Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Corrections? Yes, but hold the Criticisms & Contempt.

As a young professional ballet student at North Carolina School of the Arts and School of American Ballet in the late 1970's, my classmates and I were often subjected to scathing, demeaning, and humiliating criticisms. Words that still ring in my ears:
"But dahling, you're Huge!" was said to my 115lb 16 year old self. And:
"You look like you're trying to give yourselves an enema and an orgasm at the same time!"
came from a modern dance teacher teaching Graham to a class of fourteen year olds.

I wish that my generation of dancers may be the last to be subjected to judgmental kinds of corrections. Synonyms for Judgmental, by the way, are:

critical, faultfinding, censorious, condemnatory, disapproving, disparaging, deprecating, negative, overcritical, hypercritical, scathing.

A recent experience taking an open ballet class made me consider whether this topic is still necessary to discuss. It's common for dancers to want corrections. We appreciate a teacher's attention and we benefit from a moment of personal instruction in a group class even as we understand that all corrections are to be implemented as if for oneself. Sometimes, though, corrections may be given in a certain tone or phrased in ways that nakedly, or barely conceal a judgement - a kind of moral impugning or shaming.

First, let's clarify: a correction is an observation and/or instruction whose purpose is to alert or instruct a dancer towards a more correct, efficient, desired, safe way of performing a movement. This is what we call technique. Some examples: "Engage your core," "Lift your arm," "Spot more rapidly," - in other words, direct instructions whose implementation should fix the problem.

Sometimes, an explanation is necessary to clarify a misunderstanding. For example, I had a student who diligently would descend from releve' with straight knees Every Time, and not plie until her heels hit the ground. I explained that while this might seem like the right thing to do, when descending from a jump, or in order to perform multiple releves (as in fouette), the knee must begin bending as soon as the descent commences in order to properly cushion the jump, coordinate the spring back up, and to essentially save the joints.

In the process of explaining, I did not impugn my student's intelligence, physical capacity, or moral character. All of these are completely irrelevant. I conveyed the information and reasoning while re-stating the desired movement. She understood and never made the same mistake again. But even if she had, I would continue to simply state what I wanted her to do. Here is where many teachers begin a downward spiral. Because we often have to give the same corrections over and over and over again, we begin to wonder if our students are being lazy, stupid, or willful.

If one has been teaching a very long time, if one is tired, if one is under-paid or worried, then  frustrations begin to seep in. If an entire class seems incapable, then ask: "Am I asking for too much?"

Dancers more often than not genuinely want to be corrected and want to dance better. If a correction is not being implemented, it's because it's not fully understood, or the dancer is simply not physically capable of executing it yet. There has to be not just an intellectual understanding, but a proprioceptive understanding (felt sense) of what's required. This is where many dancers lag behind. Everyone has a different way of processing kinetic information.

Let's be clear: sarcasm and criticism have no place in a healthy teaching environment and are, in any case, not effective tools for conveying information. A humiliated student is a student under stress, and stress inhibits learning and understanding.