Feature

An honest reflection?

Dominic Antonucci, Ballet Master with Birmingham Royal Ballet, poses some questions about the daily use of mirrors in the life of a dancer. This article was originally published in the Dancing Times in 2014 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of all involved.

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Professional ballet dancers spend an extraordinary amount of time in front of mirrors, usually beginning early in their lives. One can find mirrors being used as a training tool in nearly every space where ballet is practised around the world. Dancers work for hours with their own reflection in the studio every day, and also spend reflected time in the dressing room putting on make-up and costumes.

It’s a struggle to find other professions that compare to ballet in these terms. Figure skating, gymnastics and bodybuilding are some that come to mind. Each of these sports use the mirror as a training tool in a similar way to ballet. Comparisons aside, ballet dancers must spend more time critically examining their own reflected image than just about any other group of people in the world.

'Looking into the mirror, finding and correcting imperfections in their own performance and appearance can be mentally and emotionally taxing.'

While the purpose of the mirror in the studio is well known and easily identified, surprisingly little research has been done on the overall impact that long-term training using mirrors has on a dancer’s performance and their mental or emotional condition. The reason for this is that any investigation must cover a range of disciplines, making the data extremely difficult to collect and understand.

Science, psychology, practical knowledge and individual experience all have to be considered, so bringing that information together becomes a complicated task. For a tool that is so widely used and accepted, most of us know relatively little about how mirrors really work. We may well be deceived by what we think we see.

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Dancers tend to believe what they see in the mirror and take that to heart, whether it be good or bad. It’s difficult not to. As a result, there are a range of ways the mirror can affect their working behaviour.

A list of different tactics dancers use to cope with life in front of the mirror makes for good, and sometimes amusing, reading. Some can’t get enough of the mirror while others can’t get away from it. Some wear 'junk' or warm-up clothing on Tuesdays and next to nothing on Wednesdays. Some change their place at the barre every day and others have worn their footprints into the studio floor from years of standing in the same spot.

How we feel about our appearance in the mirror each morning can have a big effect on how we feel for the rest of the day. Dancers know this better than most and make adjustments daily in an effort to stay positive about themselves as they work.

I spoke to several colleagues at Birmingham Royal Ballet about the issues and approaches they have regarding the mirror. Each dancer described a unique working attitude and set of practices that were different from one person to the next.

The common thread through every conversation was the impact their own reflected image had on self-esteem and confidence. The mirror seems to exaggerate positive or negative feelings about self-image.

An odd question possibly gives some insight into this dynamic: 'What size is your reflected image on the surface of the mirror in relation to the actual size of your body?' The replies were 'bigger', 'the same size', and 'it changes depending on how I feel'. Not one single dancer, nor myself, answered correctly.

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The scientific fact is that our reflected image always appears as 50 per cent of our actual size when we view ourselves. A simple test of this would be to stand in front of a steamed-up mirror. Rub away just enough space to see the reflection of your face on the glass, and the area rubbed away will be smaller than your actual face, around half the size.

Dancers sometimes feel their reflection changes in appearance depending on the state of their self-esteem and other emotional factors. Day after day of looking into the mirror, finding and correcting imperfections in their own performance and appearance can be mentally and emotionally taxing, sometimes leading to more serious self-image issues.

Dancers may also 'overestimate' their reflection. They may feel they have executed a step very well based on their reflection, whereas the teacher and other observers can see faults the dancer isn’t aware of.

Some of this is to do with angles and the visual point of view. One instance where this can be seen is the classic 'fishing' of the foot in arabesque. From the dancer’s point of view in the mirror, 'fishing' extends the end of the arabesque line. It can also give the illusion of a more turned out leg.

Through their reflected perspective, the dancer sees themselves in a nice position, while those viewing from every other angle in the room see only a poorly pointed foot.

'Many of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s women rehearse fouettés facing away from the mirror or with a curtain drawn across it to better prepare themselves for performance.'

Dancers are used to watching themselves in the mirror but are often startled to see how differently they look on film.

I have been horrified in the past to have danced roles confidently, only to watch the video and realise that I hadn’t come close to my own expectations. The mirror had fooled me into a higher estimation of my own performance.

Ultimately, ballet is danced on the stage without the mirror as either crutch or nemesis. There are always adjustments to be made shifting from studio to the stage, and as ballet master I’ve had to learn to temper my sense of panic at the first stage rehearsal of any ballet because the dancers no longer have the visual reference to check spacing, timing or shape. It is amazing to see how quickly they adjust and most of the time my fears are put to rest.

The mirror is a factor in execution at this point. Dancers often say they have steps they can only perform confidently with or without the mirror.

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This certainly has to do with the visual reference for co-ordination that the mirror provides. A good example would be fouetté turns. It is common for women to struggle with these as they move from the studio to the stage because it is possible they’ve been using the mirror to watch the shape of their legs or arms as they perform the turn. They then match that position using the mirror as a reference after each revolution.

Many of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s women rehearse fouettés facing away from the mirror or with a curtain drawn across it to better prepare themselves for performance.

'I try to get away from looking in the mirror too much and focus more on the artistry and how I feel dancing the role'

Iain Mackay, Principal

This can also occur when changing from stage to studio. I always worried about the double sissonnes into arabesque during the coda of the Black Swan pas de deux. I could not for the life of me execute the step cleanly if a mirror was anywhere in sight. I would sneak down to the stage and try it over and over again to reassure myself that it would be all right on the night. I must have been changing the position of my head to check something in the mirror, a habit I couldn’t break. The position of the head being crucial to balance, any slight shift changed the outcome of the step completely.

It’s worth pointing out that some of our most successful dancers have developed a well thought-out and disciplined approach to how they work with the mirror. Principal Iain Mackay tries to limit how he uses it. 'Especially as we get closer to the shows, I try to get away from looking in the mirror too much and focus more on the artistry and how I feel dancing the role.'

Assistant Director Marion Tait described to me how she would check her line in the mirror without changing the focus of her eyes from the intended position, using her peripheral vision instead.

The challenges dancers face in the mirror are technical, scientific, psychological and practical. It’s impossible to understand fully every element that plays a part in how we view ourselves truly through the looking glass. It’s possible, however, that by recognising the mirror’s deceitful nature, we will be better equipped to break the illusions it can hold us under.