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Animated Edition - Autumn 2008
Reflections and ponderings
Alysoun Tomkins has led the Community Studies Programme at Laban for the past seventeen years. We asked Alysoun to reflect on the current landscape of community dance as she goes into active retirement and moves to pastures new
In September 1991 I took up the post of Community Lecturer, at Laban. Seventeen years later, I am leaving Laban and my present role as Head of Community Studies and One Year Programmes to move on to pastures as yet unknown but based in Gloucestershire. The Community Course, now titled Postgraduate Certificate: Dance in Community (PGCDC) programme, and validated by City University, was originally instigated by the late Peter Brinson in 1982. He identified the need for a course which would equip people who had received initial dance training, with the skills and knowledge to work in the community. Community dance, as a profession, had only been recognised six years previously with funded posts being established in three different geographical locations. The development of the work and the increase in the number of people delivering dance in the community was rapid and Peter's foresight timely. The aim of the PGCDC, to educate and train first class dance artists to work in community contexts, has not changed over that time, but has the job for which they are being prepared?

Who facilitates?
My own initial training was at Laban, known then as the Laban Art of Movement Studio, and Middlesex University formerly Trent Park College, where I received a teaching qualification in dance and did teach in secondary schools for a number of years. I also worked as a dance specialist in Theatre in Education in the early 1970s. It was this job which gave me my first experience of working 'in the community' as it entailed collaborating with three other artists, one puppeteer and two drama specialists, in a team. Collectively we developed shows which would be toured in the local area with accompanying workshops being given to a range of age groups.

After settling in London, I began, in the 1980s, to work in various London boroughs as a 'Dance Animateur', ending up as the 'Teacher in charge of Dance' for the London Borough of Lambeth. 'Animateur' implied that a person animated a community through the arts. The term was never popular, its four syllables clumsy, it sounded too like amateur and now seems rather antiquated. Dance 'teacher' came from the fact that most individuals working in the area of community dance in the early 1970's were, for the most part, dance teachers, like myself, who had been trained in the work and philosophy of Rudolph Laban.

Job titles since then have been varied and numerous and often describe the role of the post holder rather than the person filling it. For example, a Dance Development Officer develops dance, a Dance Co-ordinator coordinates activities but Dance Practitioner and Dance Artist describe the person filling the post as a dance specialist or expert. That specialist or expert may be a teacher but equally may be a performer or choreographer. The norm today is that those working in dance have portfolio careers which include many aspects of dance practice. Today dance in the community is respected by and a valuable part of the dance world. It excites people about dance; it provides audiences for dance; it offers income for many dance artists and it has been fundamental in breaking down barriers between the so called 'high art forms' of theatre dance and 'popular or people's dance' forms, blurring the boundaries between the different dance fractions. Hence, someone who works in community contexts in 2008 is a 'Dance Artist', as the first rule of a good practitioner working in the community is to know the art form and secondly, to be able to communicate that knowledge in a number of ways for the benefit of the wider community. Working in the community requires dance artists to have many skills of both a practical and organisational/ administrative nature. Therefore, in the last 35 years, the shift in who is facilitating dance activity in the community has been from educationalists to dance graduates and dance form practitioners. In the 70s one would ask the dance teacher, 'Can you dance?' One is more likely, today, to ask the dancer, 'Can you teach?!'

Why facilitate?
Before my appointment at Laban I experienced a range of community dance work which included establishing a Dance Foundation course for those who wanted access
to programmes of dance in Higher Education; working with people with disabilities; providing dance activities for the many unemployed people in the late 1980s and delivering dance classes in Youth Clubs housed in converted flats on housing estates in the Brixton area. Brixton had experienced riots in 1981 and 1985 and there were serious social and economic challenges in the area at that time. On reflection, it was working in that environment which forged my own philosophy about community dance and it is that philosophy which has informed my teaching. Owen Kelly a community artist working in an inner city borough of London, explained: "...we worked with people who were suffering from the domination of the state; people who were unemployed, inadequately housed, poorly schooled and unprovided for in terms of recreational facilities." (P29) (1)
He suggested that as arts in the community became more professionalised it lost its radicalism, drive and raison d'être. He saw the role of community artist as "activist" having changed to community artist as "professional" as they sought funding, became recognised and respectable (1). It is true that dance in the community in 2008 is a respectable profession. It has a structure: there are career progression routes for artists; there are local and national agencies and a professional body; there are training courses in Higher Education and significant amounts of public money supporting the work.

As we have become respectable and accountable we have had to justify our work to more partners and this presents a problem. It has always been bemoaned that it is difficult to measure outcomes of the work particularly the social, emotional or spiritual ones and so it is easier to measure the measurable, for example the improved fitness levels of the participants or to 'put on a good show'! I am concerned, therefore, that when terms such as 'excellence' and 'giftedness' and 'talent' are employed, particularly in the area of Youth Dance, they relate to a person's performance quality and technical ability, those visible aspects of the work. Sir Brian McMaster's report (2) and use of the word excellence is explained through his linking of the word to ideas of 'innovation' and 'risk-taking'. If that is the definition, then dance activity in the community has been innovative and risk-taking since it began - dance and disability; intergenerational work; inclusion of all dance forms; work with socially excluded people, the list goes on. There can be excellence in process as well as product and we must remember that we facilitate dance activity for a variety of reasons.

Future facilitation
I have been so fortunate, over the last seventeen years, to have worked with students who are and will be the future facilitators of dance in the community. They all had a passion for dance and a desire to share that with anyone who donned a leotard - or rather, in the 21st Century - T-shirt and jogging bottoms (although I see leg warmers are back!). We have discussed, amongst other things: access, babies, creativity, dance, elders, fun(d raising), gender, hip hop, integration, juveniles, kinesphere, lesson plans, marketing, networking, ownership, process/product, quality, rationales, salsa, technique, under 5s, vocation, workshops, excellence, young people at risk and zigzag floor patterns! But above all we have agreed that the most important thing for a practitioner working in a community context is the people in front of you, the reason they are there and the ability to communicate with them.

I accept that it is difficult to not be led by government initiatives, or to tick boxes and meet targets as where there is a policy there is a pot of pennies, but who is leading whom and who is advising whom? Should we not be listening more to our participants and being advocates for them? It was reassuring to read Kate Castle's comment about the artists she meets as being, ".well-trained and serious crafts people. working closely with different communities to realise their vision, and taking part in an active dialogue with their audience." (Animated Spring 2008 p7).

Community Dance grew organically; it began with individual enthusiasts inviting people to dance for the sake of dancing. Today, the profession is more formalised and there is a danger that it could lose its spontaneity, creativity and innovation if always required to address other organisation/people's agendas. Dance is a useful medium for meeting many aims but it is also an art form to be celebrated in its own right. Hopefully, community dance will be able to continue to develop organically and not be hijacked by strategists and policy makers.

So what now for me? I feel I want to be less institutionalised but still work as an educator, trainer, mentor or consultant helping to develop those dance artists working with dance in the community and perhaps ensuring that the original philosophy and aims of this area of dance activity are still adhered to in the future.

1 Kelly, O. 1984 Community Arts and the State: Storming the Citadel. London: Comedia
2 Cited by Donald Hutera in Animated Spring 2008


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Animated: Autumn 2008