I grew up in front of mirrors. Big ones—seven or eight feet up from the baseboards. They covered at least two walls, doubling the population and making even the smallest rehearsal room bigger in our minds. They all smelled of sweat—not jock sweat or fear sweat—but a clean fragrance, like the scent of horses. Like a blindfolded bibliophile in a library, I’d recognize a dance studio even without seeing the mirrors.
Long parallel railings, two, maybe three of them, lined the remaining walls, held in place by sturdy brackets every six feet or so. The barre stood ready to take our weight.
I loved being on stage but in order to get there I stood many hours and many years in front of those mirrors, my hand resting on whichever barre was closest to elbow-height. I watched myself move.
Were my shoulders and hips aligned? Were my knees straight? If they were supposed to be bent, were they directly over my middle toe? My pointed foot—was it straight or curved like a sickle?
The mirror revealed all and overruled my inner sense of where I was in space.
Those mirrors exerted a powerful force on the athletes and esthetes who gazed into them. We constantly looked for weak spots, correcting one to find another in its place.
We grew to depend on our reflections and protested when the teacher made us turn our backs and run the dance one last time. Some of us got lost without visual feedback because we hadn’t paid attention to how the movement felt inside. Now that the positions and movements were correct, we had to hardwire neuron paths into muscle memory.
Others lost themselves to those images differently. They moved from finding fault with their work into finding fault with their bodies, their instruments. That little bulge between my hip and waist—what’s that? Maybe if I skip lunch...
The locker room before the scholarship class at New York’s Ballet Theatre School smelled of vomit like the City’s dark alleys. In the early Seventies, anorexia and bulimia were still medical terms—not part of the lexicon. The School fed into it by having dancers step on an old metal balance scale—making weight—before being allowed into class. Some of us traded reality for distortion in front of the silvered glass.
It changed me too, I guess. I spent my young adult years always wondering how I looked. I caught myself checking my reflection in storefronts. And standing up straighter.
I battled self-consciousness; didn’t know how, really, to be myself. I prayed, then ended up a mother, a nurse and finally, a shepherd. Caring work. No mirrors.
I don’t think of them anymore. My father, on his last visit to our little farm in Illinois, yelled down from upstairs, “Where is a mirror in this house, Suzi?” I had to think. Yes, we had one, on the medicine chest in the bathroom.
It was enough.