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Q&A – Self-Critique: Artists Are Never Satisfied

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keep-calm-its-self-evaluation-time-3It’s the new year! Happy 2016 everyone.

With the new year comes that (sometimes) dreaded word: resolutions! I have never been a fan of this hot button word. It always carries with it the threat of failing to meet your on expectations. I say FIE! to that. Instead, I like to think of the new year as an opportunity to just do a little self-check-in. I meditate a bit about if some of the things I wanted for myself in the past year came to fruition, think about why or why not, and then set a few loose goals or let old goals go. What served me last year may not serve me now. What I thought was important maybe wasn’t as important after all. The changing of the year is just an opportunity to take stock. So it seemed a perfect time to write up this Q&A on self-critique. Enjoy!


A student asks…


“I’m currently trying to find the fine line between helpful self-critique and genuinely being too hard on myself. How do you critique yourself without ripping into yourself and ending up discouraged? It’s hard stuff!” 


Shay says…

I think one of the marks of an artist is never being satisfied. There is a long standing debate over the difference between art and craft. I know many craftspeople who are content to turn out the same thing again and again–this is not a judgment of their ability, but more about what moves them. The work moves them, and they find joy in tracing the same lines each day with great care.

By contrast, an artist is rarely content to draw the same line twice, but is just as critical in assessing the quality of the result.  In dance, we draw on the same skills (the same moves, the same ability to hear and interpret the music, etc), but the art is in making each expression unique from the last, while ever improving and changing the result.  If we were craft dancers, we would likely make a handful of choreographies and just hone them until we were satisfied and then perform them ad inifnitum.  But artist dancers are always pushing to find something new to try, to explore, to express. Whether it be in choreographed expressions which are tweaked and remixed with frequency (or replaced by new choreographies frequently), or in improvisational forms which truly are different every single time by their nature…part of the art experience lies in never being fully satisfied. That’s why we artists are called “hungry”–we never rest on full creative bellies, we always have a grumbly in the tumbly!

If this sounds exhausting, I will be honest and say it can be. If this sounds intimidating, I will be honest and say it should be. But the best things in life take hard work, commitment, and courage. Being an artist is a uniquely rewarding experience because it all these things and more.

To the constructive suggestion bit; namely, how do you self-critique without tearing yourself up? This takes practice, too. But there are some tools you can use along the way.

One is to start with a mentor’s critique. A great student comes from great teachers. And hopefully you have one you can ask about your current progress and help with goal-setting. If you don’t currently have a mentor you feel you can have this conversation with, are there any professionals out there you feel you could reach out through e-mail and inquire if they have some sort of mentoring or evaluation offering? Some will look at a video and offer written critique, some for free and some for a fee. It never hurts to ask.

I offer my performing students a guided self-evaluation if they request it. I have a worksheet I give them to take home to fill out, then when they are ready, we meet over coffee and discuss their self-evaluation observations with me adding any additional commentary as appropriate. Students can also request the sheet and choose not to go through a guided evaluation, but I encourage them to make a date with me so they can have a sounding board for their thoughts and can pick my brain for ideas about how to work through any sticky parts and push forward in their dance. It becomes a helpful tool for both of us–collectively as a student-teacher relationship, but also individually as they become better at self-critique, and I can work toward becoming a better mentor by hearing and responding to a student’s needs and possibly unspoken triumphs and frustrations.

Secondly, create your own evaluation criteria. What do YOU think is important in a performance? Write down a few ideas about what is important in dance performance. Start to organize these ideas into categories, such as presentation, musicality, use of space, costuming, etc. Think both external and internal attributes; such as a relaxed facial expression on stage as an external as compared to staying calm and focused during a performance as an internal attribute. Both of these might call under a “stage presence” category for you.

For further ideas, doing some searches for bellydance competition criteria may yield some additions or tweaks to your list. Here are a few links that were active as of this writing:

Here is a very generic judging sheet, with little detail, but a decent starting point for categories.




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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.

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