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Animated Edition - Spring 2007
Come and join the dance; young people, dance and diversity
Celia Greenwood, Director of WAC Performing Arts and Media College describes how it promotes diversity of dance, dances and dancers
WAC Performing Arts and Media College runs classes in arts and media for two - 25 year olds. Our clientele is very culturally diverse: around 60% come from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, and in fact the largest ethnic group is young people of dual heritage. As such, they bring with them a very diverse range of experience.

All our programmes start from the premise that everyone is an artist. We try to deliver classes that provide a technical foundation so that a young person who wants to take the art form further has the necessary skills to do so. However we also want each class to provide an opportunity for creative work so that young people can express themselves and find their own voice. Part of our success comes from a commitment to working with the whole person. Too often young people are asked to leave who they are at the door, but in creative arts work, who you are, including your language, your cultural heritage, your dreams and ambitions, becomes the content of the creative process and is valued.

Dance flourishes at WAC. From creative movement for under 5's and their carers to Afro-Cuban for our professional diploma course, not forgetting the Dads and Lads dance project and the senior street dance posse, dance engenders a passion in young people that has a profound impact on their lives. Dance poses particular challenges in terms of diversity and inclusion, but it also provides some important opportunities.

Every art form raises particular issues for inclusion work and dance has its own contradictions and tensions in this respect. Its dominant focus is on form and line and the Western dance aesthetic defines beauty largely through physique, physical facility and athletic prowess. Dance is often taught in rooms full of mirrors, which encourages us to concentrate on how it looks. Many of our students at WAC have absorbed this aesthetic and at first therefore are resistant to trying a dance workshop. They recognise that they have already failed to meet these standards and what gives them pleasure is not how it looks but how it feels.

For this reason we try to deliver a diverse dance curriculum, which currently includes ballet, contemporary, Jazz, African, Capoeira, Caribbean, Kathak, Street, B Boy, Afro-Cuban and tap dance. For tutors working with younger members we try to use those who have skills in several dance styles so the movement vocabulary that is taught will be diverse and varied. In this way too, preconceptions about physical beauty in the dancer are challenged. For a ballet dancer, perfection means something very different as compared with what it means for an African dancer.

In addition, recognising diversity entails using a range of teaching styles. In a ballet class there is an emphasis on language, learning the terminology and then teaching through instruction. By contrast, many non-western dance forms are learned through call and response: the teacher shows you and then you copy until you feel good doing it. When we had an exchange with a Cuban Dance Company they taught ballet in exactly the same way. No instructions - just watch and copy - and the class seemed to learn just as fast. Our Kathak teacher teaches movement by singing rhythms that the children sing back and then copy with their feet. This pedagogic range supports a mixed ability group with differing learning styles giving everyone the chance to succeed.

With a diverse curriculum comes a range of perspectives on the relationship between art and culture. Western dance forms share a commitment to the role of the gifted who have a special talent, while many non-western dance forms still have an inclusive function in community life where it is assumed that everyone will participate. Some dance forms are passed on by a teacher using dance to teach a cultural message, some focus on the language of a dance, while some share religious and spiritual significance of movement. An understanding of the contribution this range of dance forms has made to our shared culture as well as modern theatrical and social dance forms also gives our young people a pride in their cultural history. It reinforces a respect for the cultures of others as well as reinforcing our commitment to working with the whole person.

Equally important is time in class for students to use what they have learned to explore ideas and create their own work. When students have learned a wide range of movement material as well as being encouraged to explore their own natural movement, everyone discovers they can make dance. They also realise that this range of movement gives them many options as they explore the best way to express their ideas. We are trying to create an environment in which everyone believes they can dance, even if they choose not to. We have a range of specialist programmes for young people with learning disabilities, some of whom have physical disabilities. They also dance and we have a range of additional stimuli to inspire them, including sound and light beam, a parachute and a trampoline. Wheelchair users or those with limited mobility still experience the joy of moving and expressing emotions through movement.

Our experience at WAC suggests that recognising and fostering diversity in teaching dance involves a number of interconnected aspects. It means thinking about the range of dance forms that make up the curriculum; and the styles of teaching and learning that we promote. However, it also means emphasising the feel of dance as well as the look; reconsidering what we mean by 'ability'; and thinking in a more challenging way about the role of dance - and indeed other arts forms - within the culture.


For more information about WAC Performing Arts and Media College, formerly Weekend Arts College, visit www.wac.co.uk

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Animated: Spring 2007