How to give and receive critique

In my day job, I am part of a small team of designers at a software company.  When I first started at the company, the developers weren’t helpful when asked for their thoughts on pending designs, providing useless critique like “I don’t like it,” or “that just looks ick.”  (Actual quote.)

I wanted to work with them, but they didn’t understand how to give feedback that was meaningful or actionable.  To solve this problem, we held a session on giving and receiving design critique.  The session went over well, and now the teams are collaborating better than ever. (Go read this version of the story; it’s better than I could explain.)

In dance as in life: I’ve been thinking about how we give and receive feedback to each other in dance performance.  I’ve noticed that critique tends to fall into one of three camps:

  1. Entirely positive, and very general.  I call this the “puppies and unicorns” critique.  “You’re such great dancers!  You’re so much fun to watch!!”
  2. Entirely negative, usually given behind someone’s back.  “This is awful,” someone will say.  “Those guys shouldn’t be on stage.”  Or my favorite, “this isn’t bellydance.”
  3. Silence.

None of these critique methods, of course, are helpful.  None of them help the dancers become better dancers. And while developing a critical eye towards your own performances is important, sometimes it’s good to get other people’s advice.

So here are some guidelines, pulled from design critique methodology, to help us all provide excellent feedback for each other.

If you are asking for critique:

  1. Ask for what you want. If you’re genuinely asking for feedback, say so! If you’re just sharing something because you want support, a phrase like “Check out this video – we had such a fun time!” will give your audience a clue.
  2. Be specific. It’s okay to ask for general critique, but you’ll get better advice if you ask for thoughts on something specific you’re concerned about: “Do you think that particular combination worked well?”

If you are offering critique:

  1. Make sure your opinion was asked for. Just because someone puts something on YouTube doesn’t mean they’re asking for your thoughts. If you’re not sure if critique is welcome, you can check in: “Thanks for sharing this! Are you looking for any feedback?”
  2. Ask what kind of advice they’re looking for. Maybe you’re focused on their costuming choice, but they are wondering if their formations played well on stage. “Are you looking for any specific ideas?” is a great question to ask.
  3. Be specific. If someone is genuinely asking for your advice, telling them “that was great!” isn’t helpful. If all you have is praise, you can be specific with your praise: “I particularly enjoyed the way you responded to the music when it changed tempo, it was very dramatic.”
  4. Assume good intentions. If there is something you didn’t enjoy, be kind. Some ideas:
    • “It seemed like your shimmies weren’t as bouncy as they normally are. Were you having an off day?”
    • “I’m not sure that costume worked well – it didn’t feel like it matched the music to me.”
    • “I think you need to work a bit on your posture. Your dancing was lovely, but your arms didn’t match the rest of your troupe, and I found it a little distracting.”

If you are receiving critique:

  1. Thank the person. The person who is offering their advice (hopefully) took time to offer you thoughtful, focused critique. Check your ego. If you argue or get defensive, they are unlikely to provide you feedback again.
  2. Take it to heart. Ultimately, you own your dance. It’s up to you to weigh the person’s critique and decide if you want to incorporate their feedback for next time. But at least consider it – there’s a reason you asked them for their advice in the first place!

How do you give and receive dance critique?

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10 thoughts on “How to give and receive critique

  1. This is great Janet! And very helpful! Sometimes it is really difficult to know what to say if you have a negative reaction to a performance. I know sometimes I default to saying nothing but that can really hurt feelings. And being specific really increases the meaningfulness of a positive comment. I also think two other things can happen (or at least happen to me). Sometimes when I see people the day after a performance (for example, at an event like Homecoming where there are many, many dancers on the stage) I have a difficult time recognizing dancers I don’t know well when they are out of costume and make-up. Or, I know they danced, but I can’t be sure which performance. I think this is particularly difficult in a dance like ATS (R) where we take pride in our consistency. This really bothers me so over time I have tried to make sure I hang out after shows so I can talk to people when I am clear which dance they were in! The other thing that I think sometimes happens is dancers assume the “famous people” like the FCBD (R) don’t need to be told what they did well b/c of course they know. I have never met a “famous” dancer that didn’t seem to genuinely appreciate honest and specific feedback when I had the courage to approach them and say it! Thanks again for your continued contribution to such positive dialogues in our community.

  2. With the “make sure critique was asked for” – do you think that is necessary in a classroom situation? Does turning up to class automatically give the teacher permission to critique? I would say it does, but in some belly dance classes there really seems to be a reluctance to give or receive critique. And I don’t know how our dance can progress without it.

    • A really good question. Personally, I always assume that if I’m showing up to class as a student, I’m there because I want to be critiqued, and I’m often sad if I don’t receive any. However, not everyone wants to progress in their dance — they are showing up to have fun and de-stress — and that has to be okay too. I suspect a lot depends on the student. As a teacher, it can be a challenge to determine the right amount of feedback for each student!

  3. This is a great jumpstart to authentic conversations, Janet. One more thing I might add is asking dancers to go through the process of self-evaluation as well. This would work best with those who have mastered the basics and have reached level 2 or higher. If instructors are able to video tape a performance or practice session, assign the viewing and self-critiquing with specific items for dancers to observe (watch the cue at 1:45–what happened and how might we fix it, how was flock of birds at the transition of fast to slow, etc.). And, I try to be careful with giving feedback publicly unless it’s an issue with the whole group. Great thread going here!

  4. Excellent post!

    This is a very good primer for a peer to peer creative relationship.

    Perhaps you might expand on this in a future post, and address the dynamics in a teacher-student relationship, or a director-troupe member relationship.

    Thank you for posting this.

    • These principles can apply to any relationship, honestly, not just peer-to-peer. But there may be some variations for different dynamics. I’ll think about how to approach that, thanks!

  5. I find it just as important to know what my strengths are as well as my weakness and a lot of time the is not voiced as much as what is done wrong. Building on my strengths is just as important to me as working on my weaknesses. I teach my students when they give critique, to identify as many points that the dancer’s is doing well on as they do when they point out areas of improvement. This may be a controversial way of doing things, but it helps me to improve when I can also focus on my strengths.

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