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Animated Edition - Autumn 2006
A life in dance: reflections and convictions
Marion Gough's pivotal role in the development of dance education in the UK has long been recognised. Here she offers a poignant account of crucial influences - of early pioneers Joan Russell and Peter Brinson - and of the continued importance of imagination, creativity and relationship
Reading Stephen Fry's speech for History Matters in The Observer - launching a new campaign to promote the study of history - it struck me that it has resonance for the debate on the term 'Community Dance', which continues in Animated. He talks about what history is and how it is seen. 'In the end', he says, 'history is all about imagination rather than facts (1). I would like to think that this also applies to Community Dance, where imagination and creativity are of primary concern.

Dance offers a way of expressing what we think and feel about ourselves and the world around us and, like history, making sense of it.

It is heartening to think of the journey made by community dance - from those early pioneers beavering away, often in isolation, in different parts of the country to the national and international recognition it now receives. The name community dance should remain. Its encompassing title is synonymous with bringing people together to dance. What could be more appropriate! Community dance, like history, is about connection. Fry says: 'You can carry what you learn of history inside you, at least. You can connect' (2). This is what the best community practitioners do. Their commitment, and the connection they make with the people they work with, are invaluable. I am continually amazed by those practitioners, who remain at the coalface, despite day-to-day frustrations, still managing to produce wonderful work.

Chris Thomson's article, We are a Dancing Nation in the Spring 2005 issue of Animated made me think about my time in dance - and reminded me of how often I have been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time with exceptional people. It was a quirk of fate that led to me to train to teach dance - happenstance. I had danced as a child, but went to Worcester College of Education to train to teach Art and History. If the history tutor had been less boring, I would not have switched to Modern Educational Dance - taught by the very young and inspirational Joan Russell. Joan's clarity of teaching; her use of Laban Movement Analysis; her passion for dance; and her ability to engage her participants have remained with me. Worcester in 1954 was an amazingly innovative college led by the Principal Edwin Peirson. It was he who encouraged Joan to establish Dance as a main subject, valued for itself - separate from Physical Education. It was the only College of Education at this time where Dance was given this exalted position.

When leaving Worcester Joan contacted the P.E. Inspector for the London County Council (later to become Inner London Education Authority) and asked her to try and find me a school where I could teach dance. Very little was being taught at the time - a bit of folk or national dance. The Inspector persuaded the Headmistress of Starcross school to take me on. I remained there for seven and a half very happy years during which I became the first secondary dance specialist in London. Later, when my two daughters were small I taught a number of community classes, before being persuaded by the Headmistress of the local primary school to teach the reception class - my most challenging teaching experience, ever.

Eventually I moved to Higher Education working for Marion North, first at Sydney Webb College where we trained mature students to become primary school teachers, then to Goldsmith's College training secondary dance specialists and finally at the Laban Centre where I spent 25 years in all. During that time, many new courses were developed and - early on - one that I was closely involved with was the Community Dance Diploma Course. I led the Teaching Studies part of the course.

I agree with Chris: Peter Brinson's vision and untiring energy to promote community dance should not be forgotten and needs to be celebrated. Peter was a charming, charismatic man and he was able to convince people from widely different backgrounds and interests of the significance of his cause. He, with the support of Marion North, fought for the recognition and validation of the course and it enabled community dance to be perceived as an area of study with its own philosophy, body of knowledge, skills and disciplines. Peter was a generous colleague and I learned much from him. Perhaps most importantly, the need to articulate the value of what we do and why we do it. This is one of the most significant factors that has shaped me as a teacher.

For many years, when I taught in schools and community centres, I was immersed in the activity of dancing. That isn't to say that I didn't think about what I did. I have always been meticulous about preparation, but my main focus was the doing it that was important. Now, I spend much more time reflecting and questioning my practice. Perhaps it's just old age - perhaps not. I do think that it is important for teachers to be given time and space for their own professional development. It should be an entitlement recognised and supported by all employers. Such support should not be perceived as additional cost. It should be seen as investment. Making provision for professional development can lead to teachers with wider skills, greater knowledge and improved morale - all of which will enhance their teaching and justify the investment made. I applaud the contribution to professional development made by the Foundation for Community Dance and the value that is given to exceptional work by practitioners. Practitioners need to feel valued.

Movement is very important to me. I love exploring new ways to move and enjoy Pilates and Tai Chi but I simply have to do Yoga and Tap classes on a regular basis and have done so for over 30 years. My professional development is reflected in the importance of movement but also involves the arts. For me spending time exploring an eclectic mix of the Arts - literature, film, drama, the visual arts and music - refreshes me as a person. As a teacher they feed my imagination and creativity and give inspiration to my dance teaching.

Since leaving Laban I have been able to develop this side of my work. I loved my time at Laban but leaving at 60 was very liberating. I was delighted by the range of freelance opportunities that were offered me - for example working with dance companies, leading a professional development course in Suffolk for community dance practitioners, teaching and examining courses overseas and choreographing two dance works with Erica Stanton.

I have had a wonderful career - teaching for me has always been interesting and challenging. I have never wanted to leave the practice of teaching. As to the future we must not allow ourselves to get bogged down by bureaucracy and lose the joy of teaching. Teaching and learning should not be seen as things that are accountable by ticking boxes. The process should be deep and challenging. It's about making mistakes and learning from them, taking risks, about not sitting back and being too comfortable. It is about curiosity and asking questions. It is about being open to change but hanging on to core beliefs and philosophies.

I do very little teaching now and that's how it should be - there are many wonderful younger practitioners out there.

I am an optimist and shall continue to look forward and for as long as possible, keep my mind and body alive and active while raging 'against the dying of the light.' (3)

For those of you who continue to practice hold on to the belief that: 'Dance is one of the few human activities in which the individual is totally involved - body, soul and mind.' (4) This is what we should be aiming for. Community dance has to continue to offer people the opportunity to change their lives through dance.


1. & 2. Fry. S. (2006), History Matters. London: The Observer 1 July 9, 2006, pp 8-9.
3. Thomas, D. (1971) Do not go gentle into that good night in The Poems. London: J.M.Dent and Sons Ltd.
4. Bejart. M. in Garandy (1973) Danser Sa Vie. Paris : Editions du Seuil.

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Animated: Autumn 2006