The challenge of giving students feedback on their dancing


During my conversation with Joe Nickel and Michelle Tolson as a guest on JAM: Joe and Michelle’s Dance Podcast, the topic turned to how to give feedback to our dance students. Many dance teachers have found that giving feedback, such as corrections or constructive criticism and even compliments, can be difficult with today’s students. Some students get noticeably upset when they are corrected, and do not seem to be able to handle the idea of not doing something “right.” Some misinterpret any kind of feedback as an attack on them personally, rather than the instructor’s belief in their abilities and desire to see them improve. Others assume they are already doing the movement correctly and don’t “need” the feedback, perhaps because they are not used to receiving constructive criticism in other areas their lives. At times, the situation is made worse by parents who reinforce the idea that their kids don’t need feedback or are being attacked when they receive it. On the other hand, some students are overly hard on themselves and have a difficult time accepting positive feedback or compliments on their dancing. And some are just shy and don’t like being noticed in class for any reason!

With all these potential pitfalls and problems surrounding the issue of student feedback, dance teachers may not know what to do. We want to see our students improve, and frankly it’s our job to help them do so. However, we also want to support their emotional health and do not want them walking away from class feeling bad about their dancing – or themselves. We want them to enjoy the process of learning to dance, and to be excited about coming to class each week. And we definitely don’t want to incur the wrath of angry parents! As I mentioned on the podcast, I honestly don’t know the best way to approach giving feedback in class. But, this topic has been on my mind often since my discussion with Joe and Michelle, so I’ve compiled a list of my best suggestion related to giving feedback to dance students – whether it be positive notes or things to improve on.


Why some dance students struggle to receive feedback


It’s temping to write off the issue with dance students receiving feedback as a problem with “kids today.” It’s true that parenting tactics and participation trophies may be part of the reason why some dance students struggle to accept feedback on their dancing. But there are many reasons why this phenomenon exists, and why it may seem worse today than it has in the past.

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on students’ development, and some students may lacking in social and emotional skills as a result. Students may be up to two years behind where we would *expect* them to be when it comes to social and emotional development. As dance teachers, we should be sensitive to the fact that some students are still developing skills like resilience and persistence that will help them be receptive to both compliments and criticism. You can read more about teaching social and emotional skills through dance in this blog post.

Even before Covid, there was mounting pressure on many students to be considered “successful” – and the bar for that success keeps getting higher and higher.  For many students, the adolescent years have become dedicated to earning perfect grades and excelling in multiple after-school activities to help them stand out in college applications. The pressure to succeed can overwhelming at times. Some students, therefore, are intensely sensitive to constructive criticism or corrections that may reflect the idea that they are “failing” or less than perfect.

Still other students are experiencing real trauma, at home, school, or elsewhere in their lives. Students experiencing such trauma may have more difficulty processing and accepting feedback. Trauma-informed teaching practices are vital for students in this situation. You can learn more about trauma-informed teaching in dance in this blog post from Dancing with Class.


Strategies for giving feedback to dance students


No matter why dance students are having a hard time accepting feedback on their dancing, it is our job as educators to help them overcome this challenge. One way we can do this is by considering how we approach feedback in the dance studio. We can consider when and how we offer feedback, along with our tone of voice and word choice. Here are additional seven strategies that dance teachers can use when giving feedback to students. These strategies are designed to help support students’ emotional health, while also encouraging them to see the importance of constructive criticism to their growth as dancers.


Give students a choice if they receive feedback in each class

Arts in Motion Dance Academy in Richmond, VA is taking checking in on your students to a whole new level. I absolutely love these “mood checks” that they have implemented across their classes and programs. Students use a discrete hand gesture to communicate how they are feeling each day as they enter the studio. The gesture lets the instructor know how each student is doing on a scale of 0 (“I am very uncomfortable and not ready to accept feedback right now.”) to 5 (“I’m comfortable and confident, ready to dance and ready to work hard to improve”)

According to Casey A. Royer, Owner and Artistic Director of AIM, the mood check system grew out of a faculty meeting discussion in which teachers acknowledged that some students were having a hard time mentally and emotionally. Their attendance sometimes suffered as a result, as students and parents thought that students always needed to be “100% on” to come to class. The faculty wanted a way to check in on the students’ mental health, and also let them know that sometimes just showing up is enough. No one is is “100% on” every day, but it is still important to show up at class and try your best – whatever that “best” might look like that day. Based on the mood check, teachers can judge how much and what kind of feedback they offer to each student. Royer says that the system has been popular with students and families, and that teachers have found it effective!

I’ve been using this mood check system for several months, and I have found it helpful, too. I think it shows my students that I care about their overall well-being, and that the feedback I give them comes from a place of genuine desire to see them grow and improve – not to badger them or make them feel defeated. Moreover, I can adjust not only my feedback, but my entire lesson plan based on how the students are feeling, leading to more authentic and impactful learning experiences. It has allowed me to have discussions about mental health, showing up, when to push, when to rest, and how to advocate for yourself.


Ask students how they’d like to hear their feedback

At the beginning of the dance season, I use get-to-know-you student surveys to help me ascertain what students think about getting feedback, and how they like to be approached with feedback in the studio. How do they feel when I give them a compliment? A correction? Do they like being the center of attention, or does it make them uncomfortable? Based on their responses, I can tailor how I give feedback, both to the class as a whole and to individual dancers.

For example, I might find that there is small group of especially confident and resilient dancers who don’t mind receiving feedback publicly. At the beginning of the season, I might use these dancers as example students, through which I can convey feedback to the entire group. Then, once other students see their peers receiving feedback confidently, I can start expanding the circle of example students. By the end of the season, most or all of the dancers are better able to receive individual feedback publicly during class.


Offer each student at least one piece of feedback by name every class

The best ways to help dance students receive feedback, in my opinion, is to give it as frequently as possible. Make it feel as normal as possible for dancers to hear notes on their dancing out loud during class. As a young dance teacher, I was encouraged to use each students’ name at least once per class. This helps makes sure that they feel seen and acknowledged in every class. Taking this concept a step further, as dance teachers we can make our best effort to give each student at least one piece of specific, individual feedback in each class. Offering each student a unique compliment or correction in each class can “normalize” the process of receiving feedback on their dancing and make it easier for them to accept it.


Remind students that your way is not the only way

Okay, this can be a difficult one for some of us dance teachers! But I think that one of the most beautiful things about dance training is that it opens us up to holding multiple perspectives at once. There are so many ways to approach technique and artistry, and knowing that can help make dance students more receptive to feedback. Growing up, I studied ballet from teachers who used the Balanchine, Imperial, and Cecchetti methods. I saw that each style had it’s own benefits and challenges for my body. The Balanchine pirouette preparation, for example, was most effective for me, but the Cecchetti approach to tendu felt better on my feet. I learned to accept feedback from teachers of each style, knowing that it would sometimes be contradictory to what I was doing in other classes. I would try my best to apply to appropriate feedback in each teacher’s class, but knew that ultimately I would be able to choose what worked best for me as I progressed in my training.

As a teacher, I try to communicate to my dance students that my way of teaching a particular concept or skill is not the only way. I encourage my students to accept and apply what works for them. I think that this approach helps make feedback feel less authoritative and “scary” to receive. It also helps students take ownership of their training. They learn that it is up to them to determine what feedback they will integrate into their dancing, and why that feedback is meaningful and beneficial to them.


Try peer feedback

Peer feedback can be a powerful educational tool in dance classes for a number of reasons. Through the process of giving and receiving peer feedback, students develop observation, communication and listening skills. They synthesize what they have learned and apply it in new ways. And, when dance students hear compliments or corrections from their classmates instead of an instructor, they may be more open to receiving them! 

For a successful peer feedback process, you will want to provide a rubric or list of things for the observing students to be looking for in their partner’s dancing. Direct the observing student to watch their partner with this rubric or list in mind, then provide feedback related to those items. What did they do well? What can they improve on? Walk around the room and listen in on conversations to make sure that students are staying on task and being appropriate in their discussion. After partners have had a chance to watch each other and discuss, facilitate a class discussion in which students can share what they learned through the process of watching, giving, and receiving feedback. Use this discussion as an opening to provide more detailed feedback or your own suggestions for improvement. Read more about peer feedback and providing opportunities for socialization in dance class in this blog post: How to Teach Social Skills in Dance Class


Ask students to give themselves feedback 

Self-assessment is another tool that can be helpful in the feedback process. Self-assessment can be simple: After the dancers have done a combination or exercise, ask them to reflect one what worked and what didn’t work. Direct the dancers to choose one thing to work on when they repeat the combination or exercise. Allow some time for dancers to share what they chose to work on and how their performance improved as a result. Use this discussion as an opening to provide more detailed feedback or your own suggestions for improvement.

You could also create a more formal self-assessment process, using video and a rubric. Give each dancer a rubric with what you are looking for in their performance of a combination or exercise. (Bonus points if you put the rubric together as a class, with their ideas as well as yours!) Then, record the students performing the combination or exercise. Allow time for the dancers to watch themselves on the video and use the rubric to assess their performance. Facilitate a discussion, either as a class or one-on-one, in which students can share what they learned through the process of watching, giving, and receiving feedback. Use this discussion as an opening to provide more detailed feedback or your own suggestions for improvement.


Use yourself as an example 

With some classes, I find it most effective to use myself as an example when giving feedback to dancers. For example, I will demonstrate a step or exercise the wrong way, and ask the students to correct me. This helps the students develop critical thinking and communication skills – and they often think it’s funny to watch my comically bad dancing! Or, I will explain why I find a certain step or exercise challenging, and give them the feedback that I find most helpful for myself. This helps the students realize that even experienced dancers and teachers struggle, and that they are not alone in needing improvement. Finally, I might share the advice that my own teachers gave me as a student. This can make the feedback more impactful, knowing that it came from someone other than me. It can also help the dancers see themselves as part of the bigger “family tree” of dance students and teachers, stretching back through generations.


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