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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Feedback: Helpful or Harmful?

Welcome to my first BLOG post. After a number of years of publishing ZEN OF DANCE as a monthly newsletter, I am now converting it into this ongoing blog.

I just got back from Swing Out New Hampshire a five-day dance camp that Chester and I have attended for six years now. We -- along with a bunch of our students (the Hudson Valley was well-represented with 12 campers!)-- had a great time social dancing and attending classes...(yes, the best teachers continue to learn and remind themselves what it feels like to confront new material) and this year we were thrilled to teach one of the optional classes as well.

This issue of ZEN OF DANCE I want to talk about something that happened to me--and likely to too many others--while I was there.

NIGHTMARE ROTATION. Every time I got to a particular leader in the class rotation he would say, "May I make an Observation?" and then, without waiting for my reply, would proceed to tell me everything he deemed I was doing wrong. He did this every time we rotated together for three classes a day for five days. Did I want to kill him? Yes. Did I hate rotating to him? Yes. Did I appreciate or learn from his feedback? No. Did it seem odd that I could do any move with all the other leaders? Not really. Between his picking apart everything I did (I could do nothing right) and my tensing up everytime I got him as a partner, things couldn't get any better.

FEEDBACK: HURTFUL OR HARMFUL? As all of our students know, Chester and I have five commandments that we ask our students to follow during dance class. Commandment #1 is: Thy shall not blame nor cast stones at thy partner. This experience in dance camp reminded me why we instituted that rule. No one can learn in an atmosphere of blame.

Someone who would never think of saying to a complete stranger something as awful as: "You're fat" doesn't think twice about saying, "You're doing this wrong." But really, to the recipient the words are just as harmful.

YOU'RE BOTH LEARNING. When an instructor shows a new move, students usually don't already know it, which means they have to learn how to do it, which means that unless they are brilliant or lucky, they probably won't get it right for a while. To complicate matters, in a swing dance partnership, both of you are learning the move at the same time so neither of you knows how to lead it or follow it. And the only way you are going to learn is to keep trying it with each new partner in the rotation--working it out together and focusing on doing your part the best you can.

DOING YOUR PART. For the follower, doing your part means really trying to follow what he is leading, even if you think it's wrong. It doesn't help him if you backlead yourself to where you think you're supposed to be. He'll never learn how to lead it if he never gets a clue as to how you are responding to what he is doing.

For the leader, it means focusing on doing the move while trying to remember that you have someone attached to your arm. In other words, it helps to look at her. I've seen so many leads who are so focused on where they are putting their arms and feet that they never even look at their partner.

COLLABORATIVE FEEDBACK. Does this mean you must remain mute during the learning process? Not at all. Collaborative feedback is always welcome. Colloborative feedback comes from the attitude of working out the move together. "That feels right" or "That feels great!" Or even, "That feels wrong" is fine because that is not blame. It could feel wrong because of something you are doing and then you can work it out together. Learning to dance together is a colloborative process and it should be approached as a partnership. If you are starting your sentence with YOU it's blame.

SWING DANCE Saturday, Sept 12
KINGSTON CLASSES Mondays starting Sept 14
HIGHLAND CLASSES Wednesdays starting Sept 16
BALBOA Sunday, Sept 20
STONE RIDGE CLASSES Tuesdays starting Sept 22
KIDS CLASSES Tuesday starting Sept 22