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Animated Edition - Winter 2005
The creative dancer
The 'politics' of access versus excellence, training versus nurturing, community versus professional practice' can result in polarised thinking, each viewpoint mutually exclusive - teachers of dance standing firm on either side. There have been powerful arguments on both sides augmenting the differences. But Kenneth Tharp OBE has inhabited both worlds. He explains to Scilla Dyke why we need to ask questions in order to redefine our notion of the dancer - not as a well-trained and obedient body - but as a creative, intuitive and curious individual
The moment we begin to examine the ways and hows of training young dancers we are quickly forced to address the question of 'what is it we are trying to achieve?' The definition of success for me as a teacher irrespective of whether I am working with other professionals or beginners is measured less by sheer technical or physical accomplishment (however compelling that may be) but by the level of ownership, autonomy, clarity, and confidence evidenced by the dancers.

"I find it interesting that many of my personal revelations have come outside the vocational or professional setting. Although that is not to say that I do not immediately want to bring those insights back into those settings.

"It is perhaps my personal journey through very different scenarios as both performer and teacher - that has led to me question what it is I am trying to achieve as a teacher and which has made me even more curious about the best ways to get there.

"What kind of things am I talking about? One of the advantages of still performing at the age of 45 is that I am constantly reminded of how vulnerable one is and has to be as a dancer. There is the potential at every moment on stage, in rehearsal or class for things to go horribly wrong. These fears do not automatically vanish but perhaps one gets better at dealing with them. When I am teaching young dancers who may be apprehensive, one of the first things I ask is: 'What is the worst thing that could happen?' Very often their response will be: 'I'll get it wrong' or 'I'll fall over.' One of the biggest barriers to effective teaching and learning is fear. As a teacher I try to give permission to let go of fear. Sometimes I ask my students to fall over so that it is out of the way! Learning to celebrate 'mistakes' as a crucial part of the learning process is an important shift of attitude for both student and teacher.

"Dancing is a wonderful vehicle for learning about yourself often because for every physical challenge there are mental and emotional ones to overcome as well. For example, the fear of falling, whether literally or metaphorically can be debilitating. It helps to undercut the fear of the ground, or of being 'off-balance' if one knows that should the worst happen you have the necessary skills to fall without hurting yourself and recover. Although the kind of paralysing fear, which destroys true ownership, enjoyment and quality of dance, is not exclusive to any particular dance style, as a contemporary dancer learning to fall can be a desirable asset and not a thing to be feared. If however you are swan no 27 in the corps de ballet the fear of falling or being conspicuously different becomes immediately terrifying.

"Last year, thanks to a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, I undertook a seven-week trip to South Africa to look at the training of young dancers. One of the most remarkable experiences was working with young dancers in the townships in and around Cape Town. What struck me beyond their incredible talent, boundless energy and enthusiasm was the absence of fear. There were probably many reasons for this, not least the cultural and social contexts in which their dancing existed, but to witness this was incredibly inspiring because I recognised how rare it is: "'It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult."' (1)

"There is something else which I believe to be fundamental for teacher and pupil - being able to ask: 'What if?' As teachers we should be feeding the curiosity of our young dancers but equally we have to be curious ourselves. If our teaching simply consists of instructions 'do this', 'like this', then however skilfully done, we are not enabling the real process of ownership - diminishing the possibility of turning these young dancers into artists as opposed to well drilled machines. If we expect our dancers to be daring, adventurous, independent thinking and self-motivated, then we as teachers have to be equally daring. Yes we can only teach what we know, but at the same time I also recognise that if I had not allowed myself as a teacher to step outside my own box and try, sometimes on impulse, a new idea then I would never move forward. It is about igniting curiosity.

"It is perhaps easier and more meaningful if I share a few anecdotes.

"Several months ago, I co-taught a mixed group of ten to 12 year olds, half of whom were participating in the Royal Opera House's Chance to Dance programme, and half, The Royal Ballet School's Junior Associates. Working with celebrated composer and musician, Christopher Benstead our role was to explore music and dance creatively. It was a fantastically stimulating day - these young dancers making creative choices about their movement. At one point, one young girl enquired: 'Is this meant to be classical or contemporary?' She had had the courage to ask - so often there is an expectation that dancers shouldn't need to ask questions. Her enquiry gave me the perfect opportunity to re-affirm for the whole group that this task was absolutely about their own creativity and imagination and that they should be as adventurous as possible in exploring. Again it is about giving permission to step outside the box.

"A 10-week project - Boys in Babergh - in Suffolk, organised by DanceEast, comprising two groups - one aged between 11 and 12 years, the other mainly 15 and 16 year olds with little experience of dance - highlighted the transformation not just in terms of physical skills, but also in increased concentration, confidence, creativity, sensitivity, courage and ability to work as a team that can occur if there is ownership. During a performance at Northgate Arts Centre, Ipswich as the boys started dancing the track on the CD didn't start. By the time the music came in the dancers were 30 seconds out. I was convinced that the piece was going to grind to a halt but the boys kept going and at a key moment - everyone on stage still - one boy improvised for 30 seconds, jumping over, ducking under other boys finishing bang on cue. I was intensely proud of all the dancers, and especially this young man - to possess the courage and presence of mind whilst under performance pressure was an extraordinary asset and would serve him in the future no matter what career path he chose.

"This example of creative ownership allowed the individual spontaneity and freedom to rescue a very difficult situation. The best dancers - just like the best footballers - display remarkable intuition and spontaneity that goes far beyond reproducing 'learned movements'. Something one can't learn sitting at a desk. Nor if one's experience of dance has never allowed you to make an autonomous, creative decision. When I work with young dancers towards a performance of a new work, I teach only some of the movement. (This fosters skills, broadens their vocabulary, and they can use it as a basis for other tasks.) Most of the movement however is generated by the dancers. This helps increase confidence and ownership and is especially noticeable with dancers who don't yet have a vocabulary of 'learnt steps' and so can generate far more interesting and exciting ideas. I then work with them towards greater definition, clarity, dynamic range, breadth and quality of movement.

"One of the most crucial indicators of whether ownership exists is if one simply sees obedient performers on stage fulfilling tasks that clearly have been prescribed or whether they inhabit the movement with such quality that it really belongs to them - the audience unable to tell if they were the authors or not. Working alongside Janet Smith, (director of Scottish Dance Theatre) on the Dancer's Project at The Place, something very important emerged for the dancers: "'When I hold auditions I'm looking for 'the person' not just a dancer. Sometimes during class... it is as though the dancer hasn't found the way to own the material that someone else had given them... 'this is me falling... breathing'... It's as though they have left part of themselves at home. Don't be afraid to be amazing."' (2)

"I know that seeing 'the person' is also what interests me as a choreographer and as an audience member, and yet sometimes as teachers we have to safeguard against the dangers of ignoring the person and treating the dancer as a mere body.

"I suspect all professional dancers hold certain revelatory moments when the thing that one had never understood suddenly became clear. Whilst at London Contemporary Dance School Anthony van Laast, (who at that stage was making the transition from principal dancer with London Contemporary Dance Theatre to that of choreographer and later, of acclaimed shows such as Mama Mia and Bombay Dreams) said: "'...dancing is a constant process of decision-making.'" I have never forgotten the importance of recognising as a dancer that no matter what information the teacher or choreographer gives you there are always many more decisions that one has to make for oneself.

"I sometimes offer my students the notion that the effective embodiment of a movement and the measure of success in achieving their goals is most probably likely to be equal to the number of decisions they make, the speed with which they are able to make them, along with the quality and appropriateness of those decisions. They have to be able to look clearly, listen carefully, and having absorbed the crucial information apply this to themselves. This requires creative thinking and autonomous decision-making - outside the box - learning to give equal value to spontaneity and intuition. This is way beyond just doing what you have been told. How often as teachers do we witness dancers who appear to be simply going through the motions? We have to ask ourselves why? And what our role is in getting them beyond that? Technique and creativity are not separate things, but complementary aspects of the same thing. I cannot say this boldly enough!

"Within classical ballet - most especially in the training of young dancers - the notion that creativity and technique are two separate things may still exist: choreographers are blessed with inspiration and dancers simply do as the teachers and choreographers tell them. But this is fast changing. Today professional dancers in companies such as The Royal Ballet are working increasingly with choreographers from different backgrounds in different ways - those from a contemporary background take for granted that the dancers will contribute to the creative process by developing, creating and manipulating movement material. It is no longer the case that most choreographers will simply show the steps. As teachers and artists working with young dancers it is crucial that we recognise this and begin at the earliest possible stage to prepare them for professional life.

"The Royal Opera House's (ROH) ground breaking Chance to Dance programme has been running for over 13 years, auditioning in 46 schools across London. Young children with their innate dance quality, appetite for movement, rhythmic sensibility - revel in the joy of physical expression. How then can we give these dancers a rich and educative experience that will serve them regardless of whether they go on to become professional dancers or not? The ROH, with a legacy of excellent Education work and the Royal Ballet School, with a similar track record of excellence in the training of dancers, are both making significant moves to ensure that their practice is evolving and forward thinking. But this is a challenging process.

"Classical ballet has a rich heritage that is passed from one generation of dancers to the next in the dance studios. This is perhaps one of the few things we have in our culture that resembles the oral history of other cultures. Contemporary dance too has its own more recent traditions. There is however a danger - that we continue to teach the way we were taught without ever questioning it - tradition after all starts from a creative act. What transpires from that creative exploration only becomes tradition after some considerable time and as the result of many questions being explored and evaluated. Even in the context of a tradition we as teachers need to continue to look at our practice to ensure we are serving these young dancers as much as people as for possible future careers as professional dancers... equipping them with the tools for survival in a rapidly changing world.

"Sports science is providing invaluable information about physiology, and scientists are looking specifically at how the brain works when we learn dance movements. The assimilation and consolidation of new information, the enhancing of proprioceptive skills as well as the important physiological benefits of rest, recovery, increased fitness, sufficient hydration etc. add to our tools for change. Exciting theories from people like Howard Gardner on the notions of multiple intelligences, acknowledging that we learn in different ways and the simple but effective tool of real time visualisation can help consolidate information. Rather than simply repeat a combination, the dancers close their eyes and think through it, often with the music, mentally rehearsing the exact timing and co-ordination. It reaffirms the communication between brain and muscles as effectively as doing the movements for real - even beginners or young dancers take to it within a very short time."

"'Creativity is a function of intelligence"' remarks Professor Sir Kenneth Robinson (3): '"I see this at play all the time."' "Perhaps the most daring thing we can do as teachers is to not always feel we have to know all the answers - but to be able to say sometimes 'I don't know' or 'what do you think?' or best still 'what if...?' The questioning may be far more important than the immediate answer because the exploration that follows can lead us all to insights that we could not have imagined."

Kenneth Tharp OBE - Dancer, teacher, choreographer - email Dr Scilla Dyke MBE leads Professional Studies with the Royal Academy of Dance


1. Seneca, Source Unknown
2. Smith, Janet, The Dancer's Project, The Place, 2004
3. Robinson, Professor Sir Kenneth, All our Futures, 2003

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Animated: Winter 2005