What does dance training have in common with Rafael Nadal and Tiger Woods? Emma Sandall finds out.

Standing directly facing the studio mirror, I take my right foot to retiré and developé it devant, consciously, indeed conscientiously, making sure that my hips remain perfectly still and that the leg follows through in a straight line from my hip. Guarding my hips square to the mirror, I rond de jambe the working leg to the side at 90 degrees and then, maintaining hip placement as long as I can, I slowly take the leg beyond second to its destination, the arabesque.  

This is certainly a pedantic exercise, but one important to dancers to help them remember the physical sensation of correct placement. While watching my reflection in the mirror I am also digesting the sensation of performing a grande rond de jambe correctly. Without the mirror, it is entirely possible that I would distort my alignment, albeit infinitesimally. And that is a slippery slope. So the mirror’s feedback can be extremely beneficial to a dancer’s training and daily routine.

Today mirrors are omnipresent in dance studios. They are often at the front of the studio and gazed upon from the minute class begins. Is this an overuse of reflection? Can mirrors have a detrimental effect on dancers’ abilities to abandon themselves in their movements, to trust their sensations, indeed to dance?

As a movement coach and ex-dancer I am interested in how mirrors might inhibit “implicit” (or “intrinsic”) learning, one of the most important forms of training in a dancer’s and athlete’s development. Timothy Buszard, PhD candidate in Sports Science at Victoria University, describes implicit learning as being when “a skill is acquired with little or no conscious awareness of the skill’s mechanics”.

In his article “Different Strokes: how Rafael and Tiger hit the top of their games”, published in the online journal The Conversation, Buszard describes how two extraordinary athletes, Tiger Woods (golf) and Rafael Nadal (tennis), trained in their early years. Both employed a form of implicit learning through the removal of what Buszard calls “outcome feedback” during practice. In Nadal’s case, coach Toni Nadal encouraged him to develop the innate feel of striking the tennis ball with fast racquet speed rather than focus on the outcome of the shots. Similarly, Woods removed feedback of the outcome of his shots by practising hitting golf balls in the dark. Buszard points out that this technique may have facilitated Woods’s remarkable feel for striking the ball so consistently well.  

Research has since shown that the removal of outcome feedback during practice encourages implicit motor learning and it is this type of learning which builds consistency of performance in an athlete when under pressure or in a state of fatigue. It is also more durable over time. Put simply, Buszard says that skills learnt implicitly are performed “automatically”.

By contrast, “explicit learning” is the technique by which we acquire a skill through conscious processes. Buszard points out that motor skills are acquired in this manner via verbal instructions from a teacher regarding the student’s technique or through the student consciously exploring the movement pattern and thereby thinking through in advance all the processes that lead to the outcome.
So, do mirrors make us too conscious of our efforts? I asked Buszard what he thought about this essential dance tool. He proposed that dancers observing themselves in a mirror and paying close attention to the skill mechanics are likely to be learning explicitly while dancers observing themselves but not overly conscious of the mechanics may in fact be learning implicitly.

I personally began my training in studios without mirrors. As did the Australian Ballet’s Artistic Director, David McAllister. He learnt to feel rather than see his corrections. McAllister suggests that today dancers are so visually stimulated they increasingly rely on mirrors for visual feedback. Though he understands their purpose, he also believes mirrors can inhibit one’s ability to feel the sensation of alignment and that most exquisite physical expression – épaulement. As he points out: “You can’t really look in the mirror and use your head and upper body”. While in Sydney the company dancers spend much of their time doing class on stage and McAllister has noticed a difference in their work during this time. Without mirrors, he says, the dancers refine their ability to move in synchronicity by listening more closely to the music and watching one another.

Maina Gielgud, the former Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet and an internationally respected teacher, believes that dancers need to be taught how to use mirrors from an early age. It takes discipline, she says, not to focus only on the best or worst aspects of your physique or placement. Gielgud emphasises that “dancing is movement, not a succession of perfect photograph positions”, so although the mirror is a very useful tool for placement, it is imperative that the quest for placement does not supersede movement quality.

Ohad Naharin, the Artistic Director of Batsheva Dance Company in Israel, insists on having no mirrors in his studios. He believes their absence encourages an exploratory, judgment-free approach to movement, like that of a baby, and hence the name of his technique, “Gaga”. Many dancers find this liberating, indeed leave Gaga classes with tears of happiness, having finally felt at one with their bodies and with the flow of movement.

But, as Buszard notes, outcomes are important. They certainly are for dancers, for whom movement outcomes are of three distinct yet intertwined kinds – the achievement, the look and the interpretation of movements. Dancers do need degrees of visual feedback for confidence in the outcome of their efforts, else they may direct their attention internally. This in turn may lead them to over-thinking their skills and technique rather than to being at one with their bodies and the flow of the movement.

Presently, the research with athletes suggests that implicit, sensation-based learning is the way to go if the goal is to instil consistency and confidence in performance.

In the case of dancers, whether mirrors help or hinder this is equivocal. This being so, teachers (and later rehearsal directors and choreographers) might be advised to balance visual feedback (mirrors and video) with sensation-based learning that will give dancers confidence in their technique and allow them to step on the stage, trust in their sensations and focus on their performance. 

See also: 'Preventing obsession with the mirror' here

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