Suggestions Toward a Personal Caller Feedback System

I have a process I use to gather feedback on my calling in pursuit of continuous improvement. My “day job” background is in business process & product engineering, program management and quality systems – so bringing a closed loop monitoring and improvement process into my calling is somewhat of a natural thing for me. I’m not trying to say my system is the best and that everyone should follow it but rather that this is what I’ve found to be effective for me. I offer for you to take what parts you find valuable from it.

Personal Considerations

  • Do you really want direct feedback? Asking for others to provide input on your performance can be a quite personal thing. When folks shower you with compliments it can be wonderful! When the comments are complaints or a need for improvement, it takes a bit of resilience to get past your personal reaction and gain the benefit of others’ perspectives.
  • When do you want feedback? I welcome feedback at any time which doesn’t impede my performance (e.g.: not when I’m walking through or actually calling a sequence). I know others who don’t want to hear anything the night of an event they’re performing, or only want it at the end. Early and often, positive or problem is fine with me! Praise can wait but problems should be surfaced ASAP. My way of looking at this is: the sooner I know of an issue, the quicker I can do something to address it. In my experience dancers will quickly forget a transient problem if you can rally in good spirit and supply them with fun from there forward.
  • How do you want to get feedback? Do you have the interpersonal skills necessary to actually be welcoming while someone is telling you face to face about how you annoyed them? Or do you prefer avoiding such interactions and wish to provide another means for them to submit their feedback to you?
  • What will you do with the feedback? In my opinion, if you ask for feedback you must honor the investment people are making to supply it by incorporating the learning into your future performances. They should see the result of their investment or there’s no motivation to continue their making such an effort. This doesn’t mean you have to always agree with their input! It’s not that unusual for me to receive diametrically opposed comments or something that doesn’t match common practice or my own experience as a dancer or caller. However, I’ve found there is almost always something you can take away from each person’s supplied feedback to carry forward.

Soliciting and Welcoming Feedback

At my gigs I make a clear request for feedback on my performance. Typically I will make a verbal solicitation “on mic” somewhere early in the event. I try to make this brief and with humor such that my request doesn’t burden the dancers. I’m clear about the ways I welcome feedback plus that I’m truly soliciting both positive things and opportunities for improvement. It appears my interest in feedback has become well accepted – dancers now offer me their views on other caller’s performances and selected material, even when I’m simply there to dance!

Opportunities for Caller Feedback

  • Feedback Notebook. I have a standard school composition notebook with a distinctive graphic pattern cover, a big bright orange “Calling Feedback for Don Veino” sign on the front and a pen on a leash. I put this in a visible spot in the hall for dancers to access. I’ve recently taken to holding it up during my solicitation so folks can recognize it and only afterward placing it in the hall. I check the book when I have a moment (i.e.: at the end of the break or evening), making sure to keep it available to others. I try to ignore it otherwise so folks are free to use it without concern I’m watching over them. If I find a note that warrants follow-up while at the event I try to seek out that individual (if possible) to ensure they know I accept their input and value it. This has often caused folks frustrated with me (i.e.: in my pre-perfection early calling career 😉 ) to become valuable allies.
  • Web Comments. For a while I tried putting up a little poster with a QR code/web URL to a comment form for folks to use. They didn’t. I discontinued it.
  • Dancers Coming Up to Speak Face to Face. I’m thankful that folks give of themselves to come and speak with me about my performance or material. I’ll often write myself a note after such conversations to be sure to retain the key points of our talk. I make sure to thank them for their feedback – no matter what it is. I do my best to keep a pleasant, engaged expression on my face if the message is uncomfortable for me – even in those situations I know they’re giving me a gift. I try to engage them (if they appear to be willing and doing so will not impact their fun) and listen more than I talk to ensure I fully understand their view or reasoning. It would be a lot easier for them to simply ignore me or to avoid my gigs in the future – by engaging with them I’m demonstrating my real interest in their views. I try to always close with a sincere “thank you” and assurance I’ll honor their input.
  • Checking in with Dancers. I periodically check in with dancers, once the sequence has settled down and folks are out at the top, to see how things are going. I don’t do this more than a couple of times in an event and choose best opportunities. For instance, if there’s a sequence I’m calling for the first time, I may run down to say “I’ve never called this one before – what do you think of it?”. I only do so if things are stable without me, it appears the dancers are not otherwise engaged in conversation and mostly only with folks I know would be willing.
  • Checking in with Organizers. I try to check in with the dance organizers when they’re not otherwise engaged – best times are when they’re out at the top, at the break or after the dance while I’m helping break down the sound system or similar. I try to ask open ended questions about how they feel things are going/went. They may even have their own feedback system for their series’ dancers – if so, you can say you’re interested in what folks tell them about you.
  • Checking in with the Band. At the break I will typically ask the band if they need me to do anything differently and get their input on how things are going for them. I’m usually able to express hearfelt appreciation for their music at the same time – it’s a pleasant surprise when they ask me how they’re doing in return. Similar follow up at the end of the dance as appropriate.
  • Checking in with Colleagues. If there are caller or musician colleagues on the floor at an event I may seek them out at a suitable time for their view on the event. I’ll typically ask them specific questions about some aspect I’d value their expert opinion on. This makes it easier for them to provide valuable input, rather than a generic “nice dance” comment. I’m not asking them to tell me how great I am!
  • Checking in with a Mentor. Earlier in my calling career I was fortunate to gain a primary mentor to bounce things off of and get feedback from. They were in the same dance community orbit as I was calling in, so I’d often have an opportunity to get their views on my own work and/or hear their opinion on how someone else’s event was going when we’d talk on the sidelines. Compassionate honesty is the key value here. It was really rewarding when those conversations later evolved into being more of two-way thing, and something I really miss now.

Utilizing the Feedback

Once you’ve got feedback, it’s your job to figure out what is valuable, take away the lessons to be had from it and make changes (or enforce good things) going forward. One thing I do that may seem counter-intuitive is to leave all the pages of input in my comment book, even if the comments are critical of me. I may sometimes write an explanatory margin comment (e.g. if there was a complaint or compliment about a given sequence, I may add the dance name) and my takeaway of what the cause of the problem was or my planned solution. This transparency into problems might possibly hurt my reputation under an “I’m always perfect” publicity mindset, but I think it solidly demonstrates my openness and willingness to engage to improve. One exception: if a comment mentions another performer or individual in a negative way I will redact that part – it’s not my place to impact another’s reputation!

Summary and Solicitation

I’ve found these feedback techniques to be invaluable as part of my overall tool set in development as a dance caller and choreographer. As is typically the case under continual improvement systems, serious users may see most rapid improvement in the earliest stages. As things evolve, the need for significant correction diminishes and gains become harder to achieve. While in my earlier calling career I could typically count on several comments with each and every appearance, it’s not unusual now for me to have no written comments for extended periods. Sometimes there’s blips with lots or little new info to leverage. Folks are typically more willing/interested to share praise face to face – so you may find it more difficult to capture the learning from that (e.g. particular dances which folks enjoyed enough to mention, why they enjoyed a given evening more than another, etc.).

I hope you’ll find this information useful in your own personal development and welcome hearing about any other techniques you may utilize to gain feedback toward improving your own calling.

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