Sunday, 23 December 2012

2. The feedback process

We can be 'freed' through shifting perceived responsibility away from ourselves.

In the workshops over the past 2 weeks the dancers have generally experienced greater ‘flow’ (manifested, for example, as “the place where you don’t have to think about it”, where the “structure” of the movement may stay the same but “intention and quality is different”, after which we felt “a bit sad [that] it was over”) when they have felt able to give up some of the responsibility for making decisions about what they are doing. For example, the dancers have felt more free when being physically supported by others, and also when they are given verbal instructions by an external ‘coach’ figure (and this was even the case when that external feedback was delivered purely as a series of commands, without any personalisation; in this instance, it was often how the feedback was being said and the fact that it was being given at all that was more important than what was being said). The dancers experienced that “External feedback can encourage you to think of things you hadn’t considered, unexpected things”, and they placed high value on this new information. They “felt more in flow” in response to the challenge of trying to respond in the moment to someone else’s feedback”, or to perform for them. They also described that they felt less pressure when being given external feedback (and that this was therefore more “satisfying”) because someone else was “taking initiative”, or taking the responsibility for “challenging the [movement] material”, and that therefore that other person would be “to blame” if anything went “wrong”.

Physical feedback was particularly powerful in enabling the dancers to experience flow. They described it as “immediate response”, most effective when it was “genuine” so that the dancers felt they were really being supported by the people around them (i.e. that they were in safe hands) and when the physical feedback was very clear. The dancers also described that when being supported physically by other people, they were less inclined to think about what the movement looked like from the outside (implying their capacity to switch off their sense of judgement) and were more likely to find what they described as “natural, organic pathways” between movements. When working in physical contact, they were able to become highly focussed on what they were doing, and were able to prioritise their awareness of how other people might be experiencing the movement over their own experience, which they nonetheless found very enjoyable. They also described time passing very quickly when they worked with other people.

I would like to find out more about why external feedback is so enabling, whether (and why) we come to depend on it and what it is about feedback that sustains us?
It seems (from our workshops so far) that something about feedback enables us physically or metaphorically/imaginatively to be able to take the leap off the cliff, even though that leap in itself is a solitary act. We are bolstered by other ‘voices’ and therefore find the strength to do something we might not do on our own. In the stimulus story Fly, the main character is preoccupied by the voices of other people who have taunted him by saying “Scaredycats don’t get to the moon”. In defiance of those other voices, and even though they are unkind, he does jump.

This seems consistent with one of the other discoveries we have been making during the research workshops, which is to do with the fact that we are also more likely to experience flow when working with other people (Elsa has recommended Charles Walker’s work on ‘social flow’ (2010), which discusses the “contagious nature of emotion”, the fact that “people working together actually raise the challenge of a task” and therefore requires us call on a greater skill-level to be able to meet that challenge”, and also cites previous research showing that “groups take more risks than individuals”. Kate and Siri have also spoken to me about individuals’ inability to make decisions without social referencing or 'primers' i.e. before we have a benchmark for the kind of way in which we should respond, such as examples of other peoples’ responses, we find it difficult to respond for ourselves).

It is important to note here that external feedback is not always enabling for all people, and that whether or not we choose to understand it as enabling can be our choice, or it can be a result of the person giving the feedback being very clear about what they are trying to achieve. We can take on feedback as an opportunity, a suggestion which is like a gift to be interpreted in the way we want to interpret it. I asked on the final workshop day whether we instinctively regard feedback in this way, and we came to the conclusion that this very much depends on the individual but also on the context in which feedback is given i.e. Is it a supportive environment? Is everyone involved clear about what we are trying to achieve? Does the feedback have a clear purpose? Csikszentmihalyi  associates “One-pointedness of mind” with the flow state, “made possible by the clarity of goals and the constant availability of feedback”.

Through the process of practicing giving feedback, the dancers found it more and more enjoyable to give and receive that feedback, because by practicing it they became “less precious” about their movement material and about the outcome of the feedback process, which in turn enabled them to:
-          “exercise their understanding of what ‘getting it right’ could mean”; not allowing ‘getting it right’ to be limiting
-          expand their understanding of “what could be achieved”
-          appreciate that just because they were being given suggestions, that didn’t mean they had to use those suggestions to create movement that looked a certain way

The dancers enjoyed sharing the process of giving feedback because it “took the pressure off one person” and provided a great deal more information.

However, for some people, external feedback did “increase doubt” at times (and this came up more often when feedback was being given verbally rather than physically), because it draws attention to the fact that the external person may have their own expectation for what they want the outcome to be, and that may be different to the dancer’s own expectations (and cannot be controlled by the dancer). It seems that a dancer is particularly at risk of feeling like this where the external feedback is given by someone who has not expressed their intention/expectation clearly.

From my observations of the dancers developing their material in response to their own (internal) self-reflective process and in response to external (physical or verbal) feedback, it seems that they often make bigger changes in response to external rather than internal feedback. However, I wonder whether the changes appear bigger because they can be more immediate, sudden and perhaps unexpected, and whether changes brought about through the individual’s self-reflection are more conducive to longer-term, more sustainable development (i.e. we have to come to terms with feedback for ourselves before we can put it into practice fully/to best effect).

Some features of effective feedback that we have explored in our workshops (i.e. feedback that is more likely to facilitate the dancers’ feeling of ‘flow’) have included:
-          qualitative feedback or active words (rather than focussing on particular body parts, although sometimes it is helpful to encourage the dancer to investigate the initiation of their movement more thoroughly)
-          open images which invite more possibilities for interpretation (the dancers found it easier to respond to feedback that was more concise, therefore leaving more space for their interpretation)
-          images that invite the dancers to take in the space around them (which connects with the idea that ambition is something ongoing and limitless)
-          feedback encouraging fullness of movement (which can also be facilitated by the way in which the dancer is prepared for the rehearsal/workshop through warm-up activities that mobilise the whole body)
-          feedback including some element of demonstration i.e. delivered in a way that indicates how the dancer might respond, or makes them aware of what they are currently doing and how they might develop it (still in a non-prescriptive way)
-          a changing pace of feedback e.g. sometimes leaving time for the dancer to take on one idea before introducing the next, or repeating a piece of feedback several times in quick succession
-          having the option of also asking for feedback, and therefore becoming more proactive within the feedback process (at one point I asked the dancers to be selective about which feedback they took on board, but on the whole they found it very difficult to choose not to respond to external feedback, because they wanted to try to accommodate external suggestions, to see whether they were helpful)
-          encouraging mindful focus, so the dancers are reminded about what they are looking at and why
-          the dancers did not feel that constant positive affirmation or encouragement was necessary, because if it was offered too frequently, it became redundant, or the dancers missed it when it wasn’t given. If it was made clear from the outset that the feedback was given in order to support the dancers’ development of their movement, they accepted that. In any case they felt that they were continually seeking the approval of the people giving them feedback, whether or not they expressed that approval. This leads on to my next post, concerning the particular propensity of performers to behave in certain ways in response to external feedback, or to the presence of a choreographer or audience.

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