The Benefits of Feedback
“I haven't got a clue what you're doing. That's definitely not it.” Those are words said to me as a brand new baby belly dancer and they were not encouraging. I had worked hard to practice what I thought I had been taught the week before and was demonstrating at my teacher's request. You can imagine how completely crushed I felt as I left class that day. In fact I went on to spend a horridly restless night feeling downright depressed because I hadn't got it right and thinking that at age 38 perhaps taking a dance class was rather silly.
However, I had already fallen so deeply in love with belly dance that giving up was not an option. I was doggedly determined to learn as much as possible and to master all the technique that was thrown my way. I spent hours on my own looking up information and videos on the Internet and at the local library and practicing every minute I could with four young boys running around my feet. With classes, practice, time and experience a level of confidence in my ability steadily began to grow.
That said, I am a bit of a perfectionist and I know I have a long way yet to go. I am always looking for ways to improve technique, ability, stage presence and presentation. I believe I have a certain amount of self-awareness re my dance ability and I see good things in other dancers that I try to emulate but I am also aware enough to know there are often little things (or big as the case may be) to which I am completely oblivious that may be holding me back from what I want to achieve. This is where feedback can be beneficial - the right kind of feedback, that is.
Nice but not helpful:
Recently the collective I belong to participated in the Greater Victoria Performing Arts Festival. We felt it would be an excellent way to work on technique, synchronicity, polish and stage presence and receive feedback that would further help us towards those goals. The process of preparation was beneficial but we really didn't get the sort of feedback we were looking for. It's not realistic to expect that the adjudicators know or understand all the various dance forms that are being presented. Nevertheless, coming from dance and performance backgrounds I am expecting that they can give feedback re fluidity of movement, body angles, technique, stage presence, use of stage, etc. For example an adjudicator may not know what an African shimmy, Polynesian hip circle, Hawaiian hela or Arabic 3/4 shimmy are but they ought to be able to tell if someone is moving on the rhythm and with enough fluidity that the movements aren't tense and jerky. It's not really that hard to identify if a body is moving well – no matter what sort of dance they are performing. So you can imagine that receiving comments like “wow, really sparkly,” “you were all smiling so nicely” and “very enticing” are not very helful. Neither is it very encouraging to be told you have great musicality when you realize that other dancers or groups that did NOT demonstrate great musicality (i.e. being off the rhythm several times throughout a performance) has been given the very same compliment.
On the other hand, I was recently at an intensive workshop weekend with Ranya Renee that included personal feedback of performance for all participants who wanted it. Taking workshops and intensives with the aim of improvement is what it's all about after all so how great to come away with specific, personal feedback? Well, in for a pound, in for a penny, I say! As a group we all agreed to the feedback being given in front of the group – much like what happens when being adjudicated on Festival stage.
Receiving Personal Feedback in front of a Group:
This can often be beneficial for those listening. Some comments made can be generally applied to all performers so one can be reminded of skills and strengths already possessed or might need some attention. On the other hand it can be a daunting experience for the individual receiving the feedback. Just getting on a stage to entertain can be a vulnerable experience if you are wholly invested in your work. To then have a critique of your work in front of others can heighten that sense of vulnerability.
Receiving Private Personal Feedback:
We all like “good news” when it comes to our abilities and talents but most of us would rather hear the “bad news” in a situation where we don't feel overly exposed. Consequently, discussing one's performance one on one might be the preferred method of receiving feedback for the majority.
Receiving feedback from Ranya Renee was educational for those of us performing in the Oriental or Egyptian style since that is her base of knowledge. It was also useful in the sense that her feedback was specific for each individual re presentation, technique, stage presence, interpretation of music, overall fluidity, appropriate costuming and use of stage. Conversely, some of her remarks could be considered subjective as in commenting on her like/dislike of costume, costume colour, makeup colour, jewellery or hair accessories, music choice, dance style (Oriental vs Fusion) or interpretation of style (i.e. modern vs old school Egyptian).
Personally, I feel it is very important when critiquing, to point out some positives and strengths along with observations about the negatives and weaknesses. Focusing on only two or three of the most glaring areas that need improvement is also a good rule. Being bombarded with every little thing that is wrong can be so overwhelming that a person is left defeated enough to give up. Unfortunately, there were a few popular and accomplished performers at the Ranya Renee intensive who went away from the critique experience not having been given even one positive comment. It should never be assumed by the person giving the feedback that if the performer is mostly, really good, that positive comments are not necessary.
Further, constructive criticism should give the individual references, suggestions and means to (1) acquire what may be lacking, (2) improve areas of weakness and (3) encouragement to keep working.
Finally, though it's important to be realistic in assessing one's own or another's abilities, always remember many great and amazing feats have been accomplished by some who were not considered skillful, talented or knowledgeable enough to be successful.
May 10, 2012