Tuesday, November 3, 2009

From the Other Side Looking In

I don't think there is one teacher who hasn't gotten score sheets and wondered at one time or another if the judges knew what they were talking about or wondered if the judging was political.

"Did they see the same thing I saw?"

I was fortunate enough to be asked to judge a national competition this summer. I thought this would be a great chance for me to take my experiences as a teacher attending competitions and use those experiences to help me become the type of judge I’d like to critique my own group. I'd took the job very seriously and promised myself that all score sheets would be well commented as to why the number was judged the way it was. My goal was to try and help the groups I was judging to become better performers.

I was totally shocked when my 150% effort was criticized by a teacher with a group at the competition! This instructor cornered me in the hall during a break and tried to inform me that my score sheet comments weren't needed! She didn't want anything explained to her at all!

"It's the end of our season. Just give me the scores. I don't care what you think. You write too much!"

Is this person from the same planet I'm from? I'm not sure! I always thought that competitions were an educational tool to help dancers become better performers. A comment about a dancer's alignment or turnout on a score sheet is no different than a correction given by an instructor during class in the studio. I've always valued the comments I've gotten as I see my own dancers every day and another set of eyes will often catch something I've missed or not thought of before.

Forgetting the fact that she was confronting a judge in the middle of nationals, which is unthinkable, what the heck was this raving lady standing in front of me thinking and why did she believe that the scores were the only thing that mattered? I've gotten to know many teachers during my career, and most of us review every written comment, listen to every audio cassette, and watch every single video tape. The advice that we get from our fellow professionals is important to us and helps us improve the quality of instruction we give our students.

I know I'm not alone in this! I can still remember one of the very first competitions my group attended when I was just starting out as a choreographer. Doug Caldwell gave me some wonderful comments on an audiocassette. He suggested that I didn't have enough formation changes and that I needed to create different "pictures" that went with changes in the music. I took his suggestions seriously. When my group returned to the studio I restaged sections of the number..

Another judge at New York Dance Alliance told me that a specific piece I was using was something the younger dancers in my group couldn't really feel yet, and that they might have trouble with ¾ time until they became a little more experienced and understood the rhythm better. I listened, and I made adjustments. It didn't matter to me whether it was the beginning or end of the season. These comments early on in my career helped me to become a better choreographer and teacher, and were of great benefit to my students. I still read and listen to all comments. They're an important learning tool for my company. Regardless of how good any group becomes, there's always room for improvement and the day I believe different is the day I stop becoming an effective teacher.

So, to me, having somebody tell me that they didn't want any comments seemed pretty, well, stupid.

As a judge, I look directly to the back row. Why? Because I do the same as a teacher. I want the dancers in the back row to be as clean and sharp as the dancers in the front. I like to watch feet. I never realized what a "foot person" I was until I judged. Where is each dancer putting their feet? Are they turned out? Neutral? Is everybody in 4th position or is it 5th? Is the foot landing side? Back? A lot of teachers try to hide weaker dancers in the back. I've tried to never do this. Each dancer has something important to contribute. It's our job as teachers to help our students discover what that contribution is.

I stood my ground with the teacher during the confrontation and told her that as a teacher myself, I would really want to know exactly what needed to be worked on. Many of my dancers want to become professionals, and the better prepared they are, the better chance they have when they start auditioning professionally. She told me that her students weren't interested in becoming professionals, so it didn't matter to her.

Why, I wondered? Her dancers had beautiful bodies, lovely faces, and most would have a great chance at becoming a professional. I can only look to their techer as an explanation for this. If you care about your dancers, motivate them, and instill in them a love for the art of dance then many of them will at least consider a career in dance. I digress though…

I don't feel the issue here is about each dancer choosing to become a professional or not. The issue is that we as teachers should train them as if they're all want professional careers. Their parents should consider us remiss in our jobs if we didn't give them the absolute best instruction possible, especially considering the price of tuition, dance shoes, supplies, convention and competition fees. If they decide to pursue dance further, we should be confident that we've given them the best instruction possible to prepare them. I expect the best from each of my dancers. Why shouldn't they expect the same from me?

The group of judges I was working with was all folks that "knew their stuff". We each watched for different things. That's the point of having 5 or 6 judges, right? Judging is subjective, and shouldn't be taken as a personal criticism. If you take the combined comments from the entire group of judges at the competition seriously, you've got a great tool for helping your dancers improve. In my opinion, if you’ve gotten to the point where you only care about your scores and if you’ve won or not, you’re doing this for the wrong reason.


Dale Lam - Artistic Director
Les Mizzell - Technical Director
The Columbia City Jazz Dance Company Website
Dale and Les on Twitter

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