Towards Effective Criticism: Motivating Positive Change
When and Where
It can be argued that there are essentially two kinds of criticism: effective and ineffective. This would almost be heresy in the literature field, but for us as dance teachers I believe it is fairly accurate. Though we may differ widely from English professors in terms of our “critical theory,” there is one thing we share with them as soon as we call ourselves “teachers” or “dance coaches:” that is the necessity to correct and guide, as part of our role. Any writing teacher who did not correct a student’s faulty subject-verb agreement would not be doing his/her job. Likewise we must, as teachers of dance, earnestly try to guide students to desirable uses and methods, or we are not doing our jobs; we are not teachers. We must also do this effectively. How to apply effective criticism—criticism that produces in the student the desire for positive change, rather than criticism that does not—is of interest to us whether we teach seminars, community center classes, private lessons, do video coaching or are asked by friends, “How was my performance? Give me some pointers.” The same methods can be applied when a sponsor asks for feedback on an event. Though what to change or amend would be situational, differ with each person and type of dance and fill volumes, within the scope of this article we can, perhaps, develop a good understanding of the type of correction that produces positive results—for the giver and the receiver.
An examination of the question “When is it appropriate for us to give criticism, and who are our recipients?” is worth our time. When we give criticism, rather than opinions, we are stepping into a professional capacity. We are implicitly taking on, for a moment, an instructive role. Recalling this will help restrain us from inappropriate, or undesired, criticism. Each time you are tempted to give an unrequested critique of a dancer, ask yourself, “Would my stepping into an instructor’s role, or even a pseudo-instructor’s role, with this dancer be acceptable? Would it be accepted by them?” You may save yourself and other people unnecessary stress.
One seminar instructor I knew, who did go through a program of specialized training that might have been useful in any number of respects, approached a troupe and informed them that she could help them with their problems. She was taken aback and outraged at their response: a “No thanks,” which firmly rebuffed her offer. Though she was surprised, their response is readily understandable if one considers that she sought them out, rather than the reverse, and that her approach implicitly declared that they had problems, which she proposed to solve. What to her was a generous offer of hope was to them an unsolicited negative comment on their abilities by someone they had not engaged, or apparently regarded, as a possible mentor.
Results are far more effective and beneficial if there is mutual acknowledgment that one person may be in a role similar to an instructor’s, mentor’s or expert’s and the other may be in the role of learner or receiver of instruction. It may even be safest to have these roles formally defined. Certainly in the case of someone taking lessons, or paying a professional for feedback, the roles are clear. Some in fact argue that acknowledging the value of professional input with payment is only appropriate, and should be the case whenever thoughtful critiquing is desired: it is essentially a form of consultation, and “real world” consultants, when their input and knowledge are desired, are paid for their time. This question could be argued on a case-by-case basis till the end of time; it may suffice here to point out the mantles that fall on each set of shoulders when one person offers criticism and another receives.
What about criticism that is inherently and exclusively positive and encouraging? Where does the role of fan overlap with that of critiquer? Does one need to worry about unconsciously stepping into mentoring roles here? Perhaps not; a simple statement such as “You have such depth of feeling in your taxims” seems both harmless and without role connotations: it could as easily come from an adoring fan as a highly educated source (and the two are not mutually exclusive).
However, as soon as a recommendation is attached one needs to be careful of delivery and receipt: “You have such lovely, flowing hands—why don’t you study Persian to incorporate more hand movements?” seems safe enough. It is possible, however, for some people to hear only the part that suggests they need to enhance or add variety to their hand movement, and not that their hand movement is good already.
Consider a similar statement: “You have such a beautiful veil piece—I wish you had done that longer.” Hearing the alternate possibility rather than the simple compliment on veil—that the veil might have been preferable to other sections, which were not beautiful—can be more understandable in this format. Perhaps, if the dancer hears the non-compliment instead of the compliment, she will determinedly work harder on her drum solo or other portions of her dance and benefit. Or perhaps she will simply be hurt and depressed, and work on neither, or drop sections that might actually have been as solid as or more impressive than her veil, and only perform veil. One instance of actually hurting someone is not retractable, nor replaceable by a thousand glowing compliments to others, and not worth it. Awareness of the power that criticism can wield, even when it is unintended or misinterpreted, is worth thought. Clarity, then, is something to cultivate, even in simple compliments; and even more so, in critiques.
This leads to another consideration: the variability in what people hear, and in their openness to critiquing. While these things might make critiquing a stranger risky, it seems that someone in the position of student is surely a different matter: after all, placing oneself in the position of student is in a sense agreeing to correction and critique. Whenever we take a class in composition, we are essentially submitting our work for critique as part of the learning process; when we take dance from someone—in a seminar, in class, in private lessons—are we not expecting some correction and criticism as well? Ideally, this is true and is acknowledged by all. Realistically, however, people have varying personality types, confidence levels, backgrounds and other factors. Even presuming that all dancers want to get better, not just be praised, our attempt to produce positive change via criticism and correction can be filtered through all these things. We as teachers need to realize this. In the interest of indicating how much background and personality type can affect the incoming message of criticism, I’d like to tell the stories of two dancers.
I have a beautiful friend I’ll call Freesia. Freesia is lovely, aristocratic, gracious. She has great self-confidence, a supportive family and fans, and has had career successes in many areas of life. By the time she came to this dance, she had come up in much more stringent and critical forms: concert piano, ballet and flamenco, where unsparing criticism is commonplace. Freesia asks for criticism, and honestly loves to receive it, as she sees it strictly as a useful tool for improving, and she works continually and passionately to improve. She is also quite capable of perceiving and tossing out the inaccurate or ill-intended comments. Having this point of view, when she offers criticism she means it in the same sincere and helpful way.
Consider, however, her friend Wisteria. Wisteria began in a benign environment, and was originally very trusting, but moved to an area where there were many hostilities between dancers. Dancers would offer spontaneous critical comments to hurt other dancers: to unsettle them before or after a show, to outright injure them, to “take them down a notch” and establish their own dominance, to goad them into actions which might get them fired. Some even went so far as to deliberately compliment steps or costumes that weakened a performance, and put down steps or costumes that strengthened it, in the hopes of weakening their “competitors.” Even one of Wisteria’s friends and fellow students, who was not succeeding as much as Wisteria, one day made a comment about Wisteria’s technique in class. The ability to find fault with that particular technique of Wisteria’s made her classmate feel “better” and on a higher level than Wisteria.
Wisteria, then, came to see criticism as a tool used to wound, not assist, and, whenever someone spontaneously offered criticism, it raised questions for her of their motivation and character—and raised old hurts and questions about her own ability, which, unlike Freesia, she had no support group to validate. Wisteria was as serious about improvement as Freesia, but given this background, she found that in order to receive criticism that would help her grow, she needed to be able to choose to receive it, and carefully choose those mentors whose delivery she could be at ease with. Since she was aware of her own issues regarding criticism, she was very attentive to possible issues in giving it.
Wisteria and Freesia, both students as well as teachers of Middle Eastern dance, obviously represent opposite ends of a range in terms of openness to, and comfort with, criticism. One might say that in assuming the role of student, each agrees to accept criticism from the teacher; yet it is obvious that the same critical comment may have a remarkably different effect on each dancer. Our classes are composed of students who may, in their receptiveness to criticism, run the gamut from Freesia to Wisteria. As teachers we are obligated, just as writing teachers are, to correct certain things. How, then, can we provide necessary criticism in a way that will be as effective for the Wisterias as it is for the Freesias? Are there methods that will work well for all possible personalities in any capacity?
As it turns out, there are certain methods that are broadly effective. They do not spare getting the job done, but they do not alienate the more fragile students, either. Though many examples will be drawn from bodywork, similar situations could be produced in other cases such as stage position, ethnic “looks,” or any number of other topics.
One approach is to either differentiate or distance the lesson from the particular student, or to generalize it. An example of the first approach is one that is already in use by several instructors. I call it “Picture A vs. Picture B.” This approach demonstrates the desirable and undesirable versions of a step on the instructor’s body—not on that of any student. It does require that the instructor be very clear in her own body on the difference between the two versions. The instructor demonstrates one version—for instance, the undesirable one—and terms it “Picture A.” (S)he then demonstrates the desirable version as “Picture B” and asks the students which one looks better and why.
It can be important, in this approach, to make students feel at ease with tossing out suggestions, rather than putting them on the spot. If this is achieved, the “why” is often useful in producing varied articulations of the components that contribute to desirable (or undesirable) technique. It is a truism that one way of making the same statement may register better with one student than another, so multiple articulations may have a broader “reach.” If no one tosses out the fundamental difference, the teacher can lead them towards it or supply it. The teacher can also state what particular differences in steps “say.” For example, dropping the elbows in a certain way in a shoulder shimmy may “say,” body-language-wise, “Hey, baby, come and get it!” or something similar. Elevating the elbows to a different level may “say” something more regal or, at the least, reserved! Students can then decide what they want to “say.” This does, of course, require the teacher to be knowledgeable in this area.
The effectiveness of this approach lies in the clear and obvious contrast between the desirable and undesirable versions: the students can see exactly why the desirable method is being encouraged, and what a difference it makes, instead of just being told to employ it. In addition, the generality of the lesson ensures that everyone notes the effectiveness of good technique while avoiding singling out a student in a way that might not be effective. How many times have we been urged by instructors to pay attention to someone else’s question or problem, even if we are not having any difficulty with that subject, because we can still learn something from it? This approach facilitates such learning without the loss of interest in “someone else’s problem.”
What this method lacks in its distancing, however, is the experiential component. For example, from a bodywork perspective, there is a great deal of information to be obtained by actually feeling the difference in movement produced by a desirable versus an undesirable position. In this sense the “A versus B” technique is incomplete. Adding another method, which is also directed non-specifically to the whole group, can produce a further learning experience, one in which, again, everyone learns from “someone else’s problem” why a certain technique should be so—but they actually feel why, as well as seeing.
One often-utilized cornerstone of Dr. Paul Linden’s Being in Movement approach, in which I am currently obtaining my certification, and one of my own independently developed principles is, as I will state it: “Make it bad or worse first.” Why would anyone do that? For four simple but powerful reasons. The first is that feeling how, for example, an undesirable position affects the body both in general (compression, restriction, etc.) and in a dance movement adds personal, kinesthetic, sensory information to why one does not assume this position. Having the student then reverse what they did to assume the undesirable posture, and reach the desirable posture, provides the other half of the kinesthetic information: what feels better about the desirable posture.
The second reason one would pursue the approach of having students deliberately produce the undesirable behavior or position is that it may raise their awareness regarding issues such as body mechanics, breath, imagery, stage position or other constructs that are demonstrable by contrasting “worse” and “better.” The third reason is that, in addition to simply raising their awareness regarding one item, this method can give them “meta-knowledge,” a method or principle to employ in checking themselves outside the classroom: “Try it one way and then the other.” This is the equivalent of the old principle, “Give a man a fish and you feed him once; teach him to fish, and he can feed himself.” Students have a possible means to self-critiquing, experimentation and correction for those cases where they can discern opposing possibilities.
The fourth, and perhaps least obvious, but possibly most essential motivation behind “making it worse,” is that a dancer’s (or anyone’s) movement habits and choices are not necessarily perceptible to her/him: they just feel “normal.” If, for example, a dancer habitually and constantly arches her back, she may perceive that the teacher’s back is arched—but never perceive that her own is; the arch is just “normal,” and a further arch is “arched.” So long as it is physically safe, moving students into an undesirable position for a movement not only makes it clear why that position is not ideal, but how they reach it. Once they have the mechanism for reaching it, they can discern the mechanism for reversing it. Further and further “reversal” can ultimately identify the more workable position where, for instance, compression disappears, range of movement increases, or the dance step feels more precise, grounded or centered.
Even if the student finds that the new position does not feel “usual” or “normal,” (s)he cannot argue with its workability, its increased effectiveness. Effectiveness and comfort are far stronger and more appealing arguments for change than negative input and “don’ts.”
It is generally acknowledged, in fact, that negative criticism—especially by itself—is not particularly effective, and/or not as effective as positive feedback. Certainly if all a dancer receives is negative feedback—“don’t do that”—it is possible that (s)he will conclude that (s)he “isn’t good at” the dance in general, and develop that expectation, not try, or give up on dancing altogether. Consider which case motivates you more: one where you are only told everything you are doing wrong, or one where you are told you have real talent, or particular skills, or have done several things very well, as well as what you may need to correct? In some situations, by their nature—a video critique of a dancer who has requested one from you, for example—the general, whole-class-oriented methods described above are not applicable. Demonstration on the instructor’s or critiquer’s body may also be impractical. In this case, one-to-one methods that work are called for.
One of these methods is a simple formula: for every correction you must administer, include two or even three positive comments. Juxtapose them in exactly that combination—don’t put all the negative in one series of lumped comments and all the positive in another. In addition, use the word “still” sparingly, and avoid the words “however” and “but”—they can invalidate the positive. “You have nice, crisp hip articulation and a delightful mischievous look on stage, but you drop your elbows too much when you do shoulder shimmies,” comes off quite differently than “You have nice, crisp hip articulation. You also have a delightful mischievous look on stage. You drop your elbows too much when you do shoulder shimmies.” Even better is to state any correction in positive terms rather than negative ones: “You will want to keep your elbows higher during your shoulder shimmies.” This much in itself can go a long way towards motivational, effective criticism. However, there are still positive improvements that can be made.
I was fortunate enough to discover a key to these further improvements when studying the Alexander Technique. Both my instructors were working with things as fundamental as posture and movement. Correction would be essential to changing either, certainly—and yet, these were the most positive classes I had ever experienced. I always came out feeling great, I never came out feeling I had anything “bad”—habit, behavior, or flaw. Surely, if I were moving towards better posture and movement, my old posture and movement must be in some sense “wrong”— yet I never felt any intimation of this. I began to pay attention to how change was approached and suggested, to see how this was possible.
I found that both instructors used phrases such as, “Now, what if we tried this?” “What about if we just added this?” “Let’s see what happens if we just change this?” and “How about this? How does that feel?” Never a “one right way” person by nature, I found that I was beginning to regard postures, movements, approaches as different choices, as more effective or less effective, not as “right or wrong.” I began to regard a single movement habit versus new, alternative options as having one choice or multiple choices, respectively. It was not that one habit might be inarguably “wrong” but that it was more preferable and flexible to have more than one option. Increasingly, I began to apply the same way of looking at things to my dance teaching, to my students, to steps and techniques I believed were in need of correction. I began to see them in a new way.
The heart of what I am advocating in terms of criticism is based upon the effectiveness of this sort of approach. It demands a change in vision from the teacher or the professional critiquer, as much as, or even more so than, changes in behavior from the student: given the former, my experience suggests, the latter will be far more likely. The fundamental thought is this: when we correct, are we introducing new things, trying, adding to a student’s options? Or just deleting? Are we adding improvement to or modifying a base that is, in at least some senses even in the newest beginners, already acceptable—or are we only slapping them on the wrist for each point that doesn’t match “the” right way?
If you see your role as opening a new way, adding to a base, demonstrating new options, guiding them to explore changes that might be more effective, your tone, your approach, your very language will differ. Consider: is the student doing hip lifts when the choreography calls for hip drops doing something “wrong” or just “different?” What if, instead of “It’s not a hip lift, it’s a hip drop,” the statement were “Now, you’re doing hip lifts; I’m doing something different. Hip lifts are useful, but what I’m doing is…”
Is the beginner who produces a hip slide when trying to do a rib cage slide doing the “wrong” step or just a different one? What if, instead of “No, it’s not in the hips, it’s up here,” the message was “You’re doing hip slides, which is a movement we’ll certainly use. I’m doing something different right now though. Let me show you where this comes from.”
How about this: is the “only correct” way to do a “maya” movement (vertical downward pelvis or hip figure eight) flatfooted—or is it more advantageous to have two ways to do it, to be able to do it flatfooted as well as by lifting the heels? Is dropping the elbows in a shoulder shimmy “just wrong,” producing a vulgar look—or might it be useful to produce that vulgar look during a comic character piece? Is a student’s kneeling crotch-towards-the-audience “bad”—or just something they may not want to say, once they realize what it says? “That says x—do you want to say that?”
Let’s go back and look at the “two positive plus one negative” formula with this new viewpoint. The original statements might then become “You have nice, crisp hip articulation. You also have a delightful mischievous look on stage. I wonder if we could just play with something? Would you start a shoulder shimmy for me? Good. Now, what if we just tried moving your elbows up…here, and let your hands float out here? Good. How does that seem? How does it look?” It would also be possible to use the “making it worse” technique, in the same noncommittal manner: “Just for fun, let’s try moving your elbows down here. There. What does that do across your chest—or through your body in general? Now let’s move them up and see what that does…”
Play. Suggest. Add. Try. Experiment. “Just for fun, let’s…” What if? Isn’t that what we’re really doing, in the end? Isn’t that what we’re here to do? “How does that work for you?”
Shakira teaches and performs internationally, drawing on 20 years’ experience in Middle Eastern dance. Her background also includes four years of medical school and several years’ study of the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and Dr. Paul Linden’s Being in Movement. In conjunction with Dr. Linden and Dr. Venable of the Ohio State University Dance Department, Shakira developed a methodology which incorporates movement awareness and bodywork approaches in teaching Middle Eastern dance. Shakira dedicates this article to her movement teachers and to the memory of Zingara of Lexington, Kentucky, who taught her something she will always remember. firstname.lastname@example.org.