An enquiry about the role of mirrors in motor learning by Neha Harinath
Mirrors have been a part of the human society for centuries. They have various applications ranging from personal to industrial and scientific use. One such application is their use in training studios. Mirrors have been an integral part of the dance training environment for a long time. Their use in dance is believed to have started with ballet training in the 18th century (Radell, 2013). They are considered a useful tool that helps both dancers and teachers in a classroom. They provide dancers with an outward perspective of themselves alongside amplifying the amount of information they can gain from their surroundings (Dearborn & Ross, 2006). Mirrors act as a source of immediate visual feedback providing dancers with cues about their body alignment and spatial orientation. They can also be a great aid for teachers while demonstrating a sequence or phrase. Without a mirror, the teacher would most likely face the class and perform a mirror image demonstration of the sequence demanding additional focus and effort. Mirrors can provide teachers with a good vantage point of the entire classroom making it easier for them to observe the students.
Although mirrors have been a widely accepted part of dance training, it was never a part of most of my dance education. I practised Bharatanatyam, a South Asian classical dance form for ten years under a teacher who strongly believed that mirrors did not belong in a dance studio. We always trained in spaces without mirrors and my teacher emphasised the need to feel the movements from within. Looking back on this, I feel there were instances where I could have benefited from the presence of a mirror. Alongside set movements, expressive storytelling is an integral part of the Bharatanatyam repertoire. Dancers play different roles ranging from animals to mythological characters, often switching between characters to convey a story. A mirror’s presence can be valuable while practising such sequences. It can help dancers gauge the execution of characters they embody and identify potential corrections and improvements. However, I never questioned its absence until I started taking Belly dance technique classes a few years ago. Here the teacher insisted we face the mirror during training and constantly drew our attention to it for demonstrations, corrections, and feedback. Although a distraction at times, the mirror proved to be a very useful tool in understanding the nuances of the dance form. For instance, when learning hip drops, the mirror helped me assess if my hips were dropping in the right direction- a correction that would have otherwise been more challenging to detect and understand. Unlike in Bharatanatyam training where I predominantly relied on verbal feedback for postural corrections, mirrors gave me the opportunity to self-correct. However, the retention and embodiment of these corrections were not always consistent. Without the mirror in place, I would often repeat a mistake that I had already identified and corrected while in front of the mirror. I then went on to take contemporary technique classes where we trained in classrooms with mirrors, but our engagement with it was limited. We alternated between practising in front of the mirror and turning away from it. The emphasis was on understanding the movements kinaesthetically and to rely on proprioceptive feedback rather than visual feedback. On occasions that we did use the mirror, I found that the information I received from it was not adequate to help me make significant changes to performance. For example, while doing a hand reach movement the mirror helped me identify incorrect execution. However, to make corrections I needed additional information about how the head and spine positions contributed to the movement execution. Although the mirror helped compare my movement with the ideal desired movement, correcting it almost always required additional information.
Reflecting on my varied interactions with the mirror has led me to speculate its role in a dance studio. Although mirrors can impact dancers in various ways, the scope of this essay is to understand the impact of mirrors on motor learning. In dance, motor learning refers to the process of acquiring specific movement skills that are not acquired through motor development that is experienced by all children (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2015). Wilmerding and Krasnow (2009) proposed the existence of different stages in the process of learning dance movements. They classified these stages as attention and observation, replication, feedback, and repetition. They also specified some additional factors that can affect motor learning such as kinaesthetic awareness, learning styles, and interaction with other dancers. This essay will explore how a mirror can affect some of these stages involved in motor learning.
Attention plays an important role in motor learning and can have a significant impact on performance. Psychologists believe that there is only a fixed amount of attention available to perform tasks. When these tasks interfere with each other, the available attention is divided among the tasks (Posner & Keele, 1969; Kahneman, 1973). When the overall attention demand exceeds the attention capacity it hinders performance. In a class, dancers must constantly divide their attention among various activities or strategies to facilitate the learning of a movement. Some of this includes paying attention to the music, the teacher’s verbal cues, and one’s execution of the movement. This is where a mirror’s presence can potentially have negative effects. The information received from a mirror can overload a dancer who is already trying to concentrate on multiple things. This is especially true for beginner and novice dancers. Beginners start by registering the introductory description and demonstration of the movement from their teacher. They will then execute the movement during which they are busy processing the information they observed and putting it into action. Their working memory is at near capacity in this stage (Enghauser, 2003) and visual information from the mirror can overload their attention capacity, impeding effective learning. However, advanced dancers who are familiar with these movements and have had sufficient practice require less conscious attention to execute movements (Gose, 2018). The mirror can be a very useful tool for advanced dancers who have the attention capacity to register and respond to the information they receive from self-observation. Advanced dancers are generally not affected by the distractions that influence beginners as they are more equipped with cognitive skills to derive meaningful information from the mirror. In a study conducted by Dearborn, Harring, Young, and Orourke (2006) to understand the effects of mirrors and phrase difficulty on a dancer’s attention, it was observed that dancers were distracted by the mirror when learning a simple phrase but paid more attention to learning the complex phrase without being distracted. This suggests that mirrors can also serve as a distraction if a dancer is not engaged in a task that demands their attention.
As a student, I engaged with the mirror not to just look at myself but to also observe my peers. Mirrors gave me an easy way to track the learning process of other dancers. However, it also proved to be a distraction sometimes as I started paying more attention to observing the mirror and the other dancers through it. This did not let me truly engage with the movements. Hence students need to strategize and selectively pick the information they can focus on to enable optimum learning. The teacher can also drive a student’s attention to specific instructions or activities in a class helping them refrain from getting distracted and ensuring they are not overloaded with information.
Feedback and retention
Feedback refers to information a dancer receives before, during or after the execution of a movement about the quality of execution and this is considered a very important factor in the acquisition of motor skill (Reeve, Dornier, & Weeks, 1990). Mirrors can act as a great source of visual feedback by drawing a dancer’s attention to their alignment, body placement and movement pattern (Ehrenberg, 2010). Mirror visual feedback (MVF) is a widely used tool in neurorehabilitation. It has been a promising technique to induce performance enhancements without training (Rjosk, et al., 2016). Studies in MVF have shown to influence functional changes to the motor cortex (Nojima et al.,2012; Hoff et al., 2015; Rein et al., 2015). These studies suggest that continuous visual feedback from the mirror can contribute to enhanced performance because of increased targeting of the primary motor cortex. However, there are limited studies that investigate the effect of mirror feedback on the performance of complex multi-joint movements used in activities such as sports, exercise and dance and the results of such studies are not consistent. Improved performance was observed when mirror feedback was used in the training of Olympic weightlifting techniques (Sewall, Reeve, & Day, 1988) and a Pilates star manoeuvre (Lynch, Chalmers, Knutzen, & Martin, 2009). However, a study conducted by Notarnicola, et al. (2014) among ballet dancers and a study conducted on healthy adults performing single and multi-joint exercises (Halperin, Hughes, Panchuk, Abbiss, & Chapman,2016) showed no difference in performance between those who practised with a mirror and without one. Another study by Radell, Adame and Cole (2003) observed the impact of mirrors on the performance of an adagio and allegro phrase in beginner level ballet dancers. The results revealed that dancers in the non-mirrored environment showed improvement in performing the adagio phrase however there was no difference in the performance of the allegro phrase with and without mirrors. Although the results of these studies are conflicting, the apparent benefits of MVF in rehabilitation and the success of mirror feedback in some of these studies warrant further research in understanding how mirrors can act as an effective source of visual feedback and aid in enhancing a dancer’s performance.
Another interesting consideration in the use of mirrors as feedback is the possible presence of mirror neurons. A study by Gallese, Fadiga, Fogassi, and Rizzolatti (1996) showed the same set of neurons being activated in Macrae monkeys when they performed an action and when they just observed the same action being performed by others. This led to the discovery of mirror-neurons. Ehrenberg (2010) described how a dancer’s mirror image and their kinaesthetic awareness were consistently affected by each other and termed this as the dancer-mirror feedback loop. The discovery of mirror neurons has inspired neuroscientists to explore how dance expertise affects what dancers see (Calvo-Merino, Glaser, Grèzes, Passingham, & Haggard, 2004). The dancer-mirror feedback loop, though theoretical, implies an exchange for the dancer between what a movement kinaesthetically feels like and what the movement looks like in ways that directly contribute to the functioning of the current mirror neuron network (Ehrenberg, 2010) This theoretical concept of dancer-mirror feedback loop requires further investigation that can lead to practical implications.
Alongside processing feedback, dancers should be able to retain the corrections and feedback they receive. There are only a limited number of studies that test the retention of feedback from a mirror among dancers. A study by Dearborn and Ross (2006) on advanced dancers revealed that dancers who practised with a mirror had better retention of the movement after a two-week period. This is in contrast with results from a study conducted on powerlifters (Tremblay & Proteau, 1998). In this study, the powerlifters used a mirror to ensure knee alignment during a lift. It was observed that errors in knee alignment increased by 50% when they performed the squat lift without the mirrors. This indicates that though feedback from a mirror can be useful for corrections, it does not always ensure the retention of these corrections. Although various characteristics such as coordination, attention focus and use of energy change across learning stages, dependence on sensory feedback does not diminish across various stages. That is if visual cues from the mirror are a part of the early stages of training for a dancer, their need for these cues does not diminish as they become more advanced. This is referred to as feedback dependency (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2015). However, there are no current studies that support this dependency in dance training. It is important to conduct further research that tests these dependencies in dancers. This will help dancer practitioners and teachers strategize efficient ways to use mirrors in training.
Focus of attention
A growing body of research in motor learning has demonstrated the importance of focus of attention and at the centre of this discussion is the balance between internal and external focus. Internal focus refers to an individual’s attention being drawn to bodily movements such as joint angles and patterns whereas external focus refers to paying attention to the environment or outcome of the movement (Wulf, Höß, & Prinz, 1998). A dance class encapsulates a variety of external and internal cues to direct the students’ attention. For example, the teacher may provide external cues such as asking students to lift their arms parallel to the floor or provide more internal cues such as acknowledging the relationship between the shoulder and the opposite knee. Many studies have investigated the effects of external and internal focus of attention on sports performance (Wulf, Lauterbach, & Toole, 1999; Wulf, Shea, & Park, 2001). The results of these studies indicate that external focus of attention results in better motor learning and performance when compared to internal focus of attention. A mirror may elicit both internal and external focus of attention from dancers. A mirror can draw a dancer’s focus to specific muscle groups being used in the movement thus eliciting internal focus. Conversely, since the reflection being viewed is external to the self, it may elicit external focus. I always perceived the mirror as an elicitor of external focus. It helped me see the movement from the lens of an audience and drew my attention to the outcome of the sequence. A study conducted by Guss-West and Wulf (2016) supports this view. In this study majority of the dancers perceived the mirror to elicit an external focus of attention. Further, teachers can enable the use of mirrors to elicit external focus through appropriate instructions and cues. This relationship between mirrors and attention focus, if used appropriately can help enhance motor skill acquisition in dancers.
Development of kinaesthetic awareness and proprioception is a crucial aspect of dance performance. This sensory input also plays an important role in motor learning (Krasnow & Wilmerding, 2015) Irrespective of the genre, all the dance classes I have been a part of have emphasised, with varying degree, the need to focus on how the movement feels. Brodie and Lobel (2012) in their book Dance and Somatics stated, “When dancers move with more sensitivity to what is happening within their bodies and with less concern for the external image, their movement will not only become easier, safer, and stronger, it will also afford greater potential for expressiveness as well”. This emphasises the importance of kinaesthetic and proprioceptive development in dancers. Some authors have argued that mirror use can hinder a dancer’s kinaesthetic awareness. Kimmerle and Coˆte´-Laurence (2007) believed that the two-dimensional visual image from the mirror could dominate the dancers’ perceptual attention. Further, Brodie and Lobel (2008) asserted that attending to visual cues could interfere with a dancer’s ability to attend to kinaesthetic cues. Visual information is also shown to capture our attention more quickly and for longer than any other sensory information (Brodie & Lobel, 2008). Hence is it important to have periods of disengagement from the mirror to hone one’s ability to detect and respond to other sensory information.
Although mirrors have been an unquestioned presence in the dance studio for centuries, its uses and applications in dance training have gained a lot of traction in recent years. The current literature encompasses arguments and research that support both the positive and negative effects of mirrors on learning and performance. Although mirrors have the potential to overload the attention capacity of a dancer in a classroom, some studies have shown improved performance as a result of mirror usage. Criticism about the mirror as a hindrance for kinaesthetic awareness may be true but studies have also shown mirrors to be an elicitor of external focus resulting in enhanced motor learning and performance. These contrasting results suggest how a mirror can be a very potent tool in motor learning provided they are used the right way. The use of mirrors can also have a psychological impact on dancers. Constantly looking at one’s body in the mirror can increase self-consciousness and lead to them being overly critical of their looks. Studies have shown that dancers, especially those who were highly skilled felt better about their bodies when being taught without a mirror whereas dancers who were taught with a mirror felt worse about the appearance of their bodies (Radell, Adame, Cole, & Blumenkehl, 2011; Radell, Adame, & Cole, 2002; Radell, 2013). This shows the multidimensional effects a mirror can have in a training environment. Dance educators have the responsibility to understand and consider the impact of mirrors while teaching and strategize effective ways to use them. From personal experience and observation, I have noticed that every dancer develops a unique relationship with the mirror. Therefore, educating dance students about the impact of mirrors and its potential negative effects can be empowering and help dancers in making informed decisions about how they engage with the mirror. As dance practitioners, we must propagate the use of mirrors in ways that will help dancers derive maximum benefit from it.
There is still a scarcity of research on how mirrors impact learning and this provides a multitude of opportunities for future research. Most of the existing studies look at the impact of mirrors in a ballet environment with some studies considering contemporary dance. There is almost no research that looks at mirror use in any other dance genre. Having engaged with mirrors at different stages of learning and across different dance forms, I have observed that my engagement with the mirror has differed from one dance genre to another. More studies considering genre-specific engagement with mirrors can add valuable insight to existing literature. Another interesting consideration would be the gender of dancers. Majority of the existing research has only explored the impact of mirrors on female dancers. Additionally, specific elements of a dance class such as balance, alignment, jump height, etc can be considered while studying the effects of mirror use. In general, more studies with larger sample size and a diverse population along with replication studies are necessary to establish the true impact of mirrors on the development of a dancer.
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Neha Harinath is an Information Science Engineer with a decade of experience in Bharatanatyam, she also practices Contemporary and Belly dance. Neha is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Dance Science and aims to spread more awareness about the best practices in dance and promote a more informed approach to movement.
Neha is passionate about the importance of kinetics and kinesthetics of movement.