Sunday, 17 May 2015

Become a top bellydance critic in 5 easy steps!

It was a happy coincidence last week, when shortly after writing the first installment of this pair, that I came across this article. It conveys an artist's frustration towards people who wish to offer constructive criticism in the wake of a performance. There are 2 types of post-performance feedback, only one is a reasonable choice.

The first is the criticism mentioned above. Don't go there. Even if you are the performer's official high critique officer, you need to let the dust settle. Don't kill the post performance high, or fuel the adrenaline fueled anxiety. I am usually rock steady before I perform, but I get nervous afterwards, dwelling on every perceived shortcoming. What I need at that point is someone to tell me I did OK, not a technical breakdown of the minutiae I need to work on!

The last, and only acceptable immediately post-performance feedback is brief, authentic and positive.

"I really enjoyed your dance tonight, your expression touched me". " I just wanted to say your performance was spectacular! Your choreography is really innovative"

All that said however, good, constructive feedback is a vital tool for any dancer who wants to get better. As teachers, mentors and peers we are often in the position to provide this, and help our fellow dancers strive for the next level. This is an enormous responsibility, so now lets look at a few things to help you along your way.

Metaphorical stock photo.

Are you sure you are the right person to do this?

OK, so the feedback police aren't going to cart you away, but to do justice to your fellow dancer's work, the first thing you need to do is decide whether this is the right route to be taking.

The first clue that you are in a good place to be giving critique, is that you have been asked. See, I said this was going to be easy! Critique has to be welcome, or you are wasting both your time. You don't always have to be asked, you can offer, and don't be downhearted if they decline, there's a lot of reasons why this might happen, few are personal. If, for instance, a dancer is working on the piece under the guidance of a particular teacher, seeking feedback from a third party mid-process can cause them to lose focus.

The next thing to consider is whether you have the technical/artistic understanding to give the kind of feedback in question. Do you understand the style well enough to know whether a move is executed with the appropriate nuances? If not, then perhaps focus on another angle that you feel you can comment upon with authority. Not sure if you can? Here is my acid test:

a) Can you see what they are doing right? 

If you can't find something to positively comment on the perhaps take a step back.

b) When you see that something is "wrong" or sub-optimal, can you clearly explain what they would need to do to improve or correct it? 

There is absolutely no point in calling attention to a problem if you cannot offer a solution.

That's in bold because it's important. It is absolutely crushing to be told something is not right but be given no hope of overcoming it. The perceived flaw becomes a part of the dancer's self-identity, a ball and chain that they feel they are stuck with, and then it becomes even harder to work through, even under proper guidance.

Consider your bearing towards the dancer, can you give fair critique? Do you have a vested interest in their progress? I have met teachers who teach for financial or egotistical reasons, and I have met those who teach because they genuinely want to help others get better. Those teachers, the ones who are not threatened by the "risk" of a student who might get better even than themselves, those who get a kick out of sharing their students' triumphs, are the ones I would book a private lesson with and gladly trust to take my dance apart and put it back together. 

The last point is one of etiquette. If you are in a dance class, and you are not the teacher, you are never the right person to give feedback. Apart from being really rude, you are likely to be disrupting the teacher's carefully considered plan for that student's progress.

If you aren't sure if you are the right person for the job, that's fine. It's better to take a step back and say so, than to thrash around in the dark. It is a really helpful and supportive thing to be able to say "you deserve more than I have to give".

Is this the right time?

A time and a place for everything. I said last week that processing critique is hard and today I've said that immediately after a performance is not the time to get the most out of it.

A dancer once advised me to wait a few weeks after a performance before watching it back on video. I don't always do this. Sometimes I film a performance or practice session specifically to look it over and make improvements in time for the next performance. I do agree though, that given a little breathing space, it becomes a lot easier to see the good and be proud of the result.

My favourite official critiquer will always approach me and ask if now is a good time to go over my latest offerings. It gives me a chance to make sure I am in a positive and receptive place.

Know what you are looking at

"The premise of post-modern dance was that it required a style of viewing very different from ballet or early modern dance - and every other dance genre also proposes its own way of seeing. If audiences are not meant to look for flying jumps and romantic agonies in 60s realism, they're also not intended to expect raw emotion or realistic drama in the ballet repertoire of the nineteenth century" Judith Mackrell - Reading Dance.

Just like Western dance forms, different styles of bellydance need to be viewed with a different eye. Elements that are desirable in one form might be inauthentic or inappropriate in another. So consider the style the dancer is aiming to convey.

Also consider the dancer's level. What are they working on? What have they asked you to look at?

Then there is the context. If you are looking at a dancer's first solo, then you can expect to see the product of nerves and anticipation, that is something that is likely to improve over time, through increased confidence which you can fortify with empowering feedback.

Specifically you might choose to focus on any or all of the following:

  • Stage presence/audience interaction
  • Technique
  • Musicality
  • Stylistic authenticity
  • Choreography (in terms of the writing or interpretation)
  • Costuming/presentation

The good stuff

As a school teacher, I was taught to write reports as a "praise sandwich". Begin on a good note, move on to points for improvement and leave them with something positive that motivates them to pick up your advice and get better. Even if your subject understands this concept, it still works.

It's really important to include positive points. For a start it lets the dancer know what works so they can do more of it, this is the first step towards developing their own style around their strengths. It's also just really important not to leave them thinking they sucked, because they didn't. Whatever they produced, it's theirs

Room for improvement

Last of all it is time to think about the elements that need work. This is a really important part of the critique, as it is where the most potential for growth lies, but it is also a treacherous rope bridge over a swamp of negativity.

Choose your areas of focus carefully. Often when I am teaching I look at a student and my brain comes up with a dozen small adjustments they could make to perfect their technique; but if I stood there and reeled them off they would at best be overwhelmed and at worst run sobbing from the class never to return!

Instead I prioritise. Top priority goes to anything that might actually damage their body - so creating and maintaining a good dance posture, especially in the low back, knees/ankles, neck and shoulders. After that I look for the elements that would make the biggest improvement with the least effort. I usually leave regular students with one or two things to work on, a private student with notebook in hand will get enough material to work on for a couple of month's practice.

Focus on the solutions, not the problems. Instead of "your arms look like spaghetti" go with "I'd like you to focus on keep energy in your arms, especially when they are in this position, try working with these drills and imagining you are projecting through this part of your hand..."

In closing

Critiquing other dancers is not just a skill for teachers, it's also a skill that will help you to use other people's performances to improve your own dance. Tactful and helpful feedback, and those who can give it, are an asset to the dance community, so go forth and spread the love, with permission of course.

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