How do you inspire a group of dancers to live up to their full potential?
One of the most important skills to learn as an artistic director, ballet master, choreographer, or teacher is learning how to speak to and manage the group. All bosses have to do it. Organizing a large group of people can be hard at times, and learning the skills necessary to pull the best out of that group can be a long, hard process.
One of the most important tools that can be used is group feedback. Just as the coach of a football team needs to be able to call the team together to inspire them to action, so does the person at the front of the room need to be able to gather the dancers together to “course-correct.” It might be to suggest a way of approaching the choreography, it might be chiding the group for a lack of focus, or it may be an inspirational talk to boost spirits. It may even be all three at the same time. Group feedback can be used for many different outcomes, but the main idea is to focus the whole group on a particular issue or desired approach.
The principal questions here are: what makes group feedback succeed at its intended purpose? And how can it be used to inspire dancers to work better or harder?
In the dance world, feedback often comes on an individual basis, because it’s quite clear who is responsible for each action (extremely interconnected dances aside), and those people can be singled out. We call this dance feedback “corrections,” which is actually an unusual term because it implies that there is a “right” and a “wrong.” Which is true insofar as a choreographer and her artistic vision is related, I suppose, but not objectively on a work of art. Some choreographers opt nowadays to use the term “suggestion.”
We dancers usually take this feedback well because we know it has to do with the form of the piece, and not our personality, or work ethic. Corrections are impersonal. This one-on-one style of communication is useful in most choreographic situations, but there are times when focusing on the group as a whole is necessary.
These issues are by no means unique to groups of dancers, and Harvard Business Review lays out a pretty simple list of qualifications for managers to choose between group and solo feedback. These recommendations are quite fitting for the ballet world, but it only focuses on the team setting leading up to the giving of feedback. I’d like to focus on the content (both informational and emotional) of that feedback and its effect on the dancers’ attitude and morale.
First, positive feedback is obviously the best case scenario. Who doesn’t want to praise their group for working hard and looking good? This is quite hard to do in any kind of negative way, and congratulations makes everyone feel good about a job well done.
The difficulty lies in giving negative feedback. How do you give information that’s hard to hear? I’ve seen this done well, and I’ve seen it done poorly. Delivery, in this case, is everything.
Let’s look at one instance of the necessity group feedback. Let’s say that, after giving the same correction three times in three days during a group section, some members of the group have still not taken said correction to heart, in their body. How to proceed?
Something is clearly wrong. Either:
- the correction isn’t clear enough
- the dancers think they are doing what is asked but are unaware that, corporally, they are not, or
- the dancers just don’t care.
This is when it’s important to analyze the situation accurately. The efficacy of the feedback will have much to do with getting this part right.
Let’s say you have analyzed the problem correctly, and that it is the worst of all scenarios: many of the dancers actually just don’t care enough to put the mental energy in to get it right (something I would argue is very unlikely, given the dedication and love dancers must have for the art form to make it to the professional world). Now what?
Obviously you have to light a fire under their collective asses. But it’s useful to remember that not everyone will have the same level of apathy in this situation, so you cannot issue a blanket statement. It must be tailored for those that need to hear it. Now, you know the information you have to give them, but what about the tone?
A neutral tone can do the job of communicating the information across, but it may not be enough of a kick in the pants to inspire those dancers to look at themselves and find a reason to dig deep.
Emotionality, on the other hand, can be a great call to action, but it’s crucial that it hits the right tone. Being angry at a group, half of which is working hard, half of which is disillusioned, is going to backfire. Those that are uninspired will either become even more so and/or follow only out of fear; and those that are working hard will either be angry with the other half, or, knowing dancers, turn their frustration inward and be even harder on themselves for not being perfect. You can see how the reverberations of an angry response can sow disharmony down the line.
But let’s say that we put a positive spin on our message. “Yes, it’s been a long week. Maybe it’s not the most inspiring moment for you. But this group section is one that’s important to get right. For our collective success, and for the appreciation of the audience. We are all in this together, and if we can pull this together right now, this ballet will be all the better for it.” This is a message we can all get behind. Even those who are uninspired don’t want to let their colleagues down. The consequences of this message are more like spackle than an earthquake. You want to build connections in your group, not separate them.
It all comes down to this: compassion and empathy are much healthier motivators than fear. It allows a group to work together because of their respect for each other instead of fear of being called out or fired, and (speaking from personal experience) it feels much better to work in a positive environment than one motivated out of fear.
This is not to say that fear doesn’t work. It does. Leaders lead with many different approaches, and all of these methods can coexist within one company. But it’s important to weed out the responses that are causing more harm than good, and learn which styles of feedback pull the best of your group. Like I stated at the beginning of this article: it is a long, hard process to learn these skills.
It’s important to remember, however, as dancers, that this does not absolve us of our responsibility to work hard for the art form. We’re striving for perfection, for crying out loud!
If a teacher loses her cool because of whatever she perceives, whether her perception is based on the truth or not, we shouldn’t forget what we’re working for. Whoever is giving feedback is only human, prone to error, and often under many stresses that we don’t have ourselves or even necessarily understand.
Ideally, dance is an inner exploration, and not something we do for recognition from others. If we’re a part of that group that’s not holding up our end of the bargain, it’s time to strap up and get to work. And if we’re on the other side of the group, a little word of encouragement or friendly advice towards our struggling peers can go a long way.
What do you all think? Got any group feedback for me? A hand up?