Navigating Subjectivity in Dance Training

Apr 12, 2021

Martha Buss

Martha Buss


An ability to create freely and move past your comfort zone is adversely encouraged in most dance training settings. The performing arts hold an abundance of potential and most educators work tirelessly to draw this out in their students, as such I continue to admire how their dedication encourages new waves of artistic output. Yet I wish to touch on the issue of subjectivity within dance, hoping that awareness around the matter helps moderate developing artists’ outlooks in receipt of feedback. Personal opinion is an unavoidable and useful aspect of creative discussion but there is difficulty in acknowledging when this can enable flaws in the education system. 

One understands that pandering to an assessor’s preference restricts individuality and thus is to be avoided, but unfortunately this tends to clash with a desire to excel academically. In building a rapport with tutors you subconsciously (or consciously) develop an understanding of their preferences and interpretations of the curriculum and I have personally seen how this knowledge can influence the path my peers’ choreographic/explorative projects take. I would argue such effects start as early as GCSE and A Level Dance due to educational establishments paring a skewed desire for advertisable statistics with overbearing advice on applying to University. As students become wise to creative sacrifices available to take in the hope to advance their position, what can follow is understandably complicit behaviour that satisfies the system. This superficially has a high chance of transferring through to undergraduate study. Even when University students are committed to nurturing their practice, they are profoundly aware of the marks needed to obtain a notable degree that will set them apart in a competitive job market. Therefore when academic staff lay out their preferences (in whatever format), students take note.

Dance is a fundamentally expressive form rooted in instinctual movement and this is what makes creative tasks so hard to moderate in an assessment format. Comparing multiple bodies, multiple intentions and multiple approaches to the same criteria certainly presents challenges and I certainly do not claim to have the answer as to how students and teachers can navigate this. Yet in understanding the presence of subjectivity I believe dance educators have a real responsibility to uncover and accept their own routed bias and work to question them where appropriate when assigning marks. Equally, students must remain aware that feedback on creative projects should not always be taken at face value and instead use that interpretation to fuel an artistic journey. Of course this concern does not apply in the same way to technical assessments where structural dance forms, such as Ballet, naturally provide right and wrong ways to safely practice.

In actual fact, experiencing other people’s aversion to your creative choices may help define the parameters of your work and motivate ambitions. Dancers gain perspective, resilience and character in light of criticism and this is not to be avoided. Building review sessions into research and development processes will certainly refine work as external eyes will clarify if your intentions have materialized. However, be sure to utilise awareness of subjectivity for your benefit as we must defy norms within given boundaries in order to push them forward. Even when addressing an industry with an already diverse body of work there is endless opportunity to pursue this and aid the unearthing of new potentials in movement. The variety of successes and failures in this on-going discovery resultantly contributes to the Arts continued relevance in society and fills auditoriums with intrigued audiences, expanding the industry’s portfolio one venture at a time.

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