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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Beyond the marginal space
Animated, Autumn 1999. Evaluating our dance practice is an area many of us have resisted but it is one which is vital to the development and survival of dance. Jane Bacon discusses the importance of being able to present a mixture of facts and personal accounts - hard evidence required to meet a changing government agenda - and the focus of debate for the recent Ways of Knowing Conference; a collaboration between The Foundation for Community Dance and University College Northampton
"The map is not the territory, we all have different maps. The task is one of translation of the map."(1)

This comment highlights the difficulty of communicating through any form, not just the physical. Making a case for dance, a physical activity, requires us to find a language that communicates effectively. If we do all understand the world in different ways, whether that is the musings of Penny Greenland on why a child would hop backwards home from school;(2) or a verbal language laden with discipline-specific terminology, the task of how to communicate across these differing maps or landscapes remains the same. It is all too easy to assume that we understand why people have chosen to communicate to the wider world in a particular way, but our assumption or translation may not match their reality. The business of communication is so fraught with misunderstanding and upset. Can we, dance artists and practitioners, argue the case for dance in the current climate once we become aware of the immense difficulty of communication?

The words in the panel (see end: What do you pre-suppose about dance?) help us to describe our dance and our perceptions. They contain adjectives which capture some of the actions of dancing; but mostly they reflect our own value systems, just as the other list (see end: What do politicians pre-suppose about dance?) contains the perceptions of those not involved in dance.

So many voices, so many maps, so much territory. I would like to suggest that the way to effectively communicate with funding bodies and agencies, as opposed to individuals, is through the task of evaluation. Currently we are being asked by government agencies to provide evidence against other and new criteria necessitating a radical review of the traditional and somewhat sparse evaluative methods upon which we have relied.

To date many of us working in community contexts have resisted focusing on an aspect of our work which is vital to the development of dance under these new government policies. Perhaps our resistance both as individuals and as an industry is due to the perceived limited value of evaluation and documentation that has been required from us in the past; or perhaps it is because we have yet to find ways of evaluating our practice which is appropriate to us as an industry. We need to discover evaluation strategies which emanate from the needs of the individual, group or instance of dance, rather than from the requirements of specific cultural agencies. Our lack of documentation gives those funders and policymakers keen to determine the value (for this read scientific or quantifiable evidence) of dance the upper hand.

The government's notion of hard evidence can be obtained through methods more meaningful and specific to dance than tick box questionnaires. Qualitative research, based on social interaction, is similar to the 'reading' of dance that we do everyday - such as observing, participating, filming, note taking and interpreting the actions of those involved. We are, as dance artists and practitioners, ideally suited to the stuff of qualitative research like ethnography. But if we choose to incorporate these methods into an industry notion of good practice they should include details of what we do and why we do it, in order to reduce the distance between perception and reality. This 'self-reflexive' approach, according to Drid Williams in Ten Lectures on the theories of the Dance(4) suggests that reflexive (the objective study of oneself) differs from reflective (to think about the other), and I believe should include an understanding of the dancer as the sum of the parts, neither simply body nor mind. This dancer - this person - who articulates the assessment needs of his or her dance form for each specific context, is able to provide the 'evidence' required from funding agencies rather than responding to external criteria.

By defining our own assessment criteria, rather than waiting for others to impose their perceptions upon our artform, we will be able to design appropriate methodologies. Crucially, we will be able to articulate the outcomes in appropriate or instance specific terms. These would value the act of dancing whilst including information (presented in video, slide, tape or written format) about the researchers own background and experiences, incorporating discussion, interviews or questionnaires with participants in a language that is specific to that form and that project. I am not advocating for every practitioner to become proficient at assessing their own work - although a self-reflexive approach incorporated into current notions of good practice would allow us all to evaluate. It could be that those interested in choreography could have evaluations carried out by others through collaborative projects; or alternatively, evaluation could take on a more radical guise which is embedded in the choreographic piece or dance. For example, I have just completed a digital dance video in collaboration with Foreign Bodies Dance Theatre(5).This project was an exploration of different dance styles based on ethnographic fieldwork as well as an exploration of the relationship between dancer and camera. A release based dancer is placed alongside, digitally merged and juxtaposed with Ceroc, Arabic and jazz fusion or club dance, in an attempt to reveal the nature of each form. In this instance the artform is attempting to comment upon itself, to be responsive to the culture in which it exists. The evaluation of this project might usefully include comments from the dancers, both professional and community based, an analysis of the filming techniques in use, as well as video footage and discussion material already available from the process in order to highlight the impact of the project.

My suggestion is not about placing the video camera in the corner as a document or record of the event. It may be that what is necessary is a comparison of your work with that of another practitioner and/or with published accounts in a similar field and/or vein. It may be that written documents better reflect the impact of the work you do. There are many approaches, some radical, some not - all of which are valid and probably within the scope of our present working environment; but the key is to believe it is necessary to instigate these sorts of evaluative processes.

It is necessary in order to reduce, or at least acknowledge or make apparent, the distance between the politicians and the practitioners suppositions and attempted communication about dance. If we continue to dance but not to speak, we are complicit with those who seek to marginalise us. If everyone who dances possesses a heightened sense of spatial awareness; an acute visual memory, as well as physical capabilities usually assumed to be beyond daily movement and behaviour; then dance and talking about people dancing, helps us to understand the role we play within our culture.

Setting-up pilot evaluation projects from a number of methodological perspectives such as the ethnographic approach I have suggested, and exploring the philosophical issues, will give us the means to assess the principles of the work we do. We are well equipped to undertake evaluation of our practice; to continue to make and validate our claims of the wider benefits dance can bring to individuals, groups of people and their communities. This 'evidence' will help us to put the case for dance to a government who is interested in these wider social impacts but has no knowledge of a language which can validate these claims. Crucially, it enables us as artists and practitioners to develop our own evaluative frameworks. These frames - these maps - are the communication tools we need, and others need from us, to translate the territory.

What do you pre-suppose about dance? (3)
You do it with your body
Anybody can do it
It is in us all, is for everyone, is fun
It is a way of life
It hurts
It is enjoyed by more women than men
People think they do not understand it
Dance is liberating
It can help people communicate
It can touch more people
It is always something I will do
Dance brings you in touch with yourself
It is a treat
It can help you explore issues and problems in yourself
Children love dancing
It is addictive
It takes place in time and space
Everyone should know about dance
It is a social ritual
It is good for your health
Dance is undervalued by society
It is a poor relation to other artforms
It needs an audience
Dance reflects culture
No dance is identical
Dancers have brains

What do politicians pre-suppose about dance? (3)
There are no politics in dance
Politics is verbal, dance is not
Dance is elitist
It is non-essential
It is a hobby
It is ballet
It is perfectly formed
Dance is a tourist opportunity
It is for women
It is expensive, fun, social
It is for a minority
Dance is hedonistic
It is decadent and linked to club and drug culture
It is about fitness not art
Dance is good for heritage and cultural exchange
It is non-intellectual
They cannot control it

Jane Bacon (formerly Jane Mulchrone), lecturer in dance, University of Northampton and director of Redleaf Dance Video Productions. Contact +44 (0)1604 735500

1 Rubin, Rivca, Ways of Knowing Conference, University of Northampton and The Foundation for Community Dance, Northampton, 1999.
2 Greenland, Penny, Ibid.
3 This list of quotations was compiled by delegates at the Ways of Knowing Conference, Northampton, 1999.
4 Williams, Drid, Ten Lectures on the theories of the Dance, Scarecrow Press

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001