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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.
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+).
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.”
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.
Pain is an inevitable part of a dancing life and dancers have a high tolerance for it, according to Sean Gallagher, a New York physical therapist whose practice includes many professional performers. "So when dancers complain, it really means something," he says.
But women and men experience pain differently, and tend to be treated for it differently as well. Female dancers need to understand those differences before they go to a doctor, so they can make sure they get treated promptly and effectively.
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
Ever wonder why some dancers' port de bras appears to be disconnected from their body? It typically comes down to how they stabilize their shoulder blades, says Marimba Gold-Watts, Pilates instructor to dancers like Robert Fairchild.
"Dancers often hear the cue to pull down on their latissimus,"—the biggest muscle in the back—"which doesn't allow the shoulder blades to lie flat," she says. "It makes the bottom tips of the shoulder blades wing, or flare out, off the rib cage."
Rebecca Warthen was on a year-long assignment with the Peace Corps in Dominica last fall when a storm started brewing. A former dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and Columbia City Ballet, she'd been sent to the Caribbean island nation to teach ballet at the Dominica Institute of the Arts and in outreach classes at public schools.
But nine and a half months into her assignment, a tropical storm grew into what would become Hurricane Maria—the worst national disaster in Dominica's history.
Sidra Bell is one of those choreographers whose movement dancers are drawn to. Exploring the juxtaposition of fierce athleticism and pure honesty in something as simple as stillness, her work brings her dancers to the depths of their abilities and the audience to the edge of their seats.
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
Some dancers move to New York City with their sights set on a dream job: that one choreographer or company they have to dance for. But when Maggie Cloud graduated from Florida State University in 2010, she envisioned herself on a less straightforward path.
"I always had in mind that I would be dancing for different people," she says. "I knew I had some kind of range that I wanted to tap into."
New York City Ballet is celebrating the Jerome Robbins Centennial with twenty (20!) ballets. The great American choreographer died in 1998, so very few of today's dancers have actually worked with him. There are plenty of stories about how demanding (at times brutally so) he could be in rehearsal. But Peter Boal has written about Robbins in a more balanced, loving way. In this post he writes about how Robbins' crystal clear imagery helped him approach a role with clarity and purpose.
Who says you need fancy equipment to make a festival-worthy dance film? Right now, two New York City–based dance film festivals are calling for aspiring filmmakers to show their stuff—and you don't need anything more cumbersome than a smartphone to get in on the action.
Here's everything you need to know about how to submit: