Making the Grade: Objective assessments in the subjective world of dance
By Kay Waters
As the director of Dance Theatre of Harlem School, Endalyn Taylor had plenty of experience with assessing students. During her 10 years at the school, which included serving as assistant director for education and outreach, the former Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) ballerina scrutinized dancers at all levels, from beginners to those in the pre-professional group that fed into the company.
But when she left the DTH School in 2014 to become an assistant professor of dance at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, Taylor confronted a dilemma new to her: how to assign academic grades to students’ classroom performance that would be honest from her perspective as a professional dancer yet fair to her students.
“When I started teaching at the university, I brought my history of teaching and training with me—and that was a very conservatory-dance mindset, where what I was mostly looking for was how well someone executed [technique],” Taylor says.
She adds that even though her department uses a syllabus and grading rubric that measures aspects other than technical competence (such as attitude and understanding concepts and principles), the focus on technique still left her with questions about her approach to grading. “I had wonderful students who were so very present in the class,” she says. “Maybe they didn’t come in with the best aesthetic or physical ability, but they were the most giving; they had a certain energy.”
She says she changed her approach this school year. “Now my mindset has shifted to how they’re progressing, how they’re working, the qualities of the movement, their approach to corrections, and not so much ‘This person’s leg doesn’t go up as high’ [as those of other students].”
Taylor isn’t alone. Message boards, social media threads, and conference speeches and workshops abound with discussions about the complexities of applying academic grades to the art of dance.
In his keynote address at DanceHE’s April 2015 annual symposium at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, choreographer and author Jonathan Burrows, who has experience as a visiting professor, noted the frequently fraught relationship between dance as an art form and dance in academia.
Many in the dance world love the fact that theory influences dance education, but they also mistrust it, Burrows said in his speech. The challenges for dancers in academia include the awareness that “theory enriches us but also becomes the new orthodoxy, and we must also resist that,” he said. “And we must defend the intelligent absurdity of the dancing body, because most of us are here because once upon a time we stood up in a room and moved around in an approximately dance-like way and felt something that resisted definition.”
Austin Hartel, a former dancer with Pilobolus Dance Theater who is now on faculty at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, says that after 15 years in academia he still struggles with the idea of grading dance students.
“I have a hard time with it, thinking we should assign a grade for an art,” says Hartel, who directs both his modern dance company, Hartel Dance Group, and the university’s modern troupe, Contemporary Dance Oklahoma. “It probably took me a couple of semesters to sort it out in my head. And even now it’s still, to me, one of the most difficult things. I wish I could just give a [grade of] pass or fail. To give a grade of A, B, or C to an art form seems odd.”
Complaints from students (as well as from educators, about their peers) abound about college dance teachers whose grades are unfair or whose grading approach is ambiguous or unrealistically narrow. However, some educators say that being required to grade students has pushed them to reexamine how they teach, how they communicate with students, and departmental policies or guidelines regarding student assessment.
“I’ve been in academia for 20 years, and I’ve come to look for a lot of different things, starting with the purpose of the class itself,” says jazz and tap choreographer Bob Boross, a visiting associate professor at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia.
At many schools, the expectations for students who take recreational dance classes or are not dance majors are different from those for students who are dance majors. Educators say that although ability is important in a technique class, they tend to consider things like participation, effort, and attitude more when grading students who are not majoring in dance.
For students who are dance majors, considerations extend beyond technique. “What I’ve come to look for is their level of investing themselves and trying to get the information you’re giving to them,” Boross says. “Are they putting in the time and attention and focus? If they’re going to be a working professional someday, am I seeing that in the way they approach their work?”
Shenandoah University’s dance department is one of many that utilize regular department-wide assessments of dance majors, though schools differ in their processes and in how the assessments factor into grading. Boross says that Shenandoah’s students perform prepared routines in front of the entire faculty, but teachers have autonomy in determining grades.
At the University of Texas at Austin, the dance faculty’s department-wide assessments include all six full-time faculty members. They observe each dance major (typically 70 to 73 majors, according to the department) in class and participate in a discussion with each one.
“When we have our [teacher-only] panel discussions,” says Lyn C. Wiltshire, professor of dance at UT Austin, “it’s a chance for the faculty to discuss how each student is doing in each discipline, to make sure students are not falling through the cracks or being inconsistent—doing well in one class and not doing well or having poor attendance in another.” Faculty discussions are opportunities to discuss the challenges (for both students and teachers) created when students come to the program with limited training but demonstrate potential.
Wiltshire says the faculty discussions with the students are essential because of the critical communication that occurs. “What you don’t know sometimes is that the students’ ability to improve may not have to do with what’s happening in the classroom,” she explains. “Maybe they’re working full time, plus they’re a full-time student. Maybe they’re having problems with their living situation, or family problems, nutrition problems. All of these need to be weighed in the evaluative process. In our sessions with the students, each faculty member will weigh in from the perspective of their class. It’s a real conversation between us and the students about their progress, instead of just a grade on a paper.”
Wiltshire says she finds it helpful to be specific about her evaluation criteria and to communicate her expectations clearly and frequently to her students. Her evaluations, for example, include students’ grasp of the material as well as their mental focus, body and spatial awareness, musicality, alertness, and movement quality.
Still, there is the issue of artistry, and this can be the trickiest area to deal with in grading.
“Technique is a very finite thing; either the leg is straight or it isn’t. Even for people who have bad feet or bad rotation, you can still see if they’re trying to apply the concepts and are fully engaged in working on whatever issue they have,” says Randy James, associate professor of dance at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and artistic director of the all-male modern dance repertory company 10 Hairy Legs.
He recalls one experience during his first year at Rutgers. “A young woman came up to me at midterm and said she wanted to know what her final grade was going to be,” he says. “I said, ‘I don’t know what your final grade is going to be. It’s midterm.’ She didn’t want to know what her midterm grade was. She wanted to know what grade she would be getting at the end of the semester.”
In grading disputes, James says, he always refers students to his syllabus, which includes grading and attendance rubrics and rules on things such as the number of absences allowed before a student’s grade drops.
However, when it comes to grading choreography, that’s “very subjective,” he says. “For me, that’s an entirely different process.” He bases grades on two factors: how his students evaluate themselves, and his one-on-one discussions with them about their work.
“I find that the students are very accurate in their self-evaluations when you ask them what they feel worked and what didn’t,” he says. “Some of them tend to actually undergrade themselves a lot of times, and I talk to them about that, too. But I don’t want them to feel they have to do this certain thing in their dances to get an A, either.
“I know some people who teach choreography want [their students] to choreograph how [the teachers] choreograph,” James continues, “or they won’t give an A if a student doesn’t put certain techniques in their dances. I understand practicing the types of techniques—flocking, ABA, rondo, and all the others that are taught. But it’s also about what works for the piece. I tell them that ultimately it’s not about me liking or disliking their work; it’s about being honest about what they did, what they accomplished, and what they’re going to take away from this.”
Native Chicagoan Kay Waters is a New Jersey–based freelance writer and part-time dance teacher.