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Animated Edition - Spring 2008
Getting used to talking about excellence
Wieke Eringa, Director of Yorkshire Dance, reflects on the excellence of process in community dance
Being used to having everything done for her, Jatinder (12) who has been blind from birth, comes across as lazy and insular. She finds it difficult to take responsibility for her actions, her learning and for relationships with others. At the end of a five week community dance project Jatinder has made a real and lasting connection with other students, with elderly ladies from the community and is actively engaged in decision making. She has extended her range of movement, confidence and awareness of her own body beyond recognition; at times having her teachers in tears "I didn't know she could move like that!"

Since the McMaster report appeared in January there has been much talk about excellence. The report advocates the notions of excellence, risk taking and innovation as the cornerstones of the UK's ability to fund and produce world class art. What does that mean for community dance? What do we define or experience as excellent? Do we have a world class 'product'? Is this a term that suits us or does dance stop being 'community dance' the moment it is excellent? Can a process be excellent?

We easily associate 'excellent dance' with an outstanding, often technically brilliant performance, communicating with a thrilled audience. However we all know that 'process' (planning, rehearsals, discussions etc) in community dance is often as important if not more important than the final performance or film.

Sighted brother Jon and visually and mobility impaired brother Tim have a relationship based on Jon taking the lead in almost every aspect of their daily lives. As part of an ongoing series of dance workshop days both are encouraged to enjoy their creativity, express their imagination and build on their physical relationships with others. The family dynamic is irreversibly changed: Jon recognizing Tim's ability to lead and Tim enjoying his increased confidence.

As a sector we are increasingly clear about identifying what constitutes good practice when it comes to managing and delivering our process, but what makes it excellent? As an artist, every time you walk into a hospital ward, a Pupil Referral Unit, or a lively classroom, you take a risk: by negotiating a series of unpredictable exchanges, by facilitating a group process full of challenging behaviour or by taking people on a journey of self discovery. You also take artistic risks, trying out a new approach, a new game, a new idea, a collaboration with another artist. In doing so you are inherently being innovative. You are asking your participants to take risks and be innovative by doing something they have never done before: opening themselves up to new connections with others, challenging their body and creativity in new ways, pushing themselves beyond their limits. Therefore, risk taking and innovation are at the very heart of what most community dance artists do. Good ones, that is. We all know examples of artists who stick to their own tried and tested approaches, even the same choreographic devices or are not open to honest exchanges with collaborators or participants. Even though they can still facilitate participants to have a valuable experience and maybe even create a decent end product, they are unlikely to do anything excellent. Good practice in management is important too, because managers need to ensure they create the right conditions for risk taking and innovation to take place. However, can mangers really ensure excellent work happens or can they merely create the right conditions for it and hope for the best?

During the rehearsals for an intergenerational commission, Dansopolis at Yorkshire dance, a strong connection develops between all the diverse participants: toddlers, senior citizens, teenagers, children, professional dancers and adults from all walks of life: solicitors, teachers, social workers and financiers. They all have great fun, a chance to express themselves and experience new meaningful connections with each other, their own bodies and their audience.

Inherent in risk taking is that things go wrong or don't work. However, you don't really want much to go wrong when faced with highly strung, hormone-laden and behaviourally challenged teenagers, nor in a hospital ward whilst negotiating complex family relationships and emotional upset. The other crucial thing is that being innovative, or taking risks is not always a  comfortable thing to do. Whilst creative journeys can be fun, they can often also be messy, chaotic, frustrating and uncomfortable. Which one of us has ever prepared a group of young people for a performance without there being a certain amount of 'pain', tension, exhaustion and frustration? Haven't some of our favourite, most successful community dance projects included tears, arguments and time wasting? Was this experienced as excellent? We can see that Jatinder's experience of dance was life-transforming, connective and creative, but would she or the project mangers call it excellent?

 What makes a community dance artist great is their ability to manage risk-taking spontaneously, intuitively - assessing from moment to moment and from participant to participant how to guide the creative process. To facilitate participants to 'go beyond themselves' but not pushing people too far out of their comfort zones. To engage in play, (re)discover the sheer joy of being physical and creative and somehow give meaning and coherence to potential feelings of discomfort and frustration. That in itself makes the process, and sometimes also the performance outcome life transforming and exceptional. By embracing the discussion about excellence, risk taking and innovation we can describe why dance is a crucially important art form, crucial in order to meet the many challenges that we face living in Britain today. It also allows us to define what makes community dance practice in the UK outstanding and world class.
The lights come up and 8 young people (aged 12-14) enter the stage. They are perfectly in tune with each other and have a complete grasp of their choreography that is imaginative and suits their technical ability perfectly. They seem to radiate energy: committing themselves completely to the moment, they exude confidence and musicality. We are totally enraptured as they perform as if their lives depend on it: this is so much better than some professional work we have recently seen.


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Animated: Spring 2008