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.
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.
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.