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Shaking up the dialogue: new ideas about feedback at ACDFA.


Every spring college dance departments across the nation send students to the American College Dance Festival Association's 10 regional conferences. After performing works by faculty, guest artists, and student choreographers, dancers eagerly await comments from a panel of three adjudicators, often well-known choreographers. Will the adjudicators have sensed the choreographer's intention? What will they think of the performers? Will they nominate the piece for the festival-ending gala concert? Or select it for the National College Dance Festival?

The students may have lots of questions, but they must keep silent. No one, except for the adjudicators, talks in an ACDFA formal feedback session. And the adjudicators do not know to whom they are speaking. They watch the pieces onstage but do not receive any information about the artists involved.

The anonymous, seemingly one-sided process has long been a somewhat controversial feature of ACDFA, and this year at least two regional conferences--Southwest and Central, held at Arizona State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign respectively--will experiment with alternative modes of feedback.

ACDFA executive director Diane DeFiles says the current system arose from practical and aesthetic concerns.

Conferences can exceed 400 participants, and the absence of student input in the sessions allows adjudicators time to comment on more pieces.

The emphasis on anonymity also keeps the feedback as "pure" as possible, according to DeFiles. "It's not being tempered based on adjudicators' personal biases or who they know," she says.

Both ASU's and UIUC's regional festivals will continue ACDFA's existing process, but they will add structured sessions during which choreographers can discuss their work with other students and faculty--not just the pieces they bring to the festival but also their long-term choreographic efforts.

Simon Dove, director of ASU's dance program, says that student choreographers are often more concerned with selection for the gala or national festival than with examining their choreographic choices. He hopes that the proposed sessions will inject a different tone in this competitive atmosphere and foster richer conversations. "Session facilitators will be able to point out other choreographic options," he says, "to get choreographers to reconsider their decisions, and to develop a deeper understanding of their approach to making work."

The UIUC faculty hopes to weave a discussion of the creative process into their entire festival. Associate professor Linda Lehovec says, "We chose the theme 'Exploring the Creative Process' because that is what interests us most in the making and teaching of dance. We are interested in exploring the making of the work as much as the seeing of the finished work."

Both UIUC and ASU envision adding smaller, voluntary sessions the day after each formal adjudicated performance. At UIUC, faculty members Sara Hook and Tere O'Connor will be the main facilitators of the workshops. At ASU, Dove and Elizabeth Johnson, associate director of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, will lead the sessions, with help from visiting faculty and artists.

Hook says the new UIUC sessions, which will involve both students and faculty, aren't just about examining choreographic choices, but also about recognizing a variety of ways to give and receive feedback. She says UIUC hopes to explore new approaches while also tapping existing models like Liz Lerman's four-part Critical Response Process--a series of interactions Lerman developed to guide discussions between dancemakers and audiences--and earlier methods developed by legendary composition teacher Bessie Schonberg.

"The existing paradigms for feedback vary in terms of power structure," says Hook. "The conversation can give the artists the power to drive the discussion--which is what I think Liz Lerman's Critical Response was attempting to do. Others are really more about the audience and less interested in the artistic intention. I see both of those paradigms as quite useful and not necessarily mutually exclusive."

Dove's feedback methods stem from his work as artistic director of the Springdance festival in the Netherlands, where emerging and established choreographers talked as peers to develop choreographic ideas.

He says this model differs from the adjudication system, which can rely on "a set of experts who deliver their verdict or their perspective, which is a one-way flow of information that may or may not be useful to the choreographers."

Young choreographers who participated in recent festivals attest, however, that the current process does allow for multiple perspectives, even if it puts less weight on the choreographer's perspective.

Ami Dowden-Fant, whose piece etches of her skin was selected for the 2008 national festival, says adjudicators gave her new ways to see her work. "The adjudicators asked questions but also stated what they saw and how they felt," says Dowden-Fant, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University. "Having someone else describe what they saw really opened up my eyes."

Students also say that the adjudication process feels refreshingly different from their professors' feedback. Washington University dance major Eliotte Henderson has performed in several ACDFA festivals, including in her solo Stuck in the Waiting at a 2009 regional gala. Henderson compares adjudicator and faculty feedback, saying, "Adjudicators' comments are more objective because they can just analyze the piece as it was received, whereas with professors, it becomes much more personal."

While ACDFA rules dictate that no student or faculty member can identify their work to the adjudicators before the adjudicaton process is complete, this anonymity doesn't have to last forever. After last year's festival Brittany Baker-Brousseau, then a sophomore at Williams College, wrote to adjudicators Alison Chase and Claire Porter to ask how she might continue to improve her work. As a result, Chase invited Baker-Brousseau to do a summer internship with her, and Porter has given her feedback via video.

Whether in festival planning or dancemaking, change comes through experimentation. DeFries sees this year's multiple approaches to feedback as a positive development. "Initiatives like these are how the organization has grown and developed," she says. "We rely on all these wonderful hosts with ideas that they try out, and then the best of them get circulated and incorporated."

Note: All information is current as of press time and subject to change. Be sure to contact a program for the most up-to-date offerings. For full details on teaching positions, please visit

Clare Croft is a freelance arts writer based in Austin, TX.
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Title Annotation:teach-learn connection; American College Dance Festival Association
Author:Croft, Clare
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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