Measuring Success: Data Driven Dance

By Heather Vaughan-Southard

As dancers, we are consistently assessing performance- individually, technically, artistically, collectively, and so on.

We put our content and concepts together like brick and mortar and present for all to see and judge.

Judgement is often based on aesthetic or taste, usually informed by exposure, and it tends to limit the conversation to “like” or “dislike”. This also emphasizes performance, as a product, to be of more importance than performance as a learning experience. In the scope of the educational experience, particularly in the arts, this is important but it isn’t the whole story.

Our goal, instead, should be to guide and instruct performers and audiences in how to evaluate the quality of a product beyond an actual performance- including how to lead to performance and advance beyond it. But how do we best determine what those include?

Here are some basic points to consider:

What is being assessed?

The layers I examine are: program philosophy, performance goals (by groups of grades such as K-4, 5-8, 9-12), teaching methods, class achievement, and individual student growth. I tend to think of this series like a keyboard with progression occurring whether I am moving up or down the keys.

To me, it is important to be adapting all layers as more information, or data, is gained. I have a hard time doing this with areas in isolation, such as strictly focusing on class achievement without taking into consideration individual student growth or performance goals for a group of grades.

Hopefully, you see this as a layered project that cycles as everyone involved spirals into advancing levels.

What will be done with the data?

Will you alter content and delivery? Make practical adjustments to schedule and structure of day, reflect on personal skills, determine strengths, weaknesses and how to support both?

As in anything else, it is important to choose thoughtfully as to what will be challenging but also achievable. This can be a good exercise in prioritization. It can also be a good reminder of how process can work for you. When creating, we often accept that trial and error helps us identify problems to be solved. I don’t think most artists consider the creative process to be one of distinct success or failure but one of give and take, shifting here and there.

Assessing programs and the growth of students and teachers should strike a similar chord. It isn’t necessarily about passing and failing, but keeping the momentum building. This can speak to major changes that need to occur or fine detailing.

You may find yourself really exploring the grey area of what is required to make meaningful change. In my world, this tends to include identifying methods for additional support of instruction or groups of students, determining key points and times for intervention, possibilities for enhanced focus or more advanced differentiation. Sometimes we can be so worried about assisting struggling learners that we forget to challenge advanced learners. Challenging the accelerated students may also serve as a motivation for those that aren’t quite at that level.

Who does the assessing?

We all understand the food chain: District administration to building administrator to teacher to student. What if we treated the feedback we obtain from students just as importantly as we do from our superiors? How would our perspective really shift and how would it change what we do and how we do it? If the community of the classroom has been a specific area of focus in your teaching goals, it is natural that this element be included. Not only that, it truly reinforces to students that you care about what they have to say and view your own adventures in education to be ever-evolving.

What does the test look like?

Tests don’t have to be about about pencil and paper, nor must they feature audition-like quick studies. Think about offering students a range of opportunities to demonstrate what they know, as well as how they know it. And again, think about the process. Perhaps the steps for obtaining new information is just as, if not more, important than memorizing terms and steps.

My students maintain portfolios that draw from the three categories used in the National Benchmarks and Standards for Dance by the National Dance Association:


In this, we use composition to demonstrate knowledge as well as perspective. Composition has a its own place within the dance experience but don’t be afraid to use it in less conventional ways, too.

When viewing dance to support a discussion of history or theory, I often ask students to write notes regarding their observations and connections, but then I ask them to dance their notes when it comes to class discussion. This allows us to not only have a very quick snapshot of what the student “took” from the video, we also see how their thoughts connected to ideas from other conversations, dances, processes, or images.


Performance, or presentation, offers a traditional approach for any performance-based art form but what if you change the expectations. What if students create an entire dance but instead of presenting the dance, they present their research that helped them arrive at their dance. What if, for at least one unit, they never actually present the dance. Think about what this tells them about the value of investment in a process.

For students that may not have a rich movement vocabulary to draw from, consider allowing them to open their definitions of dance. What if they filmed varying types of human (or non-human) movement in multiple contexts and presented an emotional narrative, utilizing tools of composition, in a dance setting. Just think of the conversations that could be stirred!


What if students responded to the “video dances” by writing, drawing, or dancing their sides of the debate of whether the videos could be defined as dance, why or why not, what would be required in order to be considered dance (or not).

What if students create a dance response to Martha Graham’s Letter to the World, or a current day recession-inspired sequel to Paul Taylor’s Black Tuesday? Or maybe students write letters to choreographers, inquiring about their works, their processes, their lives, their inspirations.

What is the real test?

The data should provide a portrait of where we are in the path toward our objectives and should reflect the overall program philosophy. I find the following criteria useful:

  • developing a community within the classroom
  • advancing technical ability and progression
  • nurturing creative ability and progression
  • bolstering of higher order thinking skills
  • improving awareness of social justice, global citizenship

How are you assessing progress in your classroom?

(This article originally appeared on Dance Advantage on May 9, 2013 and featured in ArtsJournal).

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