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."
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.
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.
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
“Turning is sometimes daunting for me. What helps me is to think of the resistance and opposition between my arms and my torso: I imagine an internal twisted band that tightens during my preparation, twisting one direction with my arms and the other with my body. The release is the turn."
—Carmen Felder, Carolina Ballet
Cross-Train in the AM
Between class and auditions, rehearsals and performances, it may seem like there’s not enough time in the day to fit in cross-training. That’s why many dancers swear by hitting the elliptical or their yoga mat early in the morning instead of hitting snooze. Aside from fitting your workout in, research shows that jump-starting your day with physical activity (as opposed to hanging out in a split before barre) has a whole host of additional benefits.
When you cross-train in the morning…
- You’re more likely to stick with it. If you wait until the end of a full day of dance, it’s easier to skip the gym since you’ll already be exhausted.
- Your body may burn more fat. A study published in The Journal of Physiology found that a group of men who exercised before breakfast burned fat more efficiently than those who exercised after eating a heavy breakfast. This may be because the body burns fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates when you exercise on an emptier stomach.
- You might sleep better. Researchers at Appalachian State University found that adults who worked out at 7 am had 75 percent deeper sleep and 20 percent more REM cycles than those who waited until the afternoon or evening to exercise.
Make It Happen
Are you ready to make working out early a priority? If you plan your morning the night before, you’re more likely to set yourself up for a successful day.
- Mark your calendar. You wouldn’t skip out on a doctor’s appointment you’ve had on your schedule for months. Similarly, when you pencil in your gym time, you’re more apt to follow through.
- Invite a buddy. When you know your friend is waking up early to meet you at the gym, you’re less likely to bail on your cross-training plans.
- Get to bed. Though it’s never good to scrimp on sleep, it’s especially important to wake up feeling rested when physical activity is first on your list.
- Lay out your clothes (and any special shoes or equipment you’ll need, like a yoga mat) ahead of time, so you’re not rifling through your dresser for a sports bra at the crack of dawn.
- Pack your bag with anything you’ll need for your dance day if you’re going straight to the studio afterward.
- Prep your breakfast. Don’t forgo the first meal of the day in order to fit in a workout. Instead, pack a portable breakfast, like a homemade smoothie made the night before, or yogurt, a granola bar and fresh fruit.
Stressed out? Consider eating fatty fish, such as salmon or tuna. Why? They’re high in omega-3 fatty acids. Aside from being important for heart health, they’re also known to help regulate mood by enabling brain cells to communicate better and possibly by protecting neurons from damage caused by stress over time. Multiple studies suggest that people with a high intake of omega-3s are better able to bounce back from stress or disappointment.
This fall, head to the pumpkin patch to score a nutritious snack. Pumpkin seeds are perfect for roasting, and they’re packed with magnesium, which plays a role in energy production and bone development, and fiber, which keeps you full, making them a great choice to nosh on midday. Pumpkins are in season into November, so there is plenty of time to get creative. Here’s how to add them to your diet any time of day.
Breakfast: Mix in with oatmeal.
Lunch: Toss in a salad with dried cranberries.
Snack: Grab a handful plain or add to homemade trail mix.
Dinner: Sprinkle on top of squash soup.
If you’re trying to perfect your portrayal of a dramatic character in any story ballet, research suggests you should focus on your chest. A study recently published in the journal PLoS One used eye tracking to determine that observers most frequently looked at the movement of a dancer’s chest when asked to decide if she was enacting happiness or sadness. Don’t underestimate the subtlety of slightly sinking the sternum or proudly presenting the collarbones.
Dancers know that protein is an essential part of a healthy diet, since it’s needed to repair and strengthen muscle tissue. But it turns out when you eat protein is also important. Recent research in the Journal of Nutrition found that muscle protein synthesis is up to 25 percent higher when the recommended daily amount, 60 grams, is doled out evenly among breakfast, lunch and dinner. Fuel your muscles every few hours by working protein-rich foods like hard-boiled eggs or almonds into your meals and snacks. —Alexis Stanley
Bright Lights, Bad Balance
Problem: Having trouble balancing onstage in spite of rock-solid centeredness in the studio?
The culprit: The change in visual perception, mostly due to blinding stage lights, negatively affects your dynamic balance, the stability you need as you move through space.
The science: Recent research published in the Journal of Dance Medicine & Science found that a group of pre-professional ballet dancers were able to improve their dynamic balance after just four weeks of doing exercises with their eyes closed. The series of balance tests was integrated into participants’ daily technique class, and those who did the exercises with open eyes didn’t show any improvement in their stability.
The solution: You can’t control the stage lighting, but you can train your body to balance better in conditions that limit your vision. Leading up to a performance, practice dancing with your eyes closed for short portions of barre and centerwork (just make sure your teacher is okay with it beforehand). You’re likely to have better balance control, even if the stage lights make you squint.
Have a question? Click here to send it to Amy and she might answer it in an upcoming issue!
I’m having trouble balancing schoolwork and dance. I come home from a long day and rush through my homework without worrying about whether I did it correctly. Doing homework late at night makes me stressed for the rest of the week and affects my attitude towards dancing. How do I balance both school and dance? –Marie
When I think of my crazy schedule as a teenager, I’m amazed I ever made it through high school! My brain was fried by the time I’d get home from ballet class. It helps to stay super organized. Look at your daily and weekly schedule in advance to find pockets of time to do homework during lunch, study hall or immediately after school. Prioritize what needs to get done, and avoid procrastinating. I used to finish my math homework right after school because it was hardest for me, and save shorter, easier assignments for after dance classes. Sometimes if I was super-exhausted after ballet I would head straight to bed and get up extra early to finish schoolwork.
Take advantage of your breaks between dance classes, or time in the car (unless, of course, you are the one driving). I used go to the library on weekends for a few hours to crank out some study time without the distractions at home. I found I worked way more efficiently when I couldn’t make phone calls, watch TV or raid the pantry. Scheduling out your day, your week and your weekend may seem like a drag, but eventually you’ll find a rhythm and your life will feel more manageable.
Have a question? Click here to send it to Amy and she might answer it in an upcoming issue!
I’ve been dancing for eight years and still have poor turnout. I’ve tried many techniques and stretches, but nothing helps. Any advice? —Allison, Kansas
It’s so frustrating when our bodies refuse to bend to ballet’s will! Unfortunately, we’re born with a somewhat fixed degree of external rotation. Your turnout might be naturally limited. My advice is to do the best with what you have. Strengthen your rotator muscles to hold your maximum turnout. Before class, stand in your natural first and fifth positions, taking time to activate and feel your rotators. Maintain these positions during class, and resist the urge to crank your turnout from your knees and ankles or twist your working hip open. As you get stronger, your turnout will look better because you’ll hold it correctly in place. Also focus on your strengths. Do you have a beautiful stage presence or a great jump? Develop these more! Along with strong technique, they will draw attention away from any imperfections.
When doing relevés on pointe, my roll up from half pointe to full pointe is very jolting. I have strong ankles; it is just the last part of the relevé that I struggle with. What can I do? —Alina, California
I spoke with Liz Henry, director of Westside Dance Physical Therapy, who suspects your intrinsic flexors (the muscles that move your toes) are weak, and recommends an exercise called “doming.”
With your foot flat on the ground, lift the row of knuckles between your metatarsals and your toes. “Allow the toes to be long,” says Henry. “Glide the toes along the floor in the direction of the heel, and create a ‘dome’ at those knuckle joints.” Make sure your toes are not curled or hammered. If you’re having trouble, use your hands to help shape the dome until you find the right foot muscles.
From here, Henry says, “Return back to flat the same way you came, keeping the toes long and straight without picking them up.” Then, keeping the ball of the foot on the ground, lift the toes up and return to flat. Start with 10 to 25 reps, eventually working up to 100.
Also practice going from demi to full pointe in your pointe shoes while sitting in a chair. Apply the doming principle as you articulate your foot (10 to 25 reps). Then, with doming in mind, try relevés at the barre, first with two feet, then one. Once your feet get stronger, you’ll have less need for the barre.
I have a really hard time finding my balance. Do you have any tips?
—Madeline, New York
Your problem may stem from improper alignment or lack of strength. Pay attention to which way you fall. If you fall away from the barre, you’re probably not “on your leg,” meaning the weight of your body is not centered over the ball of your foot. If you fall towards the barre, you’re probably lifting your working hip or sitting into your standing hip. If you’re wobbly in your ankles and torso, work on gaining strength. Check the alignment of your feet, legs, hips, pelvis, rib cage and shoulders from both front and side views on flat and relevé.
Once you nail down the problem, practice! At the studio, in your kitchen, at the bus stop—whenever you can. Set goals (10 seconds, 30 seconds, 2 minutes), and be determined to meet them.
Another tip: Think of pressing down into the floor during relevé, rather than rising up. If you push into the balls of your feet, you’ll engage your entire leg up to the area right underneath the buttocks. You’ll feel taller and much more stable.