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."

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.

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.

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

Technique Tip

“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

When the San Francisco Ballet School trainees flew to Texas for a week of classes and performances with Houston Ballet II last year, HBII dancer Mackenzie Richter felt the need to step up her game. “The SFB dancers were so talented,” says Richter. “I realized right away that I was representing my school, and that pushed me to do my best.”

There’s nothing quite like the jolt students receive from a change of surroundings. And as school collaborations become increasingly popular, it’s easy to see why. In addition to allowing dancers to experience new teachers, they provide opportunities for them to assess the competition, network and learn about other cultures both inside and outside the studio. “When you leave the nest and see the bigger world outside your studio walls,” says Houston Ballet Academy director Shelly Power, “you see how different dancers approach their work.”

San Francisco Ballet School trainees performing Stone and Steel during a collaboration with Houston Ballet II (photo by Jamie Lagdameo, courtesy Houston Ballet)

Upping the Ante

Houston Ballet launched its inaugural exchange with the SFB School Trainee Program in 2014 for a whirlwind week of classes, rehearsals and outings, all of which culminated in two final performances. In addition to rehearsing their own repertoire, the dancers worked together on a joint piece, rehearsing separately with a video ahead of time so that they were both on equal footing once they came together. This November, HBII traveled to San Francisco for an equally jam-packed collaboration.

Richter experienced several “aha” moments during the 2014 exchange. “I watched how the SFB trainees incorporated corrections from our teachers that we have heard over and over,” she says. And taking class from SFB faculty opened her eyes to other ways of thinking about her technique.

“New teachers always breathe new life into corrections,” says Power, who noticed a definite bump in growth among the students. “Peer-to-peer competition is good because comparison always gives us a new benchmark to assess ourselves,” she says. “Maybe you need a little push, and seeing other students as good as you are puts you on that higher level.”

American Ballet Theatre Studio Company director Kate Lydon agrees. For more than a decade, the ABT Studio Company has joined forces with The Royal Ballet School for master classes and joint performances as a way to expand the dancers’ horizons. The schools take turns hosting each year, and the dancers have plenty of opportunities to sightsee. “Whenever we travel, it’s marvelous for the dancers to be exposed to such a high caliber of training,” says Lydon.

Some students thrive on the surprising similarities an exchange can offer. “It’s really inspiring to take class and talk with these students who are just as passionate as you are about what you do,” says former ABT Studio Company member Tyler Maloney, now an ABT apprentice. “Even though we all have this similar ultimate goal, it’s interesting to see how we all come from completely different upbringings.”

Building Cultural Awareness

At the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School in Sarasota, Florida, founders Ariel Serrano and Wilmian Hernandez, who both defected from Cuba in 1993, arranged an exchange with the Cuban National Ballet School because they wanted to expose their students to the school director—and their former teacher—Dr. Ramona de Saa. In April 2014, Serrano and Hernandez brought a group of students to Cuba to participate in an international competition and a workshop at the school in Havana. Then in July, de Saa and a half-dozen dancers from the National Ballet School came to Sarasota. They repeated the exchange in 2015, and hope to make it an annual event.

“For the Cubans, it’s an opportunity to highlight their impressive legacy of dance training, which is, justly, a matter of great national pride,” says SCBS executive director Carol Hirschburg. “For SCBS, it’s a celebration of the Cuban method of dance training and an opportunity to promote it to students in the U.S.”

Because both schools are Cuban in lineage, there are few training differences, yet the classroom culture is slightly different. “Cuban students must adhere strictly to every rule or they are suspended immediately,” says Hirschburg. “They work so hard,” says SCBS student Lucy Hamilton. ”They inspired us to work even harder.”

For the American students, traveling to Havana opened their eyes to the Cuban dancers’ economic circumstances. Although the Cuban government provides the training, basic supplies (such as pointe shoes) are very expensive. “Even though they have so little, they have such a positive attitude,” says Hamilton. When the National Ballet School students came to Florida, SCBS arranged for local dancewear shops to donate much-needed supplies for them.

Making Connections

A week may not seem like enough time to make much of an impact on one’s training, but that isn’t really the whole point. Young dancers return inspired to be part of ballet’s global legacy. “It was arguably the best experience of my life,” says Hamilton. “We formed what I think will be lifelong friendships.”

“Collaborating brings the world closer together and gives students an experience that they will take into their future,” says Power. “Having teachers from around the world brings the past to the forefront and gives students a sense of the tradition of ballet training.”

Summer Scholarship Opportunity: Project Resilience

Project Resilience, a dance scholarship organization dedicated to helping students from underserved areas pursue professional ballet careers, is offering a $1,500 scholarship to “The Resilient Ballet Dancer of the Year,” to be used towards a summer intensive at American Ballet Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem or Houston Ballet. Project coordinator Everett Dyson says that the awardee will be a dancer from an underserved urban community who has an incredible story to tell, someone who has “stayed at it, kept going, because that’s their passion.” Dyson was inspired by the Project’s two high-profile backers, Misty Copeland and Lauren Anderson, to help students achieve their dancing dreams.

Send submissions to info@projectresilience.us by April 1, 2016. For detailed application instructions and more information, go to theresilientdancer.wordpress.com. —Hannah Foster

Sundermeier in Val Caniparoli's A Cinderella Story (photo courtesy Royal Winnipeg Ballet)

Technique Tip

“A teacher once told me to imagine pulling up my jeans on a humid day to help me lengthen the front of my hips when standing. That feeling helped place me in the right posture, as well as give my dancing a more lengthened look.”

Royal Winnipeg Ballet principal Jo-Ann Sundermeier

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