Recently I found myself thinking back to when I was a gymnast and I realised we never trained with mirrors. The exception would be our weekly ballet class, where we learnt what lines looked good and which didn't and how that corresponded to how it felt in our bodies and brains to produce those lines. Ultimately mirrors are a tool to teach body awareness; a step along the way to gaining a more full picture of what is is to control your body.
I take for granted now, as a teacher of mostly adults, how little we were taught to depend on mirrors. I've particularly begun to notice the effect this dependency on mirrors is having on performers. Whether it's seeing performers on stage who look like their training and don't know how to connect with an audience looking back at them or watching ‘performance’ videos on social media where the person is just watching themselves in the mirror the whole time. I've found myself recently being quite turned off and disconnected from these kinds of videos, because the camera is the lens the viewer looks through and yet it rarely gets acknowledged. This goes hand in hand with another one of my mantras which is ‘You perform how you train’ - but I digress.
As a teacher I use mirrors, especially with new students, but increasingly I question why that is my practice. As a gymnast I couldn't possibly perform a beam routine whilst checking if my leg was straight in a mirror! How did we develop such consistent body tension and control, such acute awareness of a slightly bent knee? We developed this sense because we trained WITHOUT visual feedback. It heightened OTHER senses, namely something called proprioception, or the ability to perceive the position of joints and limbs in space. For example - most of us can imagine straightening our leg and what that looks like. But how does it feel? Which muscles are used and in what way? I can't tell you how many times I've told a student to point their feet (Ok maybe I yelled it) and they've responded "I thought I was!" Now, granted the more extensive your training, the more highly developed this sense becomes and the reality is that a slight sickle here or there will go unnoticed by most viewers, however it's the process of gaining that awareness, at whatever level, that both fascinates and challenges me as a teacher. So as a student, how can you develop better proprioception? Simply put, any exercise that blocks or reduces the use of sight or balance, will enhance this particular skill.
A great example is closing your eyes and trying to train a simple movement or body position that wouldn't normally require any use of vision. I often close my eyes before I invert because for me, that is a skill I can literally do 'with my eyes closed'. Closing my eyes taught me to maintain a neutral position with my head as I inverted (chucking your head back is a common mistake) as without sight, there was no reason to look to the ceiling as I inverted. I know what it feels like to engage my core, pull my shoulders slightly back and down, close off my ribs, rotate externally from the hips and I know when I've arrived in an upside down position and when to balance out my straddle to execute the same invert over and over again. From there I can play with it creatively - bend one leg, or put some different sort of physicality into it like making it look like it's a struggle for example or changing the speed at different points throughout the invert. All these things make me more versatile as a performer.
Personally I like the term 'aerial IQ' - for me that means the ability to think "off your feet" so to speak, an awareness of both your body's' form and position in space and in essence, the language of your body. Creatively, as a teacher who is fundamentally elite but also passionate about performance, that's where the magic starts - because if you're in control and aware of your body's shape and positioning, then you can start to tell a story with your skills, not simply execute tricks. Replicating a skill as it should be done however is the first step to honing your proprioceptive ability. In the same way as doctors learn anatomy from the perspective of 'what's normal' in order to diagnose when something is not right, good performers benefit from a solid foundation of how the basics should be executed. By weaning yourself off the use of mirrors you will more easily master control over your body by training your proprioception.