Competition Judges Discuss How to Give Meaningful Feedback
July 22, 2020

For 10 years, Anthony Morigerato judged competitions using almost the same score sheets he got when he was a comp kid. “I thought to myself, ‘Why haven’t they changed at all? Why are they so general?'” As a tap dancer, Morigerato found that only one word (“feet”) on the judge’s sheet applied to him. “It’s not useful to tell a person to go work on their arms, feet or legs. The competition should be as educational as possible,” says Morigerato, executive producer and artistic director of AM Dance Productions.

The adjudication process provides crucial feedback for a dancer’s development. How the critique is delivered, whether through handwritten notes, audio recordings or verbal discussion, can help artists and teachers work to improve their craft. But sometimes the feedback is limited or unhelpful, as Morigerato noted for his tap routines. How can the process be elevated so that it is most beneficial? What kinds of changes have already been made? Adjudication guidelines tend to be slightly different at each competition and convention, each with certain measures of success and drawbacks. Yet while the industry’s process for providing critique might still be evolving, the dancers’ need for useful and educational feedback remains constant.

Prep for Panels

A judging panel, typically composed of about three dance professionals, may be given strict guidelines for adjudication—or none at all. At Artists Simply Human Productions, all judges are on headsets and connected “ESPN style” so they can hear each other and engage in conversation during a routine. “This way is different from the traditional judging format,” says Braham Logan Crane, director. “They are required to talk for at least 2 minutes and 15 seconds during a 3-minute piece, with each judge making individual suggestions.” Recognizing that not every judge is an expert in all areas of dance, the panelist with the most knowledge in that genre will take the lead. “They provide ideas and concepts, not just simple corrections about how to improve the number.”

At American College Dance Association (ACDA) events, adjudicators are selected in part because of their professional and educational backgrounds. But they are discouraged from knowing anything about the work being presented. “The requirement for anonymity has evolved and been refined over decades,” says executive director Diane DeFries. “Adjudicators respond to seeing and hearing each work one time in the theater, without any connection to the process. It allows for the kind of feedback that’s hard to get and closer to the audience experience.”

Yet despite the different participation requirements of judging panels, Alex Prushinski of Star Dance Alliance emphasizes a universal need for judges to be on the same page, with similar expectations. “I would like to see a goal for the entire competition industry that all judges are informed about different genres of dance,” she says. “We need the hip-hop teacher to know technical ballet and tap terms, even though everyone has a different background.” Some panels are more well-rounded and adept than others when it comes to critiquing a variety of dance genres.

Feedback Formats

In response to this need for more genre-specific feedback from judges, Morigerato developed a system called CODA for Break the Floor. “Dance competitions are good at identifying the problem, but they’re not so adept at offering the dancer a solution to that problem,” he explains. The digital product has three components: judge training, educational video content, and data for teachers and studio owners. Judges are trained so they understand the foundational components for each genre. “Each score sheet is broken down so that even if you’re not a tap dance person,” he adds, “you still understand and can communicate what makes for a nice tap routine.” Morigerato has worked with faculty to develop more than 1,000 instruction videos to accompany feedback from judges, so that dancers have additional tools to work on areas that need improvement.

At Youth America Grand Prix, judges may score both classical and contemporary pieces, but they use the same ballet vocabulary to identify steps and transitions in both categories. “What’s also great about YAGP is that we get to see the dancers in class before or after they compete,” says Anna Liceica, master teacher and competition judge. “I talk to them in class about things they should apply onstage during a variation, and after they’ve competed, I can help them with things they have to work on. Hopefully they take that feedback with them.”

Feedback from YAGP is handwritten and personal for each contestant. Break the Floor’s CODA system provides digital feedback with educational videos. Other competitions, like ones produced by ASH Productions, provide one video file per dance that includes audio feedback from three judges. “People can download it a few days after the weekend event,” says Crane. “If each judge were to send out a separate critique, and a studio sends 50 dances, that would mean the teacher would have to sift through 150 videos. I don’t think they would all be listened to or utilized to their full capabilities.”

In-Person Discussion

Like YAGP’s in-person class instruction, the opportunity for participants to engage directly with the judging panel could be an efficient and beneficial format. Artists performing at ACDA events receive six to eight minutes of feedback after their performance. “Each adjudicator has two minutes to talk, then two minutes to have a conversation amongst themselves about what one another saw,” says DeFries. “There are also 50 to 100 people in the audience, so the adjudicators are also addressing these people and talking about the artform. Comments can be used by the people who were in the dance, and made the dance, and saw the dance.”

Yet with nothing provided in written form or a digital format for takeaway, this kind of feedback is just as ephemeral as the performance. Dancers, teachers and choreographers could interpret the conversation differently; details or suggestions could be misheard or misremembered. But on the other hand, comments are timely and responsive. “It’s hard for people to get this kind of feedback when they are developing work in an academic situation,” says DeFries. “The work is being seen and reviewed in the moment, not over time by a mentor or peer group.”

Judge the Performance, Not the Performer

According to ACDA’s guide for adjudicators, its feedback model has strengths and limitations. “The Association recognizes that an adjudicator is seeing a dance only one time in performance, and responses come from the vantage point of an audience member, not a peer or mentor. The value of the structure,” says DeFries, “is that it allows for responses free from the influence of personal involvement in the creation of the dance.”

Crane agrees that the performance should be judged on the performance itself, and not influenced by what the teacher might have seen in class. “It’s human nature to combine both experiences,” he says. “We try to avoid having someone judge a participant in class, because if the dancer doesn’t live up to that expectation in their solo, the score might reflect that.”

In the end, the judging process should be a healthy experience for performers. Critiques—digital, in-person or handwritten—can be given in a way that provides useful tools for continued growth and the development of stronger future performances. Teachers can also help the process by receiving and interpreting the feedback constructively for students. “Everyone needs to remember that dance is an art and not a sport,” says Prushinski. “When you put three different judges on a panel, you will have a completely different outcome. It’s very subjective.”

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