The good, the bad and the ugly: Competition comments and how to improve them

Your dancing sucks and your dress is ugly too!

Okay that’s not totally true, actually “Your technique, costume is too simple and cheap for professional”, that’s really what was said on my score sheet. Actually it’s the only bit of feedback I got on that score sheet, but what my eyes read was the aforementioned!

I admit that when I first read the comment I was hurt, but time, maturity and a new perspective have really helped me see that it wasn’t me that was the problem. Sure, I could have danced better! However the real problem was the judge didn’t know how to give feedback because I still don’t know what I could have changed to improve!

Giving feedback/critique is a skill. I know, because as a project manager I have often had to give feedback to team members in order to get desired outcomes. Give bad feedback and you fall behind schedule, don’t get the product you promised to deliver and you have a lot of upset team members. Giving good feedback takes a lot of practice. It requires the giver of the feedback to understand that they are more than just giving an opinion they are also a motivator, a counselor, a facilitator and a coach.

I never expected my professional and dance paths to cross. I joined Toastmasters about a year ago to improve my presentation skills. Toastmasters is an organization whose mission is to improve communication, public speaking, and leadership skills of its members. Giving and receiving feedback is a key component of this process. It’s such an important part of the growth process that people giving feedback receive an evaluation from more experienced members on how valuable their feedback is. There are also workshops and workbooks on giving effective feedback. It was after one of these workshops that I realized much of what was taught also applied to other areas of my life, especially dance!

In a dance competition the judges have only a few moments to write down their feedback. They have to be quick with their thoughts and efficient with their words, which is why it’s all the more important for judges to choose their words carefully and to practice giving feedback with their students! Here’s a summary of the key points I’ve learned from my career and as a member of Toastmasters on giving feedback:

(All feedback examples provided here are real examples taken from my competition forms)

A good judge shows they care.

"You have a lot of great moments within your dance and really wonderful accents, keep working on your footwork and center" Be sincere, have a friendly tone and let us know what positive impressions you were left with. Remember that you’re judging people with emotions and you want to nourish self-esteem not tear it down!

A good judge is specific.

Instead of “need cleaner lines”, give the dancer something to go home and work on. For example, “work on pointing toes, work on turnout, extend through arms” would all help so much more with getting cleaner lines than just telling someone they lack clean lines.

A good judge shows how to improve.

Instead of “Why did you drop your veil at the moment?” give the dancer information that they can use such as, “Consider dropping the veil at a moment when the music is transitioning to a different tempo”. Think if the dancer were to do this dance again what would you specifically like to see them change and let them know what that is.

A good judge suits the evaluation to the dancer.

Evaluate the dancer at their level. If they are in a beginner category don’t hold them to a higher standard or to the standard of other dancers in that category. Remember to evaluate each person as an individual. I once received a comment that said “You seem at a lower level than others in the category”. Period. No other comment left. Ouch!

A good judge motivates.

State what you saw, what you felt, show that you watched and tried to understand the dancer and encourage them to come back again. “Lack of sensibility to read the melody, very phony connection to strong accents, lack of subtle reading” could have been much better rephrased as, “I felt you acknowledged a lot of the strong accents too often. I would like to see you dance again with more variation added by working on adding softer accents and dancing to the melody more.”

Judges often have such a small amount of time to write their feedback. Many of them are there on their personal time, for hours on end. They are hungry and they are tired. Judges are there because we value their feedback and as such, it’s much better to leave participants with just 1 piece of usable feedback, than to leave them with 10 comments that serve no purpose and at it’s worst demotivates.

After 6 years of doing several competitions across the US, I’ve learned what feedback to listen to and which pieces of feedback to throw out. One piece of feedback I won’t thrown out, is the one judge who was specific about my costuming choice on my “cheap costume”. Her feedback, “Skirt way too short, hide the ankles” and now at least I know to sew my skirts just an inch longer!

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