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Animated Edition - Summer 2006
Not debating but dancing
Maggie Semple OBE is a juggler. Throughout her life she has thrown things high in to the air and managed their gravity. Here she reflects on her experience of being a Chief Executive, Chair of Boards, an artist, educator, choreographer, a Civil Service Commissioner, a Trustee and a Governor. She was once described by a journalist as 'not suffering fools gladly'
Re-reading Chris Thompson's article in the spring 2006 issue of Animated I was reminded of the thousands of people who have given the phrase 'community dance' immense credibility and currency. These people, for the most part of their lives, have worked against the odds and have done so because they believe passionately about the power of dance.

Chris Thompson's personal statements about a dancing nation jolted me to remember when, in the 1990's, the National Curriculum was being devised and one of the major debates was whether dance should be in the physical education or the then more appropriate generic arts curriculum. This debate was important as it had a knock-on effect on the emerging community dance sector.

As a member of the PE Working Group, I recall sitting with a professional footballer (who drank a lot of water in meetings because he was in training) and the outward-bound expert and was pleasantly surprised that neither needed convincing of the importance of dance to every young person. However, I do remember the comments made by others about the PE Working Group's interim report: 'you are treating dance as fine wine and it is not'; 'how will dance enable England to win major sporting events?'; 'dance may be ok for girls but not for boys!'

Looking back, I am convinced that it was these sorts of comments that gave those thousands of inventive community dance practitioners and policy makers an additional impetus to find alternative solutions.

Finding solutions to challenging circumstances has always been part of my DNA. I didn't recognise this for years as I travelled the country teaching Laban's principles to keen dance enthusiasts. I found myself teaching at international summer schools, at Ballet Rambert, at Swindon Dance Agency and at the Laban Centre to name but a few. It was an honour to give the annual Alec Clegg lectures at Wooley Hall, Yorkshire for years through the medium of dance workshops. I was humbled at the desire of every day people of all ages who journeyed through a range of emotions and physical challenges to find ways of expressing themselves. I taught in Switzerland, learnt to speak rudimentary German, and over and over again had confirmation that indeed dancing with others in a community setting was a powerful medium.

Today I find myself drawing on the creative process of community dance in everything that I do. In my present world of running two businesses - one for profit (with investors) and the other, not for profit (with stakeholders) - I deploy some of the basic tenets of community dance. By this I mean the exploration of ideas, relishing ambiguity, enjoying moments of chance, re-appraising an action as a consequence of other actions, thinking in a non-linear way, and establishing a democratic process where all of the voices are heard with respect. All of this achieved with a quiet confidence knowing that if the fundamental values and rules of engagement are articulated at the outset, the outcomes are more likely to be positive.

My most recent experience of testing what I believe is when I make the case for financial support from a new investor or sit in the Boardroom of McDonald's restaurants. Here, the pace is fast and the ability to be intellectually agile is paramount.

As the Chair of the Dana Centre, a branch of the Science Museum in London, whose task is to engage the public in scientific debate, I see many parallels with community dance. One of our recent debates was about the growing research that is asserting that younger people today are able to think more laterally than older generations because of the new technology available to them. It is too soon to draw any conclusions but the testing of this assertion is fascinating. My own theory is that while it may appear that younger people think in more diverse ways, those involved in community dance and through that the creative process, have always thought in non-literal ways. Our stimulation may come from using new technologies but our adaptability and willingness to explore using primary technologies e.g. how the body can move and expresses itself when confronted with silence, sound and visual stimuli is potent for further investigation. At the Dana Centre we are fascinated by how the human brain processes information and experiences and how in the light of new evidence we do the thing that we are good at, that of re-inventing ourselves.

Constantly updating our knowledge and re-inventing ourselves is key to our survival. How do any of us keep ourselves current and fresh? I try to do so in many ways especially when I have a hard-nosed investor in front of me or receive media coverage that is oblique. My personality profile shows that I am someone who simultaneously reflects and assesses what is going well and what is not, while adapting to the signs and interaction before me. Being open to learning is vital to the community dance practitioner and will always be the case. It is this learning, refreshing and transferring of experiences and skills that has made The Experience Corps, where I am Chief Executive, a vibrant company.

At the Experience Corps, a company that that brokers peoples' talents in a risk-embracing dynamic way, our excitement comes from providing experiences that are simple but potentially life changing. Our business gene pool is extensive with information gleaned from 250,000 people over the last five years and our practice areas of innovation enable us to have a unique fingerprint. The community dance sector also has a gene pool but I wonder if the time has come for an on-line facility that captures the practice.

So what do I see as the future challenge of dance? Well, there has to be something about a corporate memory and no better place for this to be found than in the human body where intellectual, physical and emotional states form an intelligence that can be programmed, deleted or saved.

There has also got to be something about the unique fingerprint of community dance. While it is part of the mainstream consciousness, the mainstream needs to reference itself against a different voice so that in turn, its own thinking and practice develops.

The viral effect of community dance, its benefits and its now sophisticated practice is one that means the dance sector will continue to develop, challenge assumptions and be ready to take on new challenges.

It's interesting to note that taking on new challenges has nothing to do with age. At the RSA, where I was a Trustee we planned how we would celebrate our 250th birthday. The answer was simple: Coffee House Challenge. The RSA provided opportunities for people to hold debates in coffee shops, as did the RSA Founders in the 19th Century. I wonder if there is something here for the community dance sector - not debating but dancing!

Maggie Semple, OBE, Fellow of City & Guilds Institute, is Director & Chief Executive Of The Experience Corps Ltd - see for more information.

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Animated: Summer 2006