Training

Why Grade Dance?

Ting-Yu Chen believes there is no one path to deserving an A in dance. Photo by N_Link_Photography

The challenges and rewards of grading college technique classes.

Bring up the subject of grading dance in higher education, and professors and students alike will sigh. What does a “B” tendu look like? How can you give a jumping combination an 83?

Grades and art do not get along well, as almost any dance professor will tell you. Still, at most colleges and universities, grades must be given, and so professors must find ways to quantify the unquantifiable.

Creating Guidelines

Grading rubrics may appear straightforward, but they present challenges for both instructors, who grapple with how to define the art form’s inherent subjectivity, and students, who may focus more on scores than refining their skills. Each person has their own aesthetic biases, and there are many ways to dance well.

When Jillian Harris first joined the faculty at Temple University, she helped to create standards for modern technique, which took the form of a checklist where a “5” represents very proficient and confident and a “1” represents not proficient or confident. Temple’s standards for Level I modern include items such as “Overall movement efficiency and proper alignment” and “Using the plié and cushioning through the feet.” Level IV standards include “Ability to seek out and investigate new information as part of the learning process” and “Embodiment of a mature work ethic, consistent with that of a professional performer.”

Ting-Yu Chen, dance division chair and associate professor at Shenandoah Conservatory, looks at grading as a way of determining “how well students are mastering their own instrument.” She relies on a rubric that breaks down grades into Technique, Artistry, Accuracy (how clearly they perform the choreography), Body Maintenance (overall physical condition) and Professionalism. Each category weighs 20 percent of the “Dance” portion of the technique grade, which weighs 90 percent combined with 10 percent for written work.

Attendance is often a critical factor, since showing up for technique class is how the work gets done, unlike in a lecture course where students can catch up on reading and notes if they miss class. In many institutions, students are allowed a certain number of absences in technique over the course of a semester, and for each absence beyond that their final grade will be dropped by one step (for example, from a A to A-, or A- to B+).

Questioning Standards

Even with the most thorough standards, though, there is often cause to disregard them. “I don’t teach a codified technique, so there’s no exact way to do what I’m asking,” says Cornelius Carter, professor and director of the dance program at University of Alabama. “I just get totally ill when it comes to grading.” Carter teaches jazz and modern, in addition to composition courses, and feels his “job is to get students involved in questioning.”

He’s created a rubric that allows for open discussion and includes elements such as attendance, consistency and work habits. But, Carter notes, “quite often, the brilliant students don’t do anything on the rubric and, when teaching a combination, you are constantly surprised by the different ways students present their intelligence.”

The Results

Despite the difficulty of assigning grades, some benefits do emerge. Grades force professors to deeply consider what they are teaching and what results they seek in their students. Chen says, “It’s so much about us, the graders, searching inside ourselves. Every grade we assign, we’re putting out there our philosophy of what dance is.” She also notes that in an academic environment, grades “give you something to strive for. We assign students a grade that helps them know where they are.”

Drawbacks emerge when students—conditioned by endless standardized testing in K–12 education—focus too much on grades, often saying, “Tell me what I need to do to get an A.” There’s no one answer, and the path to an A in dance will not always seem easy, or even fair. Chen says, “Some students with raw talent and a gifted body type come in at a high level; others have to work really hard to get to the A range.” That’s why most grading rubrics take into account elements such as work habits and professionalism, since, as Carter says, “we’ve all seen students who can do anything you ask, but they’re asleep.”

Outside of academia, of course, grades have little meaning. An artistic director watching a dancer audition is not going to look at college transcripts to check the dancer’s technique grades. They’re going to watch how the dancer performs in front of them and interacts with others. “The grade that comes out at the end does not guarantee you a job,” Chen says.

This tension between the reality of the field and the expectations of academia cannot be erased by the perfect grading rubric. Students ultimately must accept that earning a degree in dance means dealing with grades, even though grades don’t mean much once they graduate. As Harris says, “All I can do is be honest with students about that tension. When you leave the university, no one is going to give you a rubric. You have to be self-motivated and create your own.”

The Pros of Self-Grading

To mitigate the impersonal nature of grades in technique classes, Cornelius Carter incorporates self-assessment into his grading process at University of Alabama. “In my process, the students get to propose their grades. We sit down one-on-one, go through their proposal and see how it matches up against mine.” This self-assessment follows the syllabus-grading breakdown exactly as Carter’s does. Most of his faculty adopted this marriage of self-assessment and instructor feedback. “Let’s come in and hash it out so we can both cry and fall on the floor and get it over with,” he says. It takes a bite out of students receiving electronic feedback and having no way to really engage or respond.

Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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