The Dangers of Giving Feedback

Posted by Jake on 13th December 2014

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.

In Summary

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."

By Jake

Nearly a decade ago, I resolved to run a salsa night the way I thought it should be run and the idea for StreetSalsa was born.  The rest as they say is history..

I've made some of the best friends you could wish for through dancing, and want to share what a life-changing experience dance can be.

By Donna'ton' on 14th December 2014 at 12:22

Ive learnt about this as both a giver and receiver....and i agree with every word.....however......can i just say......it is so hard to find that balance of complimentary and patronising......this is one im still learnin about x

By Jake on 15th December 2014 at 11:08

Yeah Donna, that's the thing that has suprised me the most over the years - that even positive feedback can be taken the wrong way!

By Allison on 15th December 2014 at 12:49

i agree hun! ive had a few people try and give me (bad) feedback and it has felt very patronising and snobby. i agree that you should only give feedback when asked! after teaching i often get asked for feedback while dancing with the wonderful leads that come to our classes.i always make sure i pick up on something positive about their dancing that they can develop into something amazing! it can also be a bit intimidating to dance with the person teaching the class so its important to make everyone feel relaxed!

By Michelle on 15th December 2014 at 13:13

I agree with this article whole heartedly!  There is a class I go to regularly where a leader who is semi regular always gives me feedback after each time I dance with him.  This has the effect of holding the whole class up as I am a polite person, so listen to what he is trying to show me, but in doing so I cannot move on to the next leader and the follower behind me also has to wait.  I struggle to listen anyway as I am aware I am holding everything up!

By Yolanda on 15th December 2014 at 16:30

Really interesting subject!
I appreciate this advices and yours opinions that have made me reflect especially on the positive feedback.
On the other hand I think it's also very important to keep a positive attitude when we receive feedback. I'm going to try to improve both, like giver and receiver.

By Daniel on 16th December 2014 at 17:24

I very much agree with this for social dancing. Unless somebody is doing something really wrong or your partner asks for feedback then it's better to keep your advise to yourself. However during lessons I think that giving your partner feedback should be encouraged.

I'd argue that for the most part it's not the feedback that is the issue, it's the way it's given. Last week I was turning the wrong way during a routein, it wasn't until my 5th or 6th follow that my partner told me I was doing it wrong. She was polite too; "I think you're turning the wrong way", nice and simple. If she'd phrased it differantly I might have taken offence, but she was polite.

There is always more than one way to phrase something. Say for example that as a follow you come up to a lead that is weak and indesisive, you could always say "hey, I prefer a stronger lead, would you mind?". You take resposability for the problem and save the other person's ego, that makes the feedback much easier to take.

Getting good quality feedback from your partners during a lesson is vital. We're lucky to get a whole minute dancing with an instructor during an hour lesson. Often we don't dance with an instructor at all. Your dance partner can give feedback there and then. When learning a routein, follows will often make up for a poor lead by continuing regardless of mistakes. This stops both partners from learning the signals properly. How is a teacher going to spot that without actually dancing with you? A slight tug here, a quick bounce there - they're easily covered by a well meaning but backleading follow.

I wish people would give more (polite) feedback during lessons.

By Dan on 16th December 2014 at 22:25

Very thoughtful, sensitive and considerate post which I agree.

From personal experience; I've not always found it easy to learn something first time around and many times been on the recieving end of some very harsh & cruel rants from teachers (academic and non-academic): who valued their position of authority more than their ability to help and educate students, by making a humiliating example of them in front of others. Fellow pupils have even done the same to inflate their own ego or their insecurity.

Such behaviour as described; shatters confidence, produces low self-esteem, trauma etc. It's outdated, unhelpful and most of all morally wrong to make people that want to learn/contribute/participate feel like outcasts... As teachers and students, we should treat everyone with the respect & courtesy that we ourselves expect from others.

Thankfully, I've not come across any of the above since I began learning salsa. In my humble opinion; I think we all seem to share the reasonable expectations in social and class:

Listen to what the teacher is doing and follow their instruction as best you can.... Ask them if you're unsure and acknowledge that their feedback is a sign of their intention to help you.

Try your best, be polite and respectful.

take what you do seriously but not yourself.

put your partners mind at ease and safety before your own (even if it feels very awkward)

finally, thank your partner for their participation because it's not always easy to dance with new people or those whom you've danced with before (Particularly, if they're stunning).

Feedback* I'm a work in progress and feel it's ideally best for it to be delivered impartially by a teacher; who can dispense fair assessment on both mine and my partners areas of improvement should be together.

By Nina on 5th January 2015 at 14:38

I agree that this is a fairly touchy subject and we should all take feedback in giving and taking feedback (feedbackception!)

However, like Daniel, I think that the lesson if the right place to give feedback, regardless if you are a teacher or not. Many times I have been doing the wrong thing and because no one has told me otherwise, I assumed it was right and learnt it the wrong way. Once it is 'learnt' i find it really hard to learn the new, correct way. Of course there are a million ways of saying that, and luckily I have never had anyone be harsh or rude which I am sure can happen every now and then, but I would definitely prefer to be told if I was doing something very wrong.

I assume that because of my stance in receiving feeback I have one time or other also tried to give people a nudge when I think something is not the way the teacher is doing it or if it doesn't feel right as a follow (I am talking about big mistakes, small things I don't even think of as I am sure I do them all the time too and everyone has their particular style/strenght!). I would never ever say that the way they are doing it is flat out wrong, I would just suggest a way that feels more comfortable for me as a follow or suggest to have a look at the teacher and copy them. More than once, when giving this feedback I have realised that I am the one that was doing it wrong, so it is useful for me too! Having said that, I appreciate that not everyone takes this in the same way and I apologise if anyone has taken it 'the wrong way' before and in the future. I promisse it's all meant in goods spirits (and try my best in conveying that, but after reading this thread I am sure I can improve further!).

Very interesting either way (yes, it is a slow day at work!) and I welcome feedback ;)

Can't wait to see you all this year!! xxx

By Emma on 12th June 2018 at 10:46

I agree, I find this a really difficult one to grapple with. I try not to give feedback as I know that I'm still learning (I still rise when I spin despite endlessly trying not to... and sometimes I turn the wrong way).

The thing I find hardest though is not to give almost "counter-feedback"  e.g. if a person is repeatedly telling you that you've done a move wrong when the timing is off, or their grip (or sometimes lack of connection) would mean that doing the move would be dangerous/send you off balance/isn't possible because there's no momentum it's really hard to know where to draw the line (generally if it's dangerous I do feel like I should speak up though). I guess this is difficult as it's possibly the worst time to give feedback to someone because you're already annoyed at them, so it's not likely to be as measured or presented as kindly as it would at other times! Wonder if anyone else has thoughts about how you draw this line?