We have all heard about the dance studio or teacher who progress some students ahead of time, or hold some students back. The results of these practices are that several students appear to progress because they are the "favorites", while other students appear to be left behind because they are not.
Although this may be the truth in some instances, I want to interject another possibility, which is that these teachers or studio owners simply do not know how to properly assess potential. They may not know how to create an assessment that is objective in nature, and therefore they fall into the comfort zone of using subjective means to assess a student, which is why the element of favoritism creeps into the equation.
I can only speculate that perhaps these teachers or studio owners have not collected enough knowledge in dance and movement to build an objective way to measure and track progress. Or, perhaps they do not know how to obtain quantitative data, or how to use it.
They may feel more comfortable progressing a student with whom they feel is easier to teach, or who does not appear to challenge them. The studio director may feel inclined to progress (or ask teachers to progress) the student whose parent has influence in a community, or unique resources that protects or advances the studio owner's business, without any proof that the student is prepared for the next level.
I believe that most studios are trying to do right by their students, and that teachers and studio owners may not know how much they do not know in dance, or how to use science-backed methods to assess potential in a student. They may not know how much they don’t know, and of course parents look to them for answers because these teachers or studio owners are in a position of authority.
But when a teacher or a studio owner cannot produce a real measurable reason as to why a student should not yet progress into a higher level, the student then relies on their own assessment, which is often, "I'm bored in class, therefore I must already know what I'm doing." Likewise, a parent may observe class, pick up on non-verbal cues from their child, and then also believe that their young dancer should be doing more.
In theory, this appears to be a black-and-white assessment based on observations as well as a student's verbal feedback; but... there may be something else at play.
The intention of this article is to help parents and students understand why a beginner may believe that a class is too easy for them, and why a dance student may believe that they have mastered fundamental skills when there are just starting their journey.
And, as a side note: I believe that teaching a student how to objectively measure their own progress in dance falls upon the teacher(s) until the student knows enough about dance and movement to fairly evaluate themselves and their own progress. This is only one area in dance that uses critical thinking, and this itself is important to learn and practice because this ability is required as an adult. Critical thinking is considered a core competency.
Please note that the following scenarios presented are by no means intended to insult students or disrespect anyone who is learning. These scenarios are used for examples purposely only.
First scenario: the student asks when they will be moved up to a harder class because they feel that the content at their current level is not challenging enough. The parent agrees. This child cannot do either lateral splits with proper hip alignment, cannot spot turns, leads with the heel, has a sickled foot, has difficulties straightening their legs in jumps and leaps, and cannot hold onto a correction or retain complex choreography (with or without a directional change).
Second scenario: the student who, after a few years of taking two to three classes per week, auditions for the studio’s competitive dance team. She is picked to be on that team, but only chosen to compete in two production numbers. The parent does not understand why their child was only selected to be in two production numbers because the consensus in the household is that this young dancer is very good, and making it on the competitive dance team confirms this.
Third scenario: the parent asks, after the first year of ballet, or near the close of the first year of taking two one-hour ballet classes a week (rather than the one, one-hour class they had been taking in prior years), “when can she start pointe? She will be 12 next year.” The ballet teacher down the street puts pointe shoes on 10 year olds and anyone who is age 12 and entering their second year of ballet, and therefore it seems like a natural progression to be on pointe. The student feels ready and thinks the teacher is holding her back.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
There is a scientific explanation to why a student thinks or feels that they are better at something than they actually are, and it's really interesting.
Let’s go back.
A Cornell psychologist, David Dunning, and his graduate student (in the 90s), Justin Kruger published the original article in 1999 titled, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. By the title alone, you can sum up what the study encompassed. What I found interesting is that this was scientifically measured, any one of us may fall victim to it.
The study included a chart that graphed competence vs. confidence, and here is where my interpretation of this matter brings us back to the topic of dance.
Learning and Practicing Dance
I am 100% confident that, in dance, you have to be taught everything you know by someone who knows more than you do. There is no such thing as the person who wakes up and is suddenly an amazing dancer, or the dancer who is self-taught.
Now, if you studied martial arts or trained in gymnastics prior to dance, then yes, you may bring physical skills such as strength, flexibility, balance, and body awareness to the classroom. But, dance, like every skill, has only so many transferrable skills. At some point the playing field becomes equal.
Dance has, built into it, a very steep learning curve, and it is a measurement of character when a student comes back every week, to every class, when they know how many times they will fail before they succeed. Dance is like math in that you cannot skip steps. You have to learn arithmetic before learning algebra. Then you have to practice again and again.
Years ago I was teaching a beginner class and there was one student in particular who stumped me with her perception of how quickly she was advancing. And she was not disrespectful, or impolite. In fact, she and I had a great rapport. But, I was in a quandary each time she would ask me, "Can I have something more challenging?" She just didn't know how much she didn't know.
And then I would teach intermediate students, and the compete opposite would happen. Dancers who worked hard on their craft, and who were very capable, doubted themselves and what they knew in both technique and choreography. It wasn't a personal confidence thing, either. A group of them would become unsure of themselves each time I gave them a challenging sequence.
The data presented in the Dunning-Kruger study matched my observations. The study observed that the individual who has little/no knowledge of a topic held the highest level of confidence, while the individual who had average knowledge of a topic held the lowest level of confidence. The subject-matter expert held enough confidence, but was less confidence than the individual who had little/no knowledge at all!
The curve showed that as a person begins to accumulate a true understanding of the material, and as they realize how much they do not know; their confidence decreases. And then as they continue to gain knowledge in that subject, their confidence increases, but they are cautious to ever believe that they have arrived at an all-knowing status.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect can help us move through life with more patience for others when we remember that people cannot see what they do not yet understand, or do not yet know.
For children who are learning dance, the first part of their learning curve may last 3-5 years. There is so much to learn when it comes to the fundamentals, and putting it all together, consistently, is one of the biggest challenges in dance.
Other challenges includes balance, left and right brain coordination, learning another language (dance terms), learning and refining fine motor skills, understanding music (for those who have not taken music lessons), and cardio-pulmonary and muscular-skeletal stress and conditioning, to name a few. Keep the Dunning-Kruger Effect tucked away in your mind in case you hear the words, "that class is easy."
Article edited to include recent information on objective assessments and learning: