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Animated Edition - Autumn 2007
Going home happy... is that all there is to it?
Ruth Spencer, independent dance artist
OK so let's come clean. If I am perfectly honest when I began teaching I had no other purpose behind me than to earn money - and that involved teaching people to do things I had been taught to do and them going home happy! That could not sustain me - I got bored, sapped of inspiration and lost - but what I observed around me or read about were practitioners who seemed to connect and have a completely different understanding of the purpose, value and potential of dance. I was intrigued. There was obviously lot's more for me to discover.

It's taken me on a journey over the past 20 years that I hope will continue for a good few more.

Our education system places a high importance on developing the intellect and along the way the physical seems to have been neglected. But things are changing... healthy living government agendas, the media tells us how people are searching for antidotes to the stressful, fast pace of life, and health professionals inform us of the need to nurture physical well being... all are causing more and more people to search out physical recreation and development. The physical body is being given new importance in how we live our lives.

I have come to believe passionately in the relationship between the development of the physical body and the development of the mind. Whether through running,dance, karate, tennis, yoga - I feel that we all need to find a way that we are happy and comfortable to engage with our bodies. The more we notice, listen and work with our body the richer our life experience will be.

Learning to notice and listen to our bodies has become 'key' in my work. Developing my own awareness and that of the groups I work with. Sensing the effects that physically moving has on the body and in relationship, exploring the role that the mind and intellect play. This awareness had, for me, been developed through the exploration of improvisation as a dance form and process. I have been drawn to improvisation work as it allows a congruency for me between the different contexts that I work within: myself as an artist, with early years to within special education, training teachers and health professionals. The principles underlying the work remain the same so I feel I am able to pursue a line of questioning and curiosity whoever I am working with. In this way the work itself starts to feed and nurture me rather than draining and sapping as earlier in my career.

Dance improvisation has developed not just my physical awareness but a mental and emotional awareness, and an awareness of others too. Skills in:observing, interpreting, responding, shifting, waiting, listening,sensing, playing. When I work with groups I am aiming for them to:
  • Become more aware - in relation to themselves, others and the wider world. Working to recognise the choices and possibilities that are available in the body at any time. Through this increased awareness of possibilities and choices that people can explore the 'grey areas' between black and white, appreciating their own and other's choices and therefore recognise and celebrate difference
  • Feel empowered -creating an environment where people feel safe to become active members in the group. That participants have a sense of belonging, feel comfortable and empowered to express their own ideas and opinions
  • Discover a playfulness that nurtures curiosity, allowing exploration and discovery to take place with ease.
The physical dance work we do together then begins to develop a better sense of knowing ourselves, who we are and who we are in relation to others. This knowledge can become a source of confidence and celebration of our individuality. How rich and vital dancing and moving start to become as part of our development as human beings!

So 20 years ago I was satisfied if participants went home happy and hopefully came back the week after. But what am I looking for now? What are my markers for success?

On a human level I am looking to develop a relationship with a group that allows high quality communication to develop, both verbal and non-verbal. I'm looking for a confidence and ease of communication - it may be through eye contact, participants asking questions, expressing opinions, contributing ideas, the clarity of a physical instruction from a participant, a participant taking a risk/trying something new etc. I look out for these responses throughout a session and if they are not happening, I shift the work accordingly. The work cannot successfully develop forwards if this relationship is not in place - it may be that the group need me to slowdown, speed up, find out more about them, ask questions, listen, give more/less structure...

I'm also looking for participants being 'in their bodies' during the session. This happens for me when the balance of attention within the body shifts from the external stimulus we are bombarded with to the internal sensations and rhythms of the body. With some groups, such as young children, I am looking for 'pockets' of this awareness. In others I look for longer periods of working with this different focus.

And last but not least I hope to sense an atmosphere of playfulness within the space. I'm looking out for people being comfortable and engaged with ease in exploring movement, moments when people try new things out and take risks; times when people consolidate movement within the body and through repetition make new discoveries. I am working to a point in a task or exploration where any guidelines that were given to set the exercise off become discarded by the participants as the movement work they are creating starts to drive itself.

I'm striving for the place where participants are empowered to make their own decisions, their own dances, their own art. And 20 years on... I hope participants are stillgoing home happy but with a greater sense of learning and understanding about themselves and dance not just regurgitated steps.

Ruth Spencer is based in Chester, UK and can be contacted on

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Animated: Autumn 2007