how you dance.



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Up Close and Too Personal?

When you dance in front of the mirror for hours each day, it's easy for flaws to become the whole picture. This daily self-criticism, Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Margaret Mullin says, may lead to insecurities, which can manifest in body issues and anxiety. Here are Mullin's tips for developing a healthy relationship with your reflection:

  • Avoid instant gratification. Mullin has seen young dancers go to extremes—disordered eating, dangerous stretching techniques, et cetera—to try to achieve a certain ideal. Trust that the work will mold your body eventually; forcing it will negatively affect your health.
  • Limit social media exposure. Instagram and Facebook profiles are curated to look picture-perfect. When you're walking around with that ideal in your pocket day in and day out, insecurities are likely to follow you into the studio. Save some “likes" for yourself.
  • Expect change. “I looked incredibly different at 13 than I did at 14, then 15, then 19," Mullin says. She's even seen professionals' bodies change based on their current repertoire. Getting used to the idea of physical changes may help you accept them.
  • Focus on fuel. “Don't let the demons in the mirror affect how you're nourishing yourself," Mullin urges. Yes, dance is an aesthetic art form, but it's also intensely physical. Talent doesn't reside in cookie-cutter bodies, and being thin is far less important than having the energy and strength to do what's required of you. —HF
Elizabeth Abbick as the Snow Queen in Butler Ballet's "Nutcracker." Photo by Brent Smith, Courtesy Abbick.

Pointe caught up with three college dancers last spring to see what it's like juggling ballet, academics and a social life on campus. First up is Elizabeth Abbick, a student at Jordan College of the Arts, Butler University getting her BFA in dance performance and her BA in mathematics.

Abbick studying in the library. Photo by Jimmy Lafakis for Pointe.

Leawood, Kansas, native Elizabeth Abbick faced some tough choices her senior year of high school. Equally talented in math and ballet, she wanted a professional dance career but also desired to plan her post-performance life. "Butler University had always been on my radar because I knew the faculty was stellar and the students are the best of the best. I realized it could offer me both worlds," she says. Now a senior majoring in dance performance and mathematics, she hopes to work on the business side of the ballet world after her stage career.

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Check out the full trailer below, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's full listing of showtimes here.

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Bianca Bulle was always prone to ankle sprains. When she was 18, her recoveries became more complicated: She started experiencing Achilles tendonitis due to muscle weakness and fluid buildup in the ankle. "The last thing to get back to normal would be my Achilles, which was so incredibly tight and painful," says Bulle, now a principal at Los Angeles Ballet.

The Achilles is the body's largest tendon, attaching the bottom of the calf muscles to the back of the heel. It contracts and releases as you relevé and plié, as well as when you jump and even walk. Tendonitis, or inflammation, of the Achilles is one of the most frequently reported overuse injuries among active people, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. You'll know it by the pain or tightness at the back of the heel. If the condition gets bad enough, the tendon can rupture, which requires surgery to fix.

Achilles tendonitis is especially common among dancers on pointe, but it's not inevitable. With rest and proper conditioning, you can work to avoid it with careful technique and a commitment to cross-training.


Boston Ballet School pre-professional students. Photo by Igor Burlak Photography, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

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Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, adapted from an earlier exhibition at the Montreal Music of Art and curated by Yuval Sharon and Jason H. Thompson, is an exciting opportunity to see 41 costumes and nearly 100 designs. But it is the costumes that really steal the show. You won't see any tutus here, but instead amazing, almost cartoon-like realizations of Chagall's artwork. LACMA's exhibition runs through January 7, 2018. For those of you who can't make the trip like I did, here's a rundown of highlights.

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According to Deadline.com, Moss will produce a documentary featuring Peck and her work curating BalletNOW, last summer's star-studded, critically acclaimed program at Los Angeles's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Peck was the first woman to lead BalletNOW's programming, and she brought together dancers from companies including The Royal Ballet, Miami City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opéra Ballet, putting them on stage with tappers, clowns and break dancers (sometimes simultaneously).


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Fruit-and-Spice Toast

- Spread purée onto whole-grain toast.

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When Maya Plisetskaya first toured abroad with the Bolshoi Ballet, she stunned the world. Her dramatic and technical abilities were far beyond what anyone outside the Soviet Union had seen before. She quickly became an icon, symbolizing Russian ballet.

Plisetskaya was the perfect ballerina to play the Tsar Maiden in The Little Humpbacked Horse when choreographer Alexander Radunsky and composer Rodion Shchedrin recreated the classic Russian folktale in the 1960s. This vintage clip of the ballet offers a glimpse into an era gone by. Although ballet technique has advanced since then, Plisetskaya's performance is still electrifying. She is daring and agile in her manèges and fouettés, while she shows gentle purity and authentic emotion in the pas de deux with the wide-eyed Ivan. Even half a century later, this magnificent artist continues to transfix us with her radiant presence onstage. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


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