In the past few years I’ve encountered students and fellow workshop attendees who are embarrassed by teacher correction. Heard stories of workshop instructors who have been asked not to correct because it upsets the students. Listened to dancers who would rather explain away feedback than consider it.
I attended a workshop this past Saturday with Najmat. For those of you who don’t know her, she’s a fantastic Egyptian-style dancer based in Boston. She’s both a compelling performer and an excellent teacher. And her style couldn’t be further from mine. No, I haven’t decided to pursue Egyptian dance. But I wanted to explore, expand my own boundaries, and the workshop subject, Ooey Gooey moves, is something Najmat does particularly well. I wanted some insight into what was behind it.
I enjoyed the workshop thoroughly, and came away with new ideas to incorporate in my own dancing. But one particular moment struck me. I was trying to contract muscles in my thighs and abdomen as Najmat instructed, which was not the way I was accustomed to using those muscles. “Squeeze,” she said, looking me in the eye. “Squeeze.” I squeezed. I squeezed so hard trying to get the effect she was going for that, without my noticing, my upper abs began to join the party, pulling down my ribcage. She walked over to me and, with one gentle motion, pulled my ribcage and shoulders back into position. “Isolate!” she commanded the room.
The moment she freed my ribcage I realized two things:
- My isolation of abdominal and pelvic muscles, while sufficient for my usual style, could be improved. This could only result in my being a better dancer.
- My students are probably running into this as well. I’d been approaching dropped ribcage and shoulders as a separate issue from abdominal tuck, but for those unused to our abdominal isolations at all, surely it was was at least complicating the postural issue?
Imagine if I hadn’t been open to her correction. Imagine if she hadn’t felt free to give it. I would have missed out on this moment of insight, and I would be poorer as both a dancer and a teacher.
I understand where reluctance to accept criticism comes from. But being closed to correction only limits us as dancers. I have some suggestions for freeing ourselves from this mindset.
Remember that if you already knew how to do it, you wouldn’t be taking the class in the first place. Sometimes when I call out a correction to a student, she’ll call back “sorry!” “Don’t be sorry,” I say, “if you could already do this you wouldn’t need me.” You’re there to learn – let your teacher teach. No one looks down on you for not already being perfect.
Remember that correction doesn’t always mean wrong; sometimes it just means different. When I was younger, sometimes I would take a workshop where I was performing a move as my teacher taught me, and the instructor would come over and correct what I was doing. I would stifle the urge to say “I’m doing it right according to my teacher.” Sometimes other students wouldn’t stifle that urge – “that’s not how I learned it,” they’d argue. Relax. You’re there to learn it the instructor’s way. It doesn’t automatically make your way wrong. Newer students often forget (or don’t realize) that this is a non-codified dance, with different styles and individualistic approaches. Resisting the instructor’s approach only gets in the way of gaining new insights and deepening your technique as a dancer.
As for unsolicited feedback, keep in mind that it isn’t necessarily coming from a source you trust. Sometimes it can be – if a dancer you respect makes a comment, consider it. Maybe she’s giving you a gift that you can use to improve your dance. But when criticism or correction comes unasked, we often feel the need to defend ourselves before we even think “am I really so concerned with this person’s opinion?” Maybe the comment comes from a place of malice, or maybe just simple misunderstanding. If it’s not someone whose opinion you would seek out, let it go. Don’t draw them into a debate about your merits as a dancer. Say “thank you for the feedback” and go back to what you were doing.
In the end, your dancing will speak for itself.