Friday 8 May 2015

It's not personal. It's bellydance

As previously promised, I want to look a little into feedback/critique. This week we are going to look at taking it, and next week at giving it, because that's only fair.

Getting better at bellydance, using your ears.

Nobody likes criticism. Absolutely nobody. But, like it or not, it is a valuable part of your toolkit for becoming a better dancer. So let's have a look at a few things that make putting your big girl/boy pants on and hearing the truth more useful and more palatable.

Tuning in to the right channels.

The first thing to consider, is who you are receiving feedback from. Everybody has an opinion. Not every opinion is useful or valid for you, in this context, in this moment.

The first criterion for receiving feedback is wanting to receive it. If you are not comfortable welcoming that input, then you don't have to hear it, and it is entirely possible it is not great feedback anyway, because people who give good, constructive advice usually understand when it is appropriate to do so.

You need to be in the right place to hear critique, especially the thorough, dance improving kind. It's OK to decide that now is not the right time and just enjoy your dance until you feel less delicate.

A teacher or fellow dancer who understands your level, is aware of your goals and has an interest in seeing you meet your potential as a dancer is a good source of useful critique.

Someone who sees your performance out of context does not have the frame of reference to give you the most helpful advice.

Someone who is competitive or more focussed on their own outcomes, is unlikely to be all that helpful. Someone who does not understand the technical process of learning dance is unlikely to pick out the best things to work on.

Be vulnerable around positive, encouraging, supportive, but honest people. Use your diva nerve on everyone else.

The last thing to mention in this section, is the people who pay the piper, well, the dancer. As a performing pro, you sometimes need to get feedback from the guys who pay your bills, but as a freelance dancer, you have a certain amount of leeway to choose those people.

When asking for feedback, be specific

If you find yourself approaching someone asking for critique, let them know exactly what you need from them.

Are you feeling fragile and just looking for general reassurance you didn't completely suck? Or do you want the minutiae dissected out so you can absolutely nail that choreography?

Were you trying to tell a story or express an emotion? Ask them if they saw it? When did it come through? Was it enough or could you push it further?

Have you been working on a technical issue? Let them know and ask if they are seeing an improvement.


Seems obvious, but let's go back to that bit about how everyone hates feedback.

Good feedback will be a mixture of observations about your strong points and areas for improvement.

Everyone hates hearing negative things about themselves, and areas for improvement are often received as negative criticism. When we hear them, we shut down, we disagree with it and argue (maybe just in our heads, but we do, it's natural) or we feel miserable about our apparent "failings" and shut ourselves off.

Be mindful of this. You will do it, you have to consciously rally against it. A sympathetic reviewer will cushion the blows, but you still need to focus on the fact that this is a route to improvement. Not an end point.

If you are told that your arms are flailing like a giant orangutan, well firstly ditch your reviewer because that's just shady; but then remember that even if this is true, it is only true at this point in time. You are not condemned to permanent ape-flailing. You are already taking the first step towards beautiful, graceful arms, right now.

Listen to the good stuff too. It can be overwhelming when you are suddenly presented with a whole bundle of things to work on. Exciting sometimes too, but there's so much to do and  after a particularly meticulous critique, you can be left feeling like you can hardly dance at all. So remember the good stuff. When we shut down to protect ourselves from the "negative" side, we often shut out the compliments too.

If your reviewer hasn't pointed out a few things that you are absolutely rocking, or have made a lot of improvement upon, then they are not doing their job.

Feedback in a wider context.

Although the above applies to most feedback situations, it is most valid on a specific, one-on-one basis, such as a performance critique or private lesson, but for most bellydance students, the most common arena for feedback is your weekly class.

I try to ensure that I have given every dancer a little bit of individual attention every lesson, but the logistics of getting around a larger group, along with my consciousness to avoid bogging a dancer down with too many things to work on at once, means that my in-class individual feedback manifests in small, palatable chunks.

So I tend to give a lot of feedback to the group. I'm going to talk about giving feedback next week, where I will go into that more. As a student, in a class listening to general feedback, any piece of information from your teacher could be corrective, informative, or complimentary, which makes it a little easier to process.

When your teacher flags up an issue, it may be because they see something that needs improvement, or it may be something you need to be mindful of in general - if you are getting it right today, best be aware that you are lest you miss that crucial bit of technique next time.

Processing this kind of feedback is a skill in itself, and it is teaching you to assess and make judgments on your own technique. So when an issue is flagged, check in with yourself, can you improve, or do you just need to consolidate the picture perfect job you are already doing?

Work on it.

Listen. Accept. Act.

Your feedback has hopefully flagged up some areas to work on. If not, ask for them.

If a teacher has flagged up a gap in your technique, then ask for drills or conditioning to improve it. Critique should be constructive, so if someone is qualified to critique you, they should be able to tell you how to improve. Otherwise they are just being unkind and undermining.

Feedback is useless unless it is acted upon, so now the baton has been passed to you. Go forth and improve!

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