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Animated Edition - Summer 2006
Aesthetic values in community dance: 'deal' or 'no deal'?
Against a background of multiple values claimed for Community Dance, Gordon Curl highlights the relevance of aesthetic values and their noticeable absence in current community dance dialogue
'... Interest in the idea of modern community dancing seems to be widespread, for today I am able to look on your assembly of nearly a thousand people who have come here as representatives from our movement-choirs in more than sixty cities...' (1)

From this remark by Rudolf Laban, addressing a 1936 Pre-Olympic Games gathering in Germany we might well question the nature of the 'interest' of those 'thousand people' engaged in community dance! Was it social, health, sport, therapy, aesthetic, artistic, political - or a combination of these?

One of the problems facing any commentator on 'community dance' must surely be the sheer breadth and scope of the concept itself - a breadth and scope illustrated in the Report submitted by the Foundation for Community Dance to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport Select (DCMS) (2004), which affirms that:

'Community Dance practice and provision recognises an astonishingly broad diversity of dance styles and traditions: we identify 42 different forms in our Mapping research, including Ballet and contemporary dance, folk dance, African People's Dance, South Asian classical dance, popular social dance, as well as a range of 'national' dances - 4.78 million people participated in community dance activity...' (2)

The Hegemony of Community Dance
Ken Bartlett, in his fascinating article in the Laban Guild Magazine (3), questions the concept of 'community dance' by asking: 'Is every kind of dancing community dance?' To which he replies: 'a qualified yes'! If this is the case, community dance (with some qualifications) must hold hegemony over the whole domain of dance - it spreads its tentacles over a vast territory of terpsichorean space - an all-embracing 'community of dance'!

This embrace may be 'unifying', but it does create problems when, as Ken suggests, we do 'a little prodding and poking' by asking penetrating questions - in particular questions of concept, fact and value. The concept of 'community dance' does not conform to any neat set of necessary and sufficient conditions (its manifestations appear too diverse). Community dance is rather like Wittgenstein's 'games' (4) which have nothing common to all cases. Certainly, the concept of 'dance' itself is slippery enough, and the concept of 'community' no less elusive (see Donald Hutera and Christopher Thompson in the spring 2006 issue of animated); but the two terms in conjunction constitute a formidable concept which, unsurprisingly, is conveniently called upon to do duty in a wide variety of contexts. It is made to fit (we are told) into a myriad of funding tick boxes (5), and is (and has been) vulnerable to attempted politicisation; (instance Laban's 10,000-strong movement choir in the Olympic Stadium Berlin in 1936)! 'Values', it would seem, can readily be imposed upon community dance and its intrinsic values become victims of corruption!

'Family resemblances'
But before teasing out these 'intrinsic' values, we must look more closely at the multi-dimensional concept of 'community dance'. What would, for example, that eminent philosopher Wittgenstein - no less, have to say about its defining features? If we transpose his many kinds of 'games' into the equally prolific kinds of community dance, he would insist: 'Don't say there must be something common, or they would not be called (community dance) - but look and see whether there is anything common to all. - For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that ... we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing; I can think of no better expression', he says, than 'to characterise these similarities (as) "family resemblances"...; (community dance) form(s) a family'. (5) What more homely, community-friendly description of the many forms of 'community dance' could there be - than that they form a 'family'?

Treasure-trove of Values in Community Dance
Ken Bartlett and his colleagues have taken a good 'look' at community dance over the years and have discovered a treasure-trove of putative 'values' - for which the 'family' of community dance might justly be proud. We find claims of: 'emotional and mental health', 'mood enhancement', 'stress reduction', 'anger management', 'energising and revitalising experience'. At a more general level there are designated values of: 'celebration the human body', 'equality of opportunity', 'empowerment and human rights' - as well as 'the amelioration of social exclusion', the 'reinvigorating pride in where people live', 'relieving suffering or violence' and 'making the world a better place'. (6)

This remarkable list of accreditations for community dance would seem to provide a panacea for all ills! But Ken cautiously believes that we should do a little 'prodding and poking' at these widespread claims, by asking: 'Why are people so keen to involve members in community dance? Surely', he says, 'they can be empowered in other ways and could be members of all kinds of groups concerned with wholeness of their being'. (Perhaps, some carefully controlled research would determine whether or not such groups, including community dance, was consistently - rather than anecdotally - capable of achieving such claims). Could it be that in attempting to focus on 'stress reduction', 'anger management' or the 'alleviation of 'social exclusion' etc., that community dance would itself become emasculated - transformed into such specialised domains as 'psycho-therapy', 'emotional rehabilitation' or 'social engineering' - thus diverting attention away from community dance as an end in itself and thereby losing its integrity as an autonomous aesthetic/artistic pursuit? Maria Ryan cautions us: 'we have not come to terms with our work in its own right'. (7)

Intrinsic versus extrinsic values
Practitioners know that aesthetic values are intrinsic to community dance - its very raison d'etre; they distinguish it clearly from sociology, psychology, science or medicine. We believe it cannot be pursued with integrity if extrinsic limits are set on what determines the importance of what lies within it. And yet the community dance literature consistently, and persuasively, pays homage to the extrinsic values of: 'cultural identity', 'access', 'inclusiveness', 'interaction' - or even community dance 'created to see what use an art-form might be in relation to exploring social issues in youth work...' (8) Why such seemingly exclusive interest in the art form's instrumental values rather than its intrinsic aesthetic values? Could the problem really lie in the ephemeral nature of aesthetic discourse itself - or perhaps the lack of critical dialogue in community dance! Or maybe we fight shy of the explicit mention of more sensitive perceptual encounters with aesthetic objects and activities.

Critical-appreciative dialogue
Criticism of professional dance, by contrast, systematically highlights the presence of aesthetic qualities in performances. But little public criticism does this valuable service for community dance; aesthetic values remain largely unannounced - apart that is from the ecstatic eulogies of participants themselves. The absence of public critical/appreciative comment on such aesthetic experiences would seem to place them off the map - and thus seldom visited! And yet community dance is rich in aesthetic qualities - not least the participatory aesthetic delights of natural movement which provide experiences unavailable to the detached spectator in the dance theatre; the aesthetic credentials of community dance are therefore under-acknowledged and under-valued!

Aesthetic experiences
What then are these aesthetic qualities - or are they too elusive and esoteric to describe? Certainly their language is couched in metaphor, analogy and figures of speech. When, for example, the professional critic (9) describes the flight of the dancer as 'that special slow-motion grace, that soaring rise and floating descent which looks weightless...', we know that the alleged 'slow-motion', 'floating and 'weightless(ness)' are not physical facts: dancers are not 'weightless', they cannot 'float' and they do not move in 'slow -motion' - in reality! These are paradigm cases of aesthetic qualities - their looks, their appearances: they are aesthetic aspects perceived and conceived as such. But few amateur community dancers would claim to have such rare experiences as these professionals; nonetheless, their experiences vouchsafe them a wealth of aesthetic pleasures; like as not, no audience is either present or expected - nor any appreciative critic to capture the many exquisite moments!

Involved participation
Community dance participants are simultaneously performers and spectators: - they may be enveloped on all sides by clusters of fellow dancers; their eyes have a feast of changing forms, limbs, torsos, colours, textures and light as well as sound - whether footfalls, vocalisings, percussive hands and feet or musical accompaniment (each with their own aesthetic qualities). Participants find moments of tactile delicacy, firm impact, supported leanings, convergences and partings; they experience the sensations and aesthetic perceptions of being ingredient en masse in a meleé of mutual involvement; they fulfil all the 'qualities of engagement' outlined by Ken Bartlett in his article 'So what is community dance?' (10)

Aesthetic qualities
Specific aesthetic qualities are to be experienced in community dance - not least: sweeping lines and patterns of movement, complexes of steps and turns, the interlacing and dispersing of dancers, the design of slow-motion sequences; swiftness, briskness, urgency, hiatus, rhythmic repetition - the leisurely look of long leaps, the magical moment of group climax, the smoothness of transitions, abrupt encounters, the fluency of a gesture, the crispness of sudden stand-stills, the secureness of a landing, the sweetness of a well-timed meeting; perceived vitality, explosive interactions, dynamic expansions and contractions, controlled violence - the tightly-clinched contest, the tense crouched circle, the startling gestural cry - all in contrast to nimble footwork and evanescent mobility; there are moments of intricacy, deviousness, subtlety: the deftness of a side-step, the finesse of a phrase, the total configuration of a movement choir.

And as the dance acquires symbolic significance (as it more than likely will), there emerge: dance personalities with remarkable characters and poise, boldness, severity, anguish, flamboyance, nonchalance, agony or despair - artistic qualities of danced triumph, terror, submission, catastrophe, serenity or the stately processional of a ritual or rite.

Imagination in the aesthetic experience of dance
Appreciation of aesthetic qualities does not, of course, exhaust the fullness of experience: dancers imaginatively empathise - identify, not only with their fellow dancers - as dancers, but with absorbing dance stimuli - be it myth, legend, romance, poetry or dramatic events! In and through imaginatively-charged perceptions they experience an extended sphere of influence - far beyond their normal capacities; this becomes even more amplified when one dancer's sphere of influence conjoins with another's and with the movement group as a whole. The dance space becomes alive with interacting forces, space tensions, powers far greater than those physically present; they invade the experience of the dancer and participants enter into the imaginative theme of a work from within - feel themselves inwardly articulating great dramatic and vivid emotional moments and are implicated in their triumphs and denouements.

'Deal' or 'No Deal'?
Having taken to heart Ken Bartlett's hint that we should 'prod and poke' at the many claims made for community dance, we might, in turn, feel obliged to play the devil's advocate with these perceptual 'aesthetic' and 'imaginative modes of experience'. Are they not too esoteric, too nebulous, too remote from ordinary reality? Community dance for its own sake must surely seem irresponsibly irrelevant to the needs of contemporary life! But is it? Is it not the case that community dance as an aesthetic experience carries within itself inherent powers to transform, ameliorate and enhance the human condition? But deny community dance its autonomy as an aesthetic pursuit and its instrumental values evaporate like dry ice!

Gordon Curl is Vice President of the Laban Guild and can be contacted at - see for more about the Laban Guild. This is an edited version of a paper that appeared in the Laban Guild Magazine Movement & Dance Vol.23 No.3 autumn 2004.

1. Laban R. Meeting for community dance in 1936 reported in Laban Art of Movement Magazine May 1974 No. 52, p 6
2. See Culture, Media and Sport Committee Arts Development: Dance, May 2004 Evidence submitted by Foundation for Community Dance, pp2-4
3. 6. &10. Bartlett, K. (2004) So what is Community Dance? in Movement & Dance, Laban Guild Magazine Vol. 23 No. 3, pp 4-5
4. Wittgenstein, L. (1974) Philosophical Investigations translated by Anscombe, G.E.M. Oxford: Blackwell, paras 66/67, pp 31-32
5. See Houston, S. (2004) The seriousness of having fun - the political agenda of community dance. Leicester: animated winter, p6
6. See Lunn, J. (2004) Community Dance - the benefits and beyond the benefits, Movement & Dance, Laban Guild Magazine Vol. 23, No. 3, 5-7
7. McCluskey, M. (2004) Living it Forwards, Learning it Backwards. Leicester: animated autumn, p 8
8. Balbernie, A. (2004) The skin of our nature/the nature of our skin. Leicester: animated autumn, p14
9. Denby, E. (1998) Dance Writings and Poetry, Yale University Press, p 89

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Animated: Summer 2006