On Feedback

As many of you know, I’m currently a trainee on the Pilates Bridging course. After teaching Pilates for 8 years I finally took the long overdue step towards upgrading my certification so that I could begin to teach on the Pilates equipment. As necessary and obvious as this step has been to my career, learning how to be a ‘trainee’ in a field in which I already consider myself to be a ‘professional’, has been a hard pill to swallow.

Ofcourse I know that I do have a lot to learn, as does anyone in this field. The body and movement are an ever emerging landscape, people change, ideas evolve. We’ll never fully ‘know’, we can only keep on searching and developing and no doubt at some point we’ll all get stuck on one idea or another. We’ll all do something that we look back at 10 years later and wonder how on earth we ever considered that to be safe. (At least so the teachers who have been teaching long enough to experience this, have told us.)

The problem is that this appreciation of the unknown seems a little at odds with the way in which we have to stand up each day in front of classes full of people, facing clients who pay us to know, and attempt to inspire confidence in what we teach. Afterall what we do involves putting ourselves out there all the time. We need to practice what we preach, we need to be clear about what we teach and we need to be confident and to some degree, authoritative in our work. Because without establishing our voice, we’ll never get anywhere.

What I have realised over the last twelve months is that that ‘voice’ can very easily be confused with having an ‘ego’. I include myself in this too. I walked onto the course knowing what I knew. And knowing what I knew made me want to seek recognition for this. Unfortunately this little monkey of an ego encountered everyone else’s ego’s too. I guess I realised that Pilates teaching is quite an ego-centric profession and it has to be because we all work, mostly, quite independently, and so we all get used to our ‘way’ of doing things. Another thing I noticed is: we’re not very good at taking criticism, because that undermines the notion that we ‘know’ which can be very de-stabilizing for a self-employed teacher whose ‘know-how’ is the source of their livelihood.

I think that it’s one area in which the dance world has a lot to teach the Pilates world. Being an artist requires an equal amount of ‘putting yourself out there’. We often have to put work in a public domain before it’s even clear in our own heads, and we have to accept that it will be judged. We compete with each other for the very small pots of funding that exist these days, and for the recognition that we need from the big institutions in order to allow us to continue to make new work. But here’s the key: we don’t have all out war on online discussion forums. We agree and disagree with each other about lots of things, we like and dislike each other’s work, we get frustrated at times when we see the same old people being recognised. Yes, all true. But when we walk into each other’s rehearsals, watch each other’s works in progress or pay to see each other’s performances, we don’t blatantly try to put each other down. We don’t lie and say we loved it when we didn’t. We know how to provide constructive feedback, we know how to give a sense of what we thought without compromising our position and still we have the graciousness to accept that none of us create amazing work all the time.

The reason for this is that debate, feedback and discussion are built in to the practice of making right from the outset. I remember early on in my dance training, sitting in a group in a composition class, where we were all struggling with how polite we needed to be about someone’s work that we all felt had fallen a bit short. The lecturer stood up and said that the ground zero of any contructive peer feedback has to be that we’re all amazing, we’re all talented, we’ve all got a huge amount of potential. But we can’t grow unless we learn how to question, and how to receive questions.

Feedback is a perspective. It can come from someone you respect and who is years ahead of you. Unfortunately it can also come from someone you do not respect and who has no appreciation of you. And it doesn’t always come from a place of genuine contribution. Giving and receiving feedback is a skill that we need to learn and nurture. The giver needs to detach from jealousy or any other emotion that may be hi-jacking their perspective. The receiver has to recognise where that offering is coming from and be strong enough to either accept or shelf it. When both the giver and the receiver do it well it’s a reminder to both to question what we have forgotten to question.

The problem is that none of us are perfect. That doesn’t mean that we should all give up and stay in bed. Does it matter if what you say today is not what you say tomorrow? Being challenged on what we know doesn’t mean that we’re wrong. It’s an opportunity to understand what we know further. Against the acceptance of never fully knowing, we still somehow have to decide on what we know today and teach that with full appreciation of the fact that we only know what we know today, perhaps tomorrow we’ll have to review it. As one choreography teacher once told me: each performance is a framing of one point in time, it doesn’t have to be the final picture. We can’t be afraid to say what we think. Putting it out there is brave because it invites discussion, and someone somewhere will disagree with you. When you know that and you put it out there anyway, you open yourself up to growth. But growth can be easily squashed when it’s met with agression and jealousy.

We’re lucky enough to be a part of a profession that I strongly believe is a force for real good in the world. Let’s be one that grows also.

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