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Animated Edition - Spring 2007
Ethnicity and community dance
Jane Scott Barrett, Director of Ludus Dance, challenges us to reconsider our approach to ethnicity, dance forms, and community dance
In this article I would like to open up some debate around Community Dance and ethnicity. It's a potentially sensitive subject, so I need to take a little time to clarify my motives and the types of information I am dealing with.

The community dance movement has at its heart a commitment to accessibility, equality of opportunity and diversity. There is sophisticated and embedded consciousness in achieving this for a range of ages, physicalities, gender and so on, but there seems to be a relatively limited and tentative approach in relation to ethnicities.

There are a number of academics who specialise in writing about the interplay between ethnicity, power, and culture who could potentially 'shed light' on this. When I read what these critics have to say, it helps me to see and experience the world differently including community dance, and it leads me to be concerned that the sector might be operating, in certain respects and unwittingly, a kind of cultural imperialism. I thought I'd share these thoughts with you in the hope that you might find this interesting and useful. But, first, I need to clarify what type of information this article is, and is not, dealing in. It's important to do this otherwise the article might sound 'too big for its boots'.

Types and limits of information
I am drawing down the ideas and perspectives of well respected academics. Their views are not unassailable and have been critiqued within their own circle. Books take time to write and so some of the views have been formulated on the basis of information from twenty years ago or more, some of the writers are from countries outside the UK, some are mature in years, and so forth. This does not diminish their work but demonstrates how it is influenced by who they are: it helps to take this into account when the information seems to accord or discord with the views of the reader. I am selecting viewpoints that I feel are relevant, but my own age (43), ethnicity (I'm white, English, and of Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Manx heritage), and so forth, have played a part in this selection. There may be a body of information and experience within the collective of Community Dance practitioners that draws upon a different set of experiences that can offer challenges to, and/or affirmation of, the ideas of these authors and myself - hence my call to stimulate debate through this article.

This article is dealing with perspectives drawn from, for example, logic, philosophy, lived experiences, analysis of the construction of history and so on. This is a different type of information than statistical information. We don't, as yet, have the statistical information on ethnicity and community dance. This means that I can say (here) that I am concerned that the sector might operate in an imperialistic manner someone else might say it doesn't, but we need the statistics to clarify the debate.

I hope this introduction helps you to assess the status of the information in this article, to see it as part of a debate that belongs to everyone, and to encourage your sense of ownership sufficient that you might consider making a contribution.

Outline content and structure
I am going to look at the construction of the history of 'art dance', arguments that this works hand in hand with colonialism, and consider whether traces of this might still be operating within community dance today with reference to one example. That's all I'll be able to cover within the limits of this short article, but hopefully it will be enough to demonstrate how the ideas of such writers could help the development of debate and practice. The next couple of paragraphs are a bit academic in tone... bear with me...

Art as apartheid
In her (1996) book, Choreography and Narrative: ballet's staging of story and desire, Susan Leigh Foster traces the early formulation of 'art dance' and 'art history' in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in France. A growing and aspirant middle class looked back to ancient Rome and Greece and concluded that a special category of 'art' existed and should be rekindled. This 'art' should represent an improved version of the human condition (mimesis) and thus morally educate. Narrative Ballet performances were developed in order to achieve mimesis. A typology of dance was formulated that distinguished 'art dance' from forms that were recreational and/or sacred, attributing social benefit to all, but arguing a special and elevated social status and significance for 'art dance'.

At the same time the notion of a developmental world history was being formulated that positioned Africa, India and other colonised territories as 'primitive' and Europe as 'civilised'. This cross-fertilised with the dance typology to produce a developmental dance history that positioned the dances of the colonised as primitive, and the art dance of Europe as civilised. This in turn produced a set of values and logic that encouraged the notion that:
  • Only 'art dance' was worthy of being recorded in history
  • Non-art dances could provide interesting raw materials to be taken, without asking and without crediting their creators, into 'art dance' (appropriation)
  • Only certain people have the sensibility and capability of producing art; that those who have produced primitive cultural artefacts are thus proved brutish and so forth.
Thus the development of a notion of 'art dance', possessing a superior social function, went hand in hand with colonialism, cultural imperialism, and racism (here ends the reference to Foster). It's a dynamic that Peter Brinson (1992) referred to as 'art apartheid'.

Community dance as 'high art'
Now what has this to do with community dance? Community dance has a history of articulating how it challenges the hierarchies of cultural production for example by encouraging a 'grass roots up' means of art production and/or by making art dance accessible to all and/or something in between. So community dance can and does play a huge role in challenging this imperialism regarding who can, and should, make and appreciate art; and by putting art at the service of people rather than the other way round.

However the majority of community dance practitioners and practice stems from the Western Dance Theatre (WDT) tradition. Whilst the relationship between community dance and 'high art' seems well debated, the relationship between the sector and those dance forms that lie outside the WDT tradition seems to occupy a 'fringe' status within the debate at the moment. OK, so many community dance organisations offer a programme of dance classes in a range of forms, and there have been case studies and projects included within Animated 'on and off' over the years, there are examples of work that embrace a range of dance forms systematically, but this does not constitute a rationale, strategy, or systematic engagement with, and representation of, these forms within the community dance movement as a whole. Within these social, folk, devotional, and popular forms lie the heritages of the marginalised, and so it seems strange to me that a movement with the values of community dance should have left this debate relatively untouched. Moreover, I feel I have sometimes witnessed community dancers adopting, what I can only describe as a 'high art' position in relation to these forms - an assumption that their creative, contemporary and/or post-modern, dance practice offers a higher social benefit.

For example, a colleague once said to me that she was proud to have transformed the youth dance provision of her organisation away from Street Dance and towards Contemporary, which, she stated, was so much more creative. So, I'd just like to take a moment to consider whether Street Dance might at least possess an offer of equivalent social value.

Writing in 1972 (updated in 1988 and 1998), Lynne Fauley Emery traced the history of African American and Afro-Caribbean dances. She excavated the continuum of Africanisms through various cross-cultural fertilisations and evolutions of social dancing including The Cake Walk, The Charleston, Tap, The Lindy Hop, The Twist, The Hustle etc through to the precursor of Street Dance that was Michael Jackson and the MTV generation. A Street Dance class offers potential exploration and appreciation of an inter-cultural history, an opportunity to achieve a fairer representation of ethnicities within the community dance offer, the chance for inter-generational work by exploring, with parents, elders and so forth, a shared popular dance history and so on.

Street Dance has at its heart, improvisation within certain aesthetic parameters, so an assessment that the form is not creative may be inaccurate and, at best, a reflection on a style of teaching that has evolved around it. But what if a Street Dance class was taught in such a way as to focus on the technique and the steps? Victor Turner (in Kershaw (1992) articulates the benefits of performance from an anthropological perspective including that it produces a state of liminality. This is a state of simultaneously being ones-self and someone/something else, offering a safe space within which to rehearse new identities; this can be a transformative experience. Thus stepping into role, stepping into the vocabulary, aesthetic, attitude, discipline etc. of a concrete dance form can have transformative properties. So teaching Street Dance steps offers this potential.

I think my colleague, in reviewing the artistic policy of her organisation's youth dance work, was operating an unwitting cultural imperialism that was shot through with the traces of previous ethnic demarcations, which she was not thinking through fully. Incidentally, one result of her review was a narrowing of the demographic of the client base. Now I'm not suggesting Street Dance, or any other dance form for that matter is, intrinsically, 'better' than another, but on this occasion I witnessed an assumption operating that did give one type of dance form a higher status than another.

It's one example, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if, each and every one of us, each and every time we were asked to work with an aspect of (say) social dance, checked our assumptions and values. This would help reveal whether or not the value system operating in this one example is common. We could ask ourselves - Where has this value come from? In what ways are these values valid and in what ways are they assailable? How does this assumption about what does and does not have value match with my own dance desires and experiences? Does this set of values erase engagement with a whole demographic? And so on..

As I passed through the office at Ludus Dance the other day, two members of staff were belting out a medley of songs from the musicals complete with quick flashes of half remembered dance routines. Both these women were lit up inside as though fairy lights were draped around their hearts, they were 'back there' in that liminal moment, and this shared memory truly bonded them. I'd like to see them take that forward into their everyday Community Dance work... and with pride.

Closing thoughts
I would like to make a bid that development of a rationale and strategy for engagement with social, folk, popular forms etc. offers a truly exciting potential future for community dance. This could bring with it, further opportunities to erase unnecessary and harmful ethnic demarcations in cultural production, appreciation, and application, and the opportunity to develop even broader terms of reference for the potential social benefits of dance. I think the formulation of the framework for professional development currently being undertaken by the Foundation for Community Dance, and the statistical trawl that informs this, offers an opportunity to identify and formulate ways forward. It could potentially bring into the community dance profession dancers from a wide range of backgrounds. I also think the new calls from government for partnership working across the public, private, and voluntary sectors, might offer supportive conditions and new approaches to such an 'evolution' in community dance.

That's all I have time for, I hope you found it interesting and useful, there's lots more I'd like to say and especially with reference to critics such as Homi Bhabha, Cornel West and so on... but hey!... I'll get the chance if a debate does grow.

Jane is the Director of Ludus Dance, based in Lancaster. She came to the post from a background in performance, community dance, and academia. Ludus Dance is currently negotiating this terrain. For example the Dance Development Department is looking at the potential of network and partnership working and the Touring Company are considering basing the next 'dance and education' project on the theme of ethnicity. Ludus are keen to find partners (artistic, academic, educational and financial) for the research and development of this work, which will begin Dec 07/Jan 08. If you are interested please contact Jane direct on

Brinson, Peter (1992), Dance as Education: Towards a National Dance Culture, London: Routledge
Emery, L F (1972/1988) (1998) (2nd Edition) Black Dance: from 1619 to today, Highstown NJ: Princeton Book Company Publishers
Foster, SL (1996) Choreography and Narrative: ballet's staging of story and desire, Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press
Kershaw, B (1992), The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as Cultural Intervention, London: Routledge

Further Reading
Dixon-Gottschild, B (1996) Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and other contexts, London: Greenwood Press
Hooks, B (1991) Yearnings: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics, Boston: South End, London: Turnaround
Sardar, Z (1998) Postmodernism and the Other: the New Imperialism of Western Culture, London: Pluto

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Animated: Spring 2007