The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Taking Critical Feedback from Your Judges
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As dancers, we’re constantly looking to improve our technique and artistry. There are always areas in which to grow, and competitions provide excellent opportunities to gain critical feedback from experts in the field who aren’t already familiar with your strengths and weaknesses. But as humans—and especially as dancers—we want to be our absolute best all the time, so it can be hard to hear judges tell you that you’ve done something incorrectly or that their preferences are not in line with what you’ve done. Without feedback, though, how can we expect to improve? This week, we asked the IDA judges to share their advice on how to take critical feedback to ensure that you get the most out of your time and efforts at competitions.
Believe it or not, as judges, we want to see you succeed! We choose to spend our weekends adjudicating hundreds of routines because we love helping young dancers grow. IDA judge and teacher Michelle Tolson reminds us, “I want dancers to understand that all feedback is meant to be positive and constructive.” Even if the feedback is not what you were hoping to hear, take advantage of the fact that you are getting critiques because, as Michelle explains, once you’re a working professional, you’ll often attend auditions and leave with no feedback or understanding of why you didn’t book the job. IDA judge and teacher Joey Ortolani echoes these sentiments and explains, “A good judge will provide you with educational feedback on why your score was the way it was. You aren’t left with the question, ‘What could I have done better?’” Ideally, the critiques you receive will support your scores, so it should be very clear why the numbers fell as they did—and the best part is that you then have concrete feedback to apply to your routines moving forward.
It’s also important to remember that a constructive critique is not a measurement of your value as a dancer. Call it luck, fate, or coincidence, but each panel of judges is comprised of three individuals with three different sets of aesthetic preferences and training histories. One weekend, your judges might be tap experts, while the next panel is made up of former ballet company dancers, and the next of Broadway veterans. While all judges should be well versed across genres, we all have different areas of expertise. IDA judge Kimberly Soel reminds dancers that “a judge’s critique is simply one person's opinion on one certain day at one certain time.” She also tells her students, “Everyone has a different opinion and everyone is entitled to that different opinion.” While much of dance is objective in terms of technical execution, preferences are completely subjective and because dance is, ultimately, an art form, there is no way to avoid bringing opinions into the mix.
Opinions aside, there are definitely benefits to receiving feedback from three complete strangers. While your teachers know exactly where you already excel and where you need to focus your efforts, it’s often helpful to have fresh eyes on your dancing. The judges might catch something that your teacher—especially if that person has choreographed the routine—hasn’t, or they might articulate a correction in a way that clicks for you. Joey explains, “As teachers, we have what I call ‘love goggles.’ We can easily get caught up in seeing the positive improvements in our students, loving our own choreographic work, or knowing what adversity our students are facing in everyday life.” He continues, “Your dancer can have their best-day-ever but also not score well. We miss things as teachers because we get caught up in the love.” No matter how amazing your teachers are and no matter how well they know you, there is so much value in the receiving feedback from different adjudicators with different points of view at every competition.
In addition to benefiting performers, teachers can also find value in judges’ critiques. IDA judge Christina Yoder notes, “As a teacher, I find other professionals’ critiques to be extremely valuable. Maybe they explain something in a different way than I do, or maybe they see something I've overlooked.” Most judges are teachers, too, so we try to offer helpful feedback from the point of view as well. Christina encourages teachers to stay positive when they listen to judges’ critiques, and advises, “Listen thoroughly to what the judges have to say and try to keep a positive attitude about it. So often I hear teachers bashing judges for saying the wrong name of a step, or not having the same opinion as the teacher. I promise you, every judge is doing their best to use proper terminology and we do know it, but after hours of commenting and talking, the words do not come as quickly, and often our brains are on to the next comment before our mouths have completed the previous one.” Judging days are long and, as a result, Christina reminds us, “Sometimes, a saut de chat may be called a grande jeté, or a grande battement may even be called a kick! The feedback that goes with the name is still just as valuable, even if our mouths and brains are not working at the same speed!” If teachers can set the example and take feedback graciously, the students will follow. Michelle also shares, “I think setting up your students with realistic expectations is a must.” It’s our job as teachers to ensure that dancers can handle their feedback maturely.
But what about the dancer who constantly places first with judges’ awards and other special accolades? For young dancers who are constantly finding success, the greatest challenge is to avoid complacency. Kimberly shares her strategies for helping these dancers to stay engaged - “I take notes while my dancers are on stage at competitions. I never watch my dancers from backstage and always ensure I have a clear view from the audience as if I were a judge myself.” Beyond the competition, Christina encourages dancers to switch their approach in rehearsal. “Take notice of your focus, work through energies in your port de bras, fight for consistency in your turns. There is a hazard of losing the ‘rehearsal’ when we feel we've reached the top, so ‘rehearsal’ turns into ‘running the dance,’ which is not the same thing!” If you’re feeling stuck, ask your teacher for advice on new focal points, or take videos of yourself in rehearsal. You can also invite peers into the studio and ask them to look at certain aspects, such as the clarity of pathways of your upper body, your attention to your focus, or your performance quality. Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance.
Even if you choose not to pursue dance as a career, learning how to take feedback graciously and apply it effectively is one of the greatest skills you can acquire in any line of work. Christina explains, “As a professional in any industry, you are going to face situations where you will hear critiques. You will have a boss, or a customer, or co-worker giving you feedback rather consistently and being able to sort through the information to decide what is actually important or applicable is something competition dance has been training you for.” If dance is your chosen career, an ability to take and apply feedback is a must! Michelle notes that in an audition setting, “If you can listen and see what a choreographer wants from the start and apply each and every detail and correction, you will have a better shot at getting the job,” and Christina reminds us to remember that anyone giving feedback “is just trying to help!” Look at your critiques as an opportunity to grow and, of course, don’t forget that each critique is just the opinion of one person. As judges, if we’ve provided just one tidbit of information to move a dancer forward in their technique and artistry, we feel that we’ve done our job. Remember that it is our pleasure to watch you dance and be a part of your journey…and when we welcome you to the stage and wish you luck, we truly mean it!