It's Harder Than It Looks...
To parents and dance students reading this: I am aware that there are dance studios out there whose staff may not know how to properly assess a student’s ability, or properly place a student, and they might be ignoring potential because they do not have the range to recognize it.
I know that there are studios among us that place students according to age rather than skill levels and talent, and there are studios out there that employ teachers who have not taken a dance class or continued their training in pedagogy since their sophomore or junior year in high school.
I believe that these studios are trying to do right by their students, and that they might not know how much they don’t know; just like you might not know as much as you think you know, about dance.
Rather than taking to social media in a negative fashion, or leaving your studio (and taking everyone with you), I implore you to recognize the value that a community of dancers brings, and privately (and in person) and with rational thought, please speak sensitively to the teachers and the owner first. If you still feel that your child is not receiving the dance education they want or deserve, then when you leave that studio, please do so with dignity and class. Avoid becoming the worst version of yourself. People genuinely do not often know how much they do not know.
This article is meant to open your mind to how a dance student may think and assess themselves in a dance class, and how we, as leaders in their lives, can help them develop their talents, and also learn how to learn.
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.” Although you cannot control the ballet teacher down the street who puts pointe shoes on 10 year olds, or puts anyone on pointe to retain business, you can understand from a scientific point of view why the parent thinks their daughter is ready for pointe with very minimal training (read on).
It isn’t always a parent’s bias that prompts their conclusion that a child is better in dance than her/his peers, or more skilled than the teacher thinks. Sometimes it is what the student is telling the parent that creates the bias…
The Dunning-Kruger Effect?
There is a scientific explanation to why a student thinks they are better at something than they actually are. And, if you’re the parent writing the scathing email to the studio about how your daughter or son belongs on the competitive dance team, or in more dance numbers, or needs to be pushed, or should be in a class that is more challenging because they were in the most advanced classes at their prior studio… then this article will help you understand what is happening.
So… What is it?
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. The interesting fact here is that this was scientifically measured, and regardless of topic, any one of us may fall victim to it.
And, I know how blunt the title is. I felt my eyebrows furrow when I read the title and then proceeded to read the entire article. But, what of the employee who interviewed well, but when brought on staff is not competent? What of the introvert who might be most competent, but because their personality was not “dynamic enough” was overlooked? Indeed.
The study included a chart that graphed competence versus confidence. Now, here is where my interpretation of this matter brings us back to the topic of dance. In dance, and I know this for sure and I am 100 percent confident about this: you have to be taught everything you know. There is no such thing as the person who wakes up and is suddenly an amazing dancer, and self-taught. Caveat: if it is your style, then yes, you can become very proficient in a short amount of time, and then sculpt your style as you wish, and if you received flexibility training during years of studying martial arts; then yes, you are ahead of the curve a little bit. But for everyone else, dance has a 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.
Prior to reading about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, my peers and I often talked about the dancer who possessed strong talent, who understood the subject matter because they were working on it, and yet doubted themselves and what they knew in both technique and choreography. Conversely, we observed the dancer who lacked a true understanding of what they were doing, and yet were extraordinarily confident, and while they thought they were accepting a correction, they were really just repeating every error... with confidence. They truly believed that they were already there, and were ready to move on. The chart in this study showed the same correlation.
The chart revealed that the individual who has little or no knowledge of a topic held the highest level of confidence, the individual who had average knowledge of a topic held the lowest level of confidence, and the subject-matter expert held enough confidence, but less confidence than the individual possessing little or no knowledge at all!
The curve also showed that as a person begins accumulating knowledge of a topic (true understanding, not regurgitated facts), his/her ability to see how much they truly do not know about that topic increases (thus confidence decreases). As they continue to gain knowledge in that subject, their confidence will increase, but they are cautious to believe they’ve arrived at an all-knowing status.
This study suggests something. It suggests that our human self may be wrong about some things. Maybe that dance class really is exactly where your child should be. Maybe the teacher who is teaching doesn’t know how much he or she doesn’t know, and cannot identify areas where they can improve themselves. The biggest benefit I received from college is having subject matter experts, who also possessed experience, train me on how to assess my own knowledge-base. Tests don’t always do this either, but we’d like to think that they do. How many times have we crammed for a test, aced it, and walked away with little or no knowledge of what on earth we just did? Sometimes tests test how we test, and what we end up learning is what we need to do to get the job done. No such thing in dance. You either know it, or you don't.
Here is how I work through it with a student (or parent) who believes that they are at a higher level than they really are, and it works. And by the way, I did not invent this exercise. My best and most memorable academic teachers used it on me, and it worked. Here it is: I ask my student to teach me dance using words, not physical examples, and they cannot use the dance word(s) I am asking them to explain. You cannot teach me a tendu by saying, "you do a tendu". You must teach me a tendu by explaining all actions to me, from the position of the feet you begin in, to the position of the feet you end in, and all actions in between; in detail, and correctly.
The student is not able to complete this task, but has an Oprah "Ah-HA!"moment and is now in a position for real growth that had been hindered by their own belief that they were more advanced than they really were. The student also learns the difference between knowing, and understanding . The student learns that there is a contextual and interpretive part of dance, taught through communication as well as actions. The student learns that only when you truly understand the subject matter, can you share it. These are lessons that are valuable beyond the dance class.
The flip-side of this story is the student who is phenomenal, who believes that they are average. This isn’t always a lack of confidence… and, I really want people to stop putting confidence and performance in the same bucket. Many people do not perform well because they simply have more to learn, and many people don’t believe they perform well because they simply understand (knowing as much as they know) exactly how much further they have to go before they reach their own version of excellence. For this dance student, keep challenging them. This student might have a deeper understanding of the work than you realize.
The Difference Between Knowing, and Understanding.
I mentioned that material must be understood before it can be shared, or rather, explained. I want to discuss this further because it is worth a mention.
There is a difference between knowing something and understanding it. Example: anyone can regurgitate information that they read, watched, or overheard. Any person can memorize a lecture and present it, rattle off facts in public (or in the classroom), and use industry terms in sentences… but, not everyone can do that and then also take questions after the lecture, or engage in a dialogue. The dialogue, the questions after the lecture, is the difference between knowing something and understanding it.
Many dance students, and teachers as well, want their talent to be showcased on social media and are often judged on how many hits their clip received. But, I am not sure about this method of judgment. There is a difference between learning strings of choreography and learning dance technique and embracing your training. Phrases of choreography can be practiced 1,000 times and the dancer can execute those phrases in a phenomenal way; but, how do they perform outside of those phrases?
Dance teachers who have a deep understanding of dance will help your child learn the smallest details that will add to the bigger picture. Students of these instructors will have an easier time remembering choreography in the long term, and will be happier dancers who are able to take on greater challenges inside and outside of the studio.
If you are leaving your studio because your teacher does not have a strong enough understanding of the material, please provide sensitive feedback before leaving, and please do not become the worst version of yourself on social media. If the studio owner and teachers are morally sound, ethical, good people, then all they need is more education, and truthfully, who doesn't need that? Most of the time, people will not know how much they do not know. (Please also consider the Dunning-Kruger Effect).