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Teaching/learning to take criticism…

posted in: advice, musings, Teaching | 3

Criticism really is a double-edged sword. It can be so hard to hear, and so difficult to parse into something motivating. Yet as performers, it is part of our job to do just that. From an early age I studied theater and dance, and it was always parroted in my ear to “get a thick skin”. The implication was that we eventually develop some kind of emotional armor where criticism just bounces off and we ignore it. But that is not a productive or wise way to approach criticism, because critique can be a tool to bettering ourselves. Shutting it out is counter-productive on every level. A better approach is to learn how to let the constructive information in, and leave the emotional reaction at the gates.

“Constructive criticism is criticism kindly meant that has a goal of improving some area of another person’s life or work. Often constructive criticism refers specifically to the critique of someone else’s written or artistic work, in perhaps a teacher/student setting, that would allow that person to further improve the work or to improve their approach to future endeavors.” (Wisegeek.com )

Ah if only all criticism were “kindly meant”! But for now, let’s focus our energies on these kinds of criticisms: honestly constructive critiques from our mentors, close peers, family, and friends.

As a teacher in class, for instance, my job is not to just to pat everyone on the back and spread “pixie dust”. My job is also to examine what each dancer is doing, and try to understand how I can help them reach a new level in their skills. That part isn’t necessarily the hard part! The hard part is finding ways of conveying this information to each individual student in a way that is non-threatening, encouraging, clear, and as concise as possible–in most cases, I only see and talk to students within their one or two hours of class each week, and I have anywhere from 15 to 25 students in a given class to watch and work with.

In a sea of different personalities and emotional landscapes to navigate, I have had my share of missteps to be sure–some of which were a result of my ineffective language, some were a result of a delicate ego on the part of the student, and some were some space in between. But overall, I find the biggest reason why honest and “kindly meant” critique created sensitivity or hurt egoes had to do with working with adults who have not grown up in an environment of constructive criticism. Instead of being prepared for and open to hearing constructive feedback and converting it into motivational information and energy, they grew up (especially as girls) hearing the tired old addage “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” So when they hear anything that seems “negative” or any appraisal that is less than “kudos!”, they are not conditioned to hear it in the light it is intended–a genuine desire to help them succeed.

One technique I employ as a teacher is the ever-successful “feedback sandwich”! That is the idea that you give a student two pieces of positive feedback on what was more successful in their attempts, and sandwiched in the middle is your thoughts on anything less successful. For instance, I may walk up to a new student who is struggling with an up figure 8. I might say, “Wow, you have really good extension there–great flexibility! Be careful that is doesn’t twist–you might want to try making it a little smaller to prevent that. Even done smaller, your beautiful smoothness and control is really going to shine through. Keep rockin’ it!” See what I did there? 🙂 In just a few short phrases–the span of less than a minute–I was able to compliment a student on her strengths, and deliver some advice on how to improve in the mix, managing to leave her with something to work toward and improve…with a smile. The positive feedback makes the critical feedback more palatable. This is a great tool to use for beginner students, but when we start to get into upper levels, where more experienced and serious students are moving more swiftly and at a deeper level, less hand-holding is called for. But even the most advanced students can have a “thin skin”, and while my task as mentor does not change, the tools I employ must shift.

The extended task at hand for me as a teacher is to create an atmosphere of safety and openness, where the culture is one of both support and constructive discussion. Just teaching technique is not enough if when I come around to give correction and suggestions the student is unable to hear me and use the information to their benefit. Of course, trying to find time within the space of 60 minutes to teach students how to absorb the information when I, as is said in the theater, “give notes” is difficult at best.

In my upper level classes I am just now starting to get a handle on how to incorporate peer-driven critique into our weekly classes. The intention here is to help them be on both sides of the equation–not just hearing feedback, but learning how to give it. And in doing so, be able to relate better to those who give them critique–to understand that it can be delivered with the sincerest intention to support and help fellow dancers reach their potential. As an example, we may run through a mock-performance situation, and at the end instead of delivering my observations immediately, I will ask them, “So! Feedback. What was more successful? What was less successful?” I am inviting them to comment from their perspective what might need improvement and what felt really good. This process helps the students examine their dance on a more granular level–not just a broad “did it look okay?”, but to dig into more detailed individual elements, and determine how successful or not these elements were in achieving the overall intended result.

In being able to communicate their own strengths and weaknesses, spoken aloud and discussed together with their peers, rather than just self-talk (which we also put a lot of unnecessary filters on, but that is another article) or sitting back and being told by someone else; they begin to open their eyes to new possibilities and broaden their understanding of how to make better choices in future endeavors. And as a bonus, through speaking to one another, they gather their collective energy as a student body and together create a safe space for future discussion and critique. Frankly, I find that a good 99% of the time, by allowing them to speak first, they immediately identify the problem areas I would have mentioned. And by allowing them to acknowledge and speak this information in their own words empowers them to make changes on their own, rather than relying on me to push them in one direction or another. After all, isn’t my goal to create independently thoughtful and creative artists, and not just automatons who blithely bend to my will? In my estimation, what works for now in my classes is that through learning to deliver good feedback, engaging in discussion and debate of ideas, and seeing the positive results of hearing a different perspective, dancers are more open to receiving it and using it to our advantage.

As someone who has oft been accused of being “opinionated” (as if it were a dirty word *sigh*) for daring to speak critically in a world of “don’t say anything at all”, I appreciated this article posted in The Gilded Serpent in early in 2009, which discusses how to accept criticism and the role of criticism in a dancer’s growth. Check it out:

“As I glance back in time, it seems that the finest teaching I have received in both the arts and sciences came directly from those rare individuals who cared enough about their subject to be opinionated about it.”

“Without feedback, a performer can go along her merry way for years, confidently repeating a “stock performance” that is acceptable but not outstanding, substandard but without reprisals, un-inspired but not without applause! Without constant criticism, it is possible to believe that one has accomplished a satisfying and worthwhile career in dance and yet, blithely missing the pinnacles.”
Thorn of the Rose:
Making Friends with Criticism
by Najia Marlyz

The author additionally shared an exchange with a student dancer, who was seeking advice on how to deal with poorly worded feedback from her teacher, and her resulting feelings of vulnerability and hurt ego as a result. Some of the analogies are a little harsher than I think are necessary to drive the point home, but I think the overall article has some really good points:

“As a dancer and especially a dance student, you have to put yourself “out there” and not be afraid of judgment, scorn, admiration, derision, laughter, mimicry, etc. Didn’t your Mama tell you that all life’s really good stuff comes with a price?

What is wrong with our form of dance today is a direct result of the current trend for treating dance students as if they were in therapy or grade school (or both).”

“By holding one’s tongue, when, in fact, a teacher should speak up with constructive criticism, she/he does nobody any favors and perpetuates the student’s errors. “
Enduring Open Criticism:
A Student’s Question about Feeling Humiliated

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Shay Moore is the director and primary instructor at Deep Roots Dance in Seattle, WA. She loves writing, movies, costuming, knitting, cooking, and bellydance to the moon and back again; and loves her amazing husband and doggies even more than that.

3 Responses

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    Oh Shay, love! Eternal thanks for this! I really really appreciate your sharing experiences and knowledge. This is super helpful for me right now.
    I have a hard struggle between soft-criticism and corrections with no fluff. I don’t feel like the troupe hears the former at all. Only the latter seems to get through, which makes me sound like a bitch. I end up having to be pretty curt to see any recognition and ackowledgement of corrections.
    Oh, the woes of doing what we love most huh?
    Thanks Shay you rock. I’ll probably read this a couple times over, and come back to it often!

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    Shay Moore
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    Carrie darling, I am so glad it was helpful. It is something I am still working on, and may never get “right”, but am trying!

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    Great post.

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