How We Correct Our Students

If you’ve been following my blog, read my posts on social media or listened to Edwin Olvera’s interview with me on YouTube, you know that I started my dance training extremely late, and my path to a career in dance was in no way “usual”. During those early years of training, I received many detailed, individual corrections. From where I stood as an absolute beginner in my twenties, working to incorporate every correction into my growing technique was one more step toward my impossible goal of building a professional career. But to me, as an adult absolute beginner who was training in New York City under some legendary world-class teachers, every individual correction carried additional meaning: if these teachers are taking their time and talents to work with ME, then I must be “worth working with”… and so each correction pushed me to work even harder, with even more determination and confidence. I was not aware at this time, that not every student viewed individual corrections in the same way that I did.

About a year into my training I became roommates with a brilliant dancer and teacher named Harriet Wilson. During one of our 2:00 AM marathon conversations about dance, I learned that she had always viewed individual corrections as a personal attack. Intellectually, she understood that the teachers were trying to help, but emotionally she was not in a place where she could accept or incorporate anything negative that a teacher might have to say about her work. She listened intently, scrutinized herself in the mirror, and took every correction given in the class as if it was meant for her. But any direct correction given to her was seen as an affront. Years later, when I started teaching, I became very aware of how teachers correct, who teachers correct, and how students accept these corrections.

Since I trained in “open classes”, and I continue to take open classes, I’d like to first address the issue of “student corrections” in open classes. I began my training with Luigi. The legendary Luigi, father of jazz dance training, almost never gave individual corrections. Privately, Luigi once said to me, “If I correct them they don’t come back”. Luigi was brilliant, Luigi was an innovator, Luigi was warm, welcoming, kind, and generous, and Luigi was running a business. In his experience, correcting students in open classes drove them away. No students=no Luigi’s Jazz Centre. Now clearly this is not true 100% of the time. I was an adult student in open classes and I craved individual corrections; and obviously there are others like me. But figuring out who those students are is not always easy. As I continue to take open classes I have become keenly aware of which teachers are getting the best results and have the busiest classes. (these two things do not necessarily go hand in hand.) It appears to me that the teachers who are teaching busy classes filled with steadily improving students, are the teachers who are able to make their students feel welcome and important. They are the teachers who can explain the technical and artistic information necessary for their students to grow, in as concise a way as possible, not letting the class get too “talky”. They are the teachers who compliment their students a lot, giving much encouragement and positive reinforcement. And they are the teachers who give very few, judiciously selected, individual corrections to dancers they KNOW will want and benefit from these corrections. And this is not always easy. (I have often said to an new adult student “You really seem to know what you are doing. If I see something that could use a little tweak would you want a correction, or do you prefer to work on your own?” – (They always say that they want the corrections, but I have come to realize that often they do not.) One of the open classes that I take regularly is taught by a “relentless corrector”. This teacher is one of the finest teachers I have ever met and this teacher gives a lot of corrections. He has confided in me that he doesn’t quite understand why his classes aren’t busier. I have seen this teacher drive away professionals, only to see these dancers in classes where absolutely no corrections are given. Figuring out WHO to correct can be more important and more difficult than WHAT and HOW two correct. I think we also need to be aware of WHY we correct. I sometimes get the sense that some teachers are correcting in open classes not so much to help the student but to impress everyone with their superior knowledge and keen eye. We all need to be very careful how we correct.

When we teach children and preprofessional/conservatory students the situation is somewhat different. Here we get the same students consistently over an extended period of time. We are typically assigned to teach a class that is part of a program, and the students do not have the choice of teacher as they do in open classes. For some time I have been treating these students rather firmly. I have been a bit tough on them…and offered many corrections and few compliments. I believed that this was the way to get a result. Here is a quote from an earlier post:

“I have started telling my students that I am not going to compliment them every time they do something right or there will be no time for teaching. I have even stopped for the most part saying “good” or “right” unless it is REALLY GOOD or REALLY RIGHT. Instead I Say “Better”. But I truly believe that this has to come from a place of love. And the students can tell the difference. If I give this sort of speech, and stop complimenting, and sometimes talk to them more harshly than I would have in the past, my students still know that I love them (because I do). I often tell them that I am desperately trying to given them the opportunity that I didn’t have; because my parents didn’t support the idea of me dancing. And that their success was what was important to me. And so I stopped coddling, I stopped complimenting, and I started encouraging students to WORK.”

And this seemed to be working for the most part; until I met “Kelly”. Kelly, at 10 years old, was the most challenging student I had encountered in a good number of years. She seemed to love ballet but there would be many, many classes where her behavior was just horrible. Without going into the details of the bad behavior, because they aren’t relevant, I can say that I was at my wit’s end and had no idea how to manage her. And there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to when the problems would occur or why they would occur. And then, after 8 1/2 months of dreading those classes twice a week, every week, a pattern emerged: the bad behavior occurred during classes in which she received an individual correction. What was so confusing was that the problem didn’t occur immediately after the correction but a good while later, sometimes 30-40 minutes later. It seemed almost as if she saw the correction as an attack, allowed her anger to stew, and then lashed out sometime later. Well I learned something that day. Over time, things change. Parenting Styles change. Parents change. And due to all of these changes, children change.

One of my goals in teaching the traditional technique of my mentor Luigi, is to make the work relevant to dancers today. I don’t change WHAT I teach. I essentially teach what he taught. But I teach the technique, filtered through my time and experience spent on the stage and in the studio. And I am always looking for ways to make the work relevant and useful to today’s dancers. In the same way I am always looking for ways to make my teaching style and correcting style something that will work for today’s dancers. They are a product of their time. It is not their fault. And I do believe that we need to toughen them up. But if every class and every correction is yet another attack we will never be able to have an impact. I learned that from Kelly that afternoon in April when the pattern emerged. And so now I am looking for a way to reach her, and help her, and yes…toughen her up. But how?

….Another relentless pursuit.

5 thoughts on “How We Correct Our Students

  1. thank you Bill.
    i have much to say in response to what you wrote…and would love the chance to meet with you to discuss this topic.
    i have much to say about corrections and making an impact on every student/dancer who enters the studio to take my class.
    i feel that it is my job to “instruct” and make each dancer aware of something that he or she may not know about his or her body prior to taking my class.
    i especially like to correct during the warm up and give pointers, but i have also learned to be less abrasive and more political correct in my approach.
    some students can take corrections; some thrive on it, yet many reject what you offer them and just want to dance without judgement.
    if i just gave praise and constant encouragement, my open classes would definitely grow. as a professional dance teacher i feel my job is to be honest and truthful.

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  2. I’m afraid that I give a rather “talky” class. If we are doing a combination from a ballet I may have a comment about the ballet – I find that this generation (teens) have almost no knowledge of the past ballet greats. I mentioned Ballenchine once and was greeted with “who’s Ballenchine?” I also remind them of something that changed my attitude when I was a student – corrections are only made because the teacher KNOWS that you can do better.

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    • I also give a VERY talky class. I talk about ballet history, music, technique and how it’s changed…etc. I have been trying to talk less in my open classes. Better for business😉

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  3. Well…I like corrections? Not least because I’m never sure if the teacher is quiet because I’m not making mistakes or because they wouldn’t notice if I started swimming around the studio like a fish in a tank.

    Also I classify them mentally into “general motivation and leadership”, “apps you can install on your feet”, and “cryptic koans from the guru”.

    One (rather well-known) teacher whose open class I take a lot is very keen on weird surreal remarks you take away and hopefully reflect on. I appreciate the performance but I’m not sure how much it helps, especially as his demonstrations tend to be a bit casual, although he is an amazing dancer when he actually goes out in centre. (“watch me wave one hand vaguely over my head while I deliver this bizarre rant about how there are five turnout muscles, like the Brothers Karamazov, and this pass will be in honour of Dostoevsky”)

    Another tends to be dead quiet, although a big demonstrator, but she is beginning to find her voice more.

    Yet a third is full of detail and usually also very keen on demonstration, whether as in dancing it yourself or using a student as a teaching aid. This is pretty great (even counting that time she used me to make a point about relévé and I couldn’t go on demi pointe without stabbing pain for two weeks but not that I’m bitter or anything) but unfortunately her class doesn’t fit into my week easily.

    But in general – I like corrections. Please! More!

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