Grading Dancing: Fitting the Square Peg of Ballet into the Round Hole of University Assessment

Presenter: Jessica Zeller; Associate Professor, Texas Christian University


This study addresses theoretical and practical concerns around grading in studio-based ballet courses in higher education. The university’s baseline requirement that studio-based courses be assessed quantitatively and with supposed objectivity through letter grades is in fundamental disunity with the qualitative, embodied, subjective nature of ballet as an art form. To reconcile this discord, this research examines the effects of “going gradeless” on the university ballet class. Courses working with a “gradeless” model reject traditional top-down grading practices in favor of student-led and faculty-supported assessment through ongoing dialogue and relationship-building. At its core, this research asks how university dance educators might bring greater integrity to this incongruous assessment process, in an effort to support student learning and performance outcomes in ballet while satisfying the university requirement for an end-of-term letter-based assessment.

Data for this IRB-approved study is derived from student course evaluations and self-evaluations from courses in Ballet Technique and Dance History that used a “gradeless” approach. This research addresses questions of rigor, the role of meta-cognition, the student-teacher relationship, and the structure of the feedback loop. It offers strategies and resources for those interested in incorporating a gradeless approach into their own pedagogic practice. In keeping with the CORPS de Ballet, International, 2020 conference theme, this study demonstrates that changing the function of letter grades preserves the integrity (as in, reliability) of high-quality ballet training, the integrity (as in, cohesion) of educators’ individual pedagogies, and the integrity (as in, fairness) of assessment in the learning process.


Jessica Zeller is an Associate Professor of Dance in the TCU School for Classical & Contemporary Dance. She holds a Ph.D. in Dance Studies and an MFA in Dance from The Ohio State University. Zeller is the author of Shapes of American Ballet: Teachers and Training before Balanchine (Oxford University Press, 2016), which unearths the work of several ballet pedagogues in the early twentieth century U.S. In 2019, Zeller was Scholar-in-Residence in the Dance Department at Temple University. Her research has been published in Dance Chronicle, the Journal of Dance Education, the SDHS publication Conversations Across the Field of Dance Studies, and in the Oxford University Press anthology, Dance on Its Own Terms: Histories and, among others. Zeller’s current research brings Dance Studies into conversation with progressive pedagogies. 

A New York native and student of Maggie Black and Rochelle Zide-Booth, Zeller has danced the roles of Giselle, the Sugar Plum Fairy, Cygnets, and the Swan Lake Act I Pas de Trois. She has danced in Bebe Miller’s work, as a guest artist with the Indianapolis Opera, with project-based companies in New York, and in collaboration with singers, actors, dramaturges, and musicians at American Cabaret Theatre. Zeller was on faculty at the BalletMet Dance Academy in Columbus, Ohio, before joining the TCU faculty. A current board member for CORPS de Ballet, International, Zeller is a reviewer for Oxford University Press and the Journal of Dance Education; she was previously on the advisory board for Dance Chronicle.