Career Choreography

There are only a few good things about summer television:  new episodes of The Closer, and a new season of So You Think You Can Dance.  I admit to being hooked on both, and I further admit that both shows jumped the shark many seasons ago.  I think The Closer is mostly about the writing and the story, which will finally end this year and give way to at least one spinoff.  But  one thing fascinates me about SYTYCD–the Notes that the judges give the dancers.  Apparently, ‘Notes’ are what specific feedback is called in dance world.  And it always appears to me, a Dance Illiterate, that it is absolutely vital to the performer’s performing life.

And I think that is so with all of us.  Feedback is ubiquitous–when we don’t get feedback we plan for, we may randomly interpret whatever feedback shows up.  Even if it isn’t on target.   You have to be really careful with feedback; sometimes it’s just polite commentary masquerading as truth.  Imagine this exchange between Nigel (producer and judge) and a pair of dancers who just completed a Quickstep  (and if you are not a SYTYCD watcher and have no idea who Nigel is, you will have to really imagine) :

Nigel:  “That was good.  I hope you dance that well next time.”

Cat Deeley, on behalf of both dancers who are still out of breath:  “Well, Nigel, good that you didn’t hate it.  Do you have anything to add that might help them next time?”

Nigel:  “Um, not really.  It was a good routine and they looked very good doing it. Quite a lot of talent this year, though, so I hope they do even better.”

I could go on, but you see the point.  The wonderful thing about the Notes is that they are notes, just little specifics, like “Stop kicking your partner,” or “D’ya know you are making weird smiley faces,” or “Your hands and arms are graceful, so use them more.”  (And actually, on this particular show, sometimes the judges cry or scream and get very emotional and detailed about the effect of the performance on them.  While this is indeed important, it is not really as useful to the dancers as you might think.  Crying, etc., though notable, is not Notes.)

To be useful to anyone, feedback (which I am about to begin calling Performance Notes, because I can, and because it is more digestible to a larger audience by that name) must be:

1.  Specific

2. Relate to performance that the recipient can control.  “Well, you had nothing to do with it, but that music was awful and the costume they made you wear was even worse.”

3.  Follow the noted actions as immediately as possible.  “Y’know that waltz you did three weeks ago. . .?”

4.  Individualized.  “This means you.  Not her.”

5.  Presented in relation to a baseline.  “We expect this; you did that.”

6.  Oriented to likely rewards or punishment.  “Keep it up and _____ will happen.”

7.  Positive.  Or at least as positive as possible.  “Your heart and your passion really shone through in that piece.  Now, your feet are another matter. . . let’s see if pointing those toes and standing up a little straighter won’t help that. . . ”

8.  Easily understood and visualized; chartable (chartable, not charitable; like on a graph), if necessary.  “Let’s look at the playback. . .”

Performance Notes (as I am now in the nearly permanent habit of calling incidents of feedback) are really important to a career, so if you are not getting the Notes you need, you might consider giving yourself some Notes.  Specifically, when you are disappointed in your own performance, follow your performance with a personal debriefing session.

  • Were your(written) goals for what you undertook reasonable, and did you meet them?  If you didn’t set them, that may be part of the problem.
  • What (specifically) went well, and why?
  • What would you like to have done better, and what would have teed you up for that?
  • What is your baseline expectation for yourself on your next outing for this category of performance (interview, presentation, network-building event)?
  • How will you reward yourself for improvement?

One of the things that always impresses me about the So You Think You Can Dance judges is that they do communicate that they care, even when they are being very critical.  Caring is crucial to useful Performance Notes.  For me, caring raises the bar; when any performance is regarded as not worthy of Notes, it must not be important.  In my own Quickstep world, even if no one else is paying attention, my performance is important to me.

Ergo, I owe it to myself to deliver Notes, because I care (and I’m usually not too harsh a judge of myself to put up with me).   The question is always:  What was I trying to do and what will I do differently and better, next time?

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