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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
From values to practice
Animated, Autumn 2000. Has our youth dance practice remained unchallenged for too long? Sue Akroyd raises some serious issues for consideration

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Community dance work, historically and currently, has been underpinned by issues that influence the day to day practice of the provider. These ought include:

Agendas and Trends (external and internal) often inextricably linked to funding agendas.

The question of purpose are we making art or (re)generating communities?

Measuring success which is frequently a pre-requisite for -

Defending credibility/status as a profession and a profession within a profession.

Such issues give rise to the realities which impact on practice - the tensions between differing value systems, the demand for transparency and clarity of intention and so on.

Dealing with tensions such as these are the sign of a mature profession. As a profession we have constantly had to state and restate our philosophies and values. We are not alone in this, and it is not wrong that we should be expected to do this. But, it is exhausting and time consuming. Much time and effort has been spent on debating these 'big' issues.

It seems that discussion which focuses on the 'delivery' of dance itself may have been, in recent times, neglected. It is time to revisit how our values and philosophies are put into practice.

In my 'apprentice' phase as a dance practitioner, I learnt from great practitioners such as Marion Gough, Louise Glynn and Gil Graystone. In the work I was privileged enough to witness, I was acutely aware of a 'philosophical inheritance' that valued concepts such as people-centred practice, a combining of social and artistic aims, empowerment for the individual, creative/negotiated learning processes and so on.

These are all values to which I still adhere (although, with experience, I have a more critical relationship with them). However, I am also aware that in my insecurity and my eagerness to learn, that I inherited the practice too - my 'methodological inheritance'. It is only recently, as I reflect back on my work with young people and in my current work training potential community dance practitioners of the future, that I am beginning to have the same critical relationship with my practice.

I am beginning to question things that have become 'givens' in much teaching that I witness or carry out myself. For example, it could be argued that the 'classic' youth dance class format has become:

  • start in a circle

  • teach technique

  • set a creative task

  • manipulate material generated

  • share work created

  • select/direct/edit.

Of course, not everyone is doing this in every session, but I would argue that there is an accepted (but unwritten) 'formula' in much practice that has remained unchallenged for too long.

Maybe it's because it is the right formula, but, if only to avoid complacency or passivity, I feel the need to ask some questions. Asking why we do things the way we do demands that we ask what we are doing them for, ie. our aims. Aims, in turn, stem from values. This is the starting point for the flow chart (see attachment - figure 1) which represents what I feel ought to be a clear connection between the values and beliefs we hold and the way in which dance is 'delivered' at the point of contact between the dance practitioner and the group.

Taking each stage of the flow process in turn, I want to raise questions that will prompt the reader into reflecting on how their 'teaching' practice comes about.

When our youth dance groups come into existence, what is making that happen? Is it:

  • the external 'agenda'
    for example the 'numbers' game - the pressure to get more people involved in dance, to make dance a 'commercially viable' investment

  • the form
    ie. dance advocacy: because we think dance is great we want to access it to more people because we believe it is good for them, for us, for society

  • the young people and their values and needs, crying out for a medium through which to be expressed.

Answering this question, with honesty, begins to expose our true values.

Are we 'interventionist' or 'responsive' in the way we set about generating youth dance work?

What are the aims of our youth dance work/groups?
Who sets them?
Is this how it ought to be?
Are they explicit and understood by involved?

What do we think about most when planning a youth dance session? Is it

  • content

  • overall aims for the group (see above)

  • meeting group needs: artistic/social

  • meeting individual needs: artistic/ social

  • meeting your own needs: artistic/ social

  • the teaching style you will adopt.

Of the above factors we must ask:

  • What determines what?

  • Who's leading who?

  • Who's making the decisions?

Should we be planning a session at all? Is to plan a session to deny the right of the young people to take the creative lead?

It may be that young people in a new group initially look to the dance practitioner for structure and decision making, but all too often this becomes the norm, a power relationship that can remain fixed forever. But there is no reason why the dance practitioner should forever be the 'leader'.

Playing devil's advocate, I would suggest that many sessions are content driven and this can lead to the continued repression of young people's abilities as leaders and creative decision makers. This is not always the fault of the dance practitioner. We exist in a youth dance culture which prioritises 'visibility' and 'flagship' groups with which to promote the credibility or generosity of funding bodies and sponsors. This creates a treadmill of showcase after showcase where young peoples' 'talents' are displayed as representative of the artistic 'vibrancy' of the community in question. The need to keep generating new material leads to circumstances where, to combat the pressures of time, the dance practitioner generates and teaches material and the group learn it.

Which leads us to...

Structure / content
The following questions all essentially hint at the same thing:

  • Are we trying to teach skills in isolation or to develop creativity through dance?
  • Are we teaching people to dance or to become dancers?
  • Are we developing knowledge or understanding?
  • Are we promoting progression or development?

No answers here, but my perception is that the teaching and learning of skills alone does not promote cognitive development, reflexive practice, critical appreciation or ownership, all of which goes back to the question of where our values lie.

As a follow on, in terms of what we teach:

Why do we teach technique?
It may be that the teaching of technique has a myriad of justifications, so perhaps we might explore further and consider how technique is taught. Does the way we teach it reflect our purpose in teaching it? Or is it 'isolated' from the overall aims of the session as a thing that assumes its own unspoken virtue? I often think the latter is the case.

And creative work should not escape scrutiny either:

Does the skill of 'manipulating' movement material constitute 'creative dance'?
We are in danger of churning out hundreds of youth dancers who know what a 'motif' is and how to invert it, reverse it, transpose it ... but creativity, to me, suggests much more than that. It implies:

  • innovation

  • personal investment

  • the dancer as creator and explorer.

Taking a phrase of existing movement and changing the timing or the direction or working it into a duet with a partner has a whiff of orienteering rather than pioneering.

Leadership style
How we choose to deliver the session reflects, as I have hinted above, at our own values and beliefs about the purpose of the experience for the young people and ourselves.

Are the young people:
*learning to dance?
This has an artistic focus, where our needs are met, in that we are able to pass on knowledge and expertise. It also, in its most extreme form suggests 'skills', therefore 'relative standards of ability /achievement', therefore 'competition'- not exactly a concept championed by the community dance profession!
*learning via dance?
This suggests that the social aim is high on the agenda, but what of the artistic?
*learning in dance?
This encapsulates aspects of personal needs, social needs and artistic needs. All these can be embraced, as both the medium itself and the potential outcomes of engagement with it are explored.

This concept, for me, is the way to realise notions of validation, change and renewal and ultimately the key to the transformative power of dance, without ignoring the dance itself.

Embracing the concept of individual and shared learning experiences via the medium and the delivery implies a far less fixed notion of the relationship between the leader, the individual and the form. It is a far more demanding route to take as a dance practitioner but ultimately, surely, a more rewarding one that more truly reflects the values that we profess to hold dear.

This article is written as a prompt to further thinking. I am not suggesting that what we currently do is bad practice, I aim rather to challenge myself and others to gain more understanding of why we do things the way we do.

To conclude, I offer the chart (see attachment - figure 2) as a summary of the possible flow of values into practice.

Sue Akroyd, lecturer in dance, John Moores University.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001