WEST COAST SWINGFeedback: Giving & Receiving

by Mark Van Schuyver

Nobody likes to be criticized. My friend Bob from Tulsa (name changed of course) lived by this rule for many years, "if a woman criticizes me on the floor, I never ask her to dance again." He meant it too. One word of critique and Bob was history. When I suggested to Bob that that rule was a bit harsh he said, "I know, but this is a social dance and I’m here to have fun. If I wanted help I’d ask for it." He had a point.

I saw Bob dance for years. He loved to dance, but he always complained that he never seemed to get any better. He went to classes occasionally, but resisted coaching of any kind.

Touchy

Mary (name changed too) from Dallas got frustrated and quit dancing for several months. She got sick of free advice. She told me that she hates its when men try to teach her while she’s out on the floor with them. "If they don’t like the way I dance, why do they ask me?" I couldn’t answer that question. Unsolicited feedback is just plain rude. Mary finally came back but she’s got a chip on her shoulder and last time I saw her she was still very touchy about unwanted advice.

Tony, from Atlanta, (real name is not Tony) is a fanatic about dance. For a while, he asked everyone for help. Eighteen months ago, he was a beginner with lots of rough edges. One night at a club Tony asked me to look at his whip. I agreed, and noticed at least four areas that were out of whack: timing, lead, hand position, and use of the slot. Remembering what Bob and Mary said about being criticized, I just smiled and said, "That looks great Tony. You are really getting better."

I did a couple of whips for him, but I made no comment regarding the trouble spots I’d seen in his pattern. I ducked the issue. I figured that was his teachers job to provide feedback. After all, who was I to say what is right or wrong or what might be done differently? Tony thanked me and went back out on the floor repeating the same mistakes over and over, now apparently assured that he was doing fine.

False Confidence

Two weeks later I saw Tony question his instructor’s explanation of whip timing at an intermediate class. I’m not sure, but I fear that Tony got his false confidence from my silence from a few days before. In other words, by giving Tony no feedback, I may have made him think he was doing good. By trying to save his feelings, I actually hurt him. Sorry Tony!

Last year I attended a basic West Coast Swing class in California. I walked in off the street and no one there knew me. The instructor taught the basics. Before allowing us to rotate, she said, "okay, give each other some feedback!" After a few seconds of sharing feedback, the followers rotated and we repeated the practice and the critique. These were basic patterns that I had done for years, yet suddenly I had twenty people tell me what they liked and didn’t like about the way I did them! One hour later I had significantly improved my fundamentals. I got better, fast, because I got honest feedback from a variety of sources.

People need feedback to improve. To ensure success at sales training programs (at M&M/Mars where I work) we apply the tenets of adult learning theory. These principles, proven through many tests and measures, work every time. Following these guidelines, each module of every course I build has a feedback and critique element. If we don’t give the students feedback they will not learn what’s right and what’s wrong. It is as simple as that and dance students are no different.

There is a fine line between giving feedback and teaching. Dance instructors hate it when students try to teach other students during their lesson. And dancers hate unsolicited advice. To get feedback from peers we need to learn to ask for and to give it in a positive and acceptable way. Here are some rules to help:

We all want to get better at dancing. To do so we attend classes and go to conventions. Most of us, however, get stuck at a certain skill zone. For some reason we can’t seem to get beyond the "upper intermediate" level. There could be many reasons for this, but one common cause is the unwillingness to accept feedback.

Like my friend Tony, who eventually realized that he was not an island and came to accept feedback as a healthy and positive thing, we can change. To truly advance, we must be open to the opinion and feedback that others can provide. Otherwise, we are doomed to mediocrity.

Mark Van Schuyver lives in Atlanta. He is a writer and a West Coast Swing enthusiast with over thirteen years experience dancing. More than 100 of his articles have been published in national magazines including many on the subject of dance. You can reach Mark at by e-mail at Zarrdd@bigfoot.com.

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