My personal philosophy on the giving and receipt of feedback has drawn me into a number of heated discussions over the years. The reason I'm so passionate about this subject, is because I've seen the damage that giving feedback can do to the self-esteem of another individual and as a result, overall attendance at dance classes and events.
So many articles and videos discuss the finer points of salsa technique, but very few address the finer points of salsa etiquette - and if you're going to take your dancing to any level, that's just as important in your development as how to lead and follow multiple spins. You won't get anywhere if nobody wants to dance with you anymore.
Ok, so what am I talking about and what are the dangers?
They Made Me Feel 'This' Small
It's amazing how many times the hard work I put into welcoming new people into partner dancing, is undermined by well-meaning individuals giving feedback - particularly to beginners.
The giver of feedback is thinking, I'm helping this person - they're making a mistake. I need to tell them how to do this step, I've been dancing for years - I know it all.
The receiver? OMG, who does this person think they are? I can't believe they're telling me that I'm doing it wrong. I feel 'this' small right now. I can't wait to get out of here and never come back. They're not even doing it like the teacher.
I can tell you from our comprehensive system of feedback and observation - both formal and informal - that people naturally avoid confrontation, so will smile, nod and then vote with their feet - by avoiding dancing with you, complaining or stepping out of the network altogether.
And I'm talking to the teachers out there as well. So many teachers think that developing the 'best' dancers is the most important thing to consider in their classes, whatever that means in the context of a social dance. That people must just accept that when the teacher singles them out in front of a group - it's for their own good and the teacher has their best interests at heart.
But the reality is that this is not the Royal Ballet - and I'll tell you this, that for every person who can take something like this on the chin, there are countless others who will be mortified and never come back. If you can't accept this, then have a think about your retention rates and ask yourself why so few people stick it out beyond their first couple of classes.
Given the fact that they majority of people who step into your class are doing it to build confidence, make some new friends and have a laugh - an experience like the one above is a complete fail against all three.
What qualifies as giving feedback?
In what circumstances do I think that giving feedback has risks? Well, in any situation actually:
- Well-meaning individuals in classes trying to teach other students. It takes a great deal of self-evaluation and practice to become a good teacher. You may think you're explaining it correctly but take it from one who has learnt through bitter experience, it takes lots of hard work and plenty of mistakes to develop into an effective teacher. It takes two to tango, or salsa for that matter, if you and your partner are having difficulty with some material - direct a question to the actual teacher.
- Similarly well-meaning individuals telling someone they're doing something wrong on the freestyle dance floor. This is an absolute no-no. And it comes in many guises. You might think that telling someone how to do something is constructive, but the majority of people will just you think you are telling them they are doing it wrong and it will damage their confidence. Keeping your mouth shut is the safe bet.
- Teachers pointing out an individual's mistake in front of a group of people. This one is particularly destructive, most people don't like to be the centre of attention, so calling out their mistakes in front of a group of their peers will be enough to leave most people feeling mortified. It is strictly our policy to never do this, our teachers are trained to look out for mistakes and then address feedback to the whole group. And yes, some people will continue making mistakes because they don't listen and sometimes aren't aware. Which leads on to my next point...
- Teachers giving students one-to-one feedback either in the circle or a one-to-one session. While I'm teaching a class I drop into the circle and dance with the students during the practice time, and I also give one-to-one sessions at some of our events. On these occasions I will very carefully give some limited feedback, using every ounce of experience I've developed in the years I've been teaching. But I'm very careful to ensure it is received in the right spirit - and I would NEVER do this at a class where it isn't clear that I'm a teacher - or for that matter, at another teacher's class. Or during a freestyle session, in these circumstances I will try to communicate using my lead alone. Follows, you can do the same with your following, by hijacking the lead if the dancer is out of time, leading you into something uncomfortable, or if you want to mark the music in your own way.
- Giving positive feedback. Admittedly, the risks involved with giving positive feedback are not as numerous. But they still exist! Telling someone 'well done', can be received as patronising and demeaning. So be careful, even with this!
A Simple Rule of Thumb
My advice on the matter of giving feedback can be simply summed up and stated as this:
"Do not give feedback unless you are asked for it."
As with all simple rules of thumb, there are some exceptions. But if you're going to bite the bullet and give some feedback, think long and hard first:
- If the person in question is in danger of causing harm or dancing inappropriately. In this circumstance you are well within your rights to give that person some feedback. Even better, politely excuse yourself and raise your concerns privately with an event organiser. If your concerns aren't dealt with, find another event.
- You are good friends with the person and know each other well. Now be very careful with this one. At most dance events you will find that people are very friendly, and will make a lot of new friends. But ask yourself, are you good friends? Would you do things outside of dancing together, do you keep in touch with each other? Do you have a relationship of trust in which you could talk to that person about anything? If not, keep your feedback to yourself.
- You are a teacher. The danger of not giving feedback as a teacher is that people will continue making some mistakes if they are not pointed out to them. This will hamper their dance development as they internalise the mistakes. So it is your responsibility to try and bring up those mistakes in a sensitive manner. But if you're new to teaching, I'd advise keeping your feedback aimed at the group while you develop your style - teaching one-to-one requires a very refined skill set. And keep your nose out, if it's not your class and the individual doesn't know that you are a teacher.
I accept that when people do give feedback it is well-meaning in the vast majority of cases, they're only trying to help.
In partner dance, awareness of yourself and your partner is one of the most difficult skills to develop - much more difficult and subjective than the steps, timing or moves. It can take years to develop this, and in some cases it will never happen.
So remember, the next time you think of making a comment to someone about their dancing - even a positive one - if in doubt:
"Do not give feedback unless you are asked for it."