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Animated Edition - Spring 2006
We are a dancing nation
Community dance has moved from counter culture to mainstream. Seen by many as a 'pearl' in the context of British dance, the metamorphosishas brought radical practice to the centre. But has it removed its 'grittiness' in the sense of its challenge to mainstream professional practice? Christopher Thomson Director of Learning and Access at The Place offers some personal reflections
The image of the grit becoming the pearl is appealing, and one that appropriately reflects both the success of the community dance movement and the great admiration felt for its achievements, especially by many practitioners and policy makers outside the UK. Community dance is a conspicuous British success.

The 'pearl' is both the practice itself and the institutional structures that sustain and develop it. Community dance has moved from being part of the dance 'counterculture' to the mainstream. This is a success story and it also reflects the process of institutionalisation that takes place when a new development is seen to be effective. Community dance has been doubly effective: both as educational and artistic practice benefiting individuals and groups, and structurally, opening up new training, employment and thinking for the dance profession.

This nacreous image could usefully prompt some questions though. Community dance is seen by many (though perhaps not all) as a 'pearl' in the context of British dance, but the metamorphosis, if it has taken place, could also be seen as having brought radical practice to the centre and removed its 'grittiness' in the sense of its challenge to mainstream professional practice. The institutionalisation that was a necessary condition of getting community dance to a level where it was both accepted and effective has also 'normalised' it to the degree that you can argue that it has perhaps become less distinctive or noticeable - and this is not a 'pearl'-like quality. You need practice to become accepted and integrated, but you also need to hang on to the reasons for its success, which may in part be founded on questioning and challenge. It's a dichotomy many enterprises face as they become successful and established.

Another consequence of becoming mainstream is a wider acceptance that dance can deal positively with all sorts of ills and deficits. This is part of the process that has led us to the idea of social inclusion through the arts, and perhaps from there to the 'instrumentalism' that some people feel diminishes the arts or crowds out art that exists for its intrinsic values.

Personally I have little patience with the idea that engagement with social inclusion will cause - or has caused - a falling-off in artistic standards. I think the best artists and companies are engaging with social inclusion with the vigour and creativity that characterises all their work. I have always argued that the better the artistic qualities of our practice, the more effective it is as intervention. Performance of the highest artistic quality will always be a vital part of the picture too because that is what provides the transformative experience for people, whatever their social circumstances.

I think that community dance should continue to be 'gritty' by questioning and challenging mainstream practice or evolving policy, if necessary. It should continue, through brilliant partnerships between teachers, artists and managers (sometimes all the same person) to create really good and challenging work that, when appropriate, stands on its own feet as art. Good art is gritty. Troublesome groups and people are gritty. Good art is also pearl-like, and producing good work with troubled / troublesome or excluded people is pearl-like too.

Pearls take a long time to produce and are expensive (if they're real). Grit is annoying and gets in your eyes - but it provokes a response. And of course without grit there would be no more pearls.

As to what processes brought about this change of status and positioning, I have always felt that community dance emerged and flourished in Britain because there were lots of elements in the structure of education and the arts, and in the political climate, that provided both the fertile soil and the conditions for growth. There was also a small number of charismatic and entrepreneurial individuals who together constituted the critical mass that was needed to get things going.

The first and perhaps most important element in the process of acceptance and integration was the launch some 25 years ago of the Community Dance Diploma course at Laban which meant we had to articulate the rationale for the work and exactly what this professional role was to be. Later came the development of community strands on degree and other courses. The creation of the professional association that is now the Foundation for Community Dance was another key element, as was the role of Animated in making the work visible. Next, the establishment of National Dance Agencies in the early 1990s was highly significant - not least because several of them began life as community dance projects, and so community dance philosophy and practice were embedded in the NDA model proposed by Graham Devlin in his 1989 strategy document for the Arts Council Stepping Forward1. Other factors would include the support of public and private funders, the fact that 'real' artists like Royston Maldoom, Rosemary Lee and Wayne MacGregor (and many others) made singular and exciting work, the phenomenon of youth dance, and the undoubted effectiveness of the work.

Through the 90s the idea of a portfolio career became accepted, which in turn rested on community dance having professional status and becoming to some extent integrated into vocational training. The idea that participatory work is not serious or is incompatible with being a dance professional isn't much held here any more, though I do encounter it sometimes in other countries.

But while community dance was to some extent an emergent phenomenon, I do think the contribution of Peter Brinson in terms of creating the idea and promoting it, setting out the vision, has been overlooked, or at least under-acknowledged.

It was Peter who almost single-handedly created and promulgated the term 'community dance', who encouraged the Gulbenkian Foundation to make strategic decisions to support the earliest posts and projects, who created the Laban Community Dance course and who articulated the philosophy and practice of community dance untiringly in his speeches and his writing, throughout the 1980s and 1990s until his death. I really don't think the movement would exist in its present form today had it not been for him.


Some people are wondering whether it's time to stop using the word community, but I think it is useful. It's also vague, problematic and impossible to define exclusively! so maybe we should drop it - I know this is being discussed. But then the term 'art' is similarly decried as 'useless' and 'impossible to define'. Terms like these are inclusive - which is to say that they will always be expanding to hold the latest versions of themselves.

This breadth of connotation makes community dance a very difficult phrase to translate, so in other countries people often simply use the English phrase. If we lose the word community completely it may confuse them for a while! That said, community dancers in Finland have had their own professional association for about five years and are succeeding in gaining acceptance for their own Finnish word - Yhteisö Tanssi - they are defining it in practice and discourse. In Japan, where the idea is younger, they just say 'community dance' in English and then explain the philosophy and ideas behind it.

Have we outgrown the need for a sector-specific term, when integration has gone so far? Clearly, in specific contexts we can talk about youth dance, or dance with young people at risk, or dance with older people, so we have - or can create - practice-specific terms that aren't as vague as 'community dance'. However in some situations I find I need the overarching term, not least when I am talking about the phenomenon in other countries, or to anyone who doesn't have a clue what community dance is. Of course you still have to explain it, but that would also be true of 'participatory dance' or any other replacement term. It's also the case that a word is more potent and meaningful to someone who has 'lived' it, so to speak. So for me 'community dance' holds a lot of meaning about the original inspiration for the movement, and its core principles.

Another underlying question might be about status: do people feel that 'community' is a tag that links practice to the low-status poor and disenfranchised? I would understand that, but if it is so, then we have lost the argument anyway, you might say.

I think a more cogent point is that community is a term that has for a long time come with a lot of ideological baggage: both the right and left wing use it to lend a heart-warming quality to whatever they're talking about, and certainly that has cheapened it.

So you could drop 'community' in many contexts, even in the name of the Foundation, but perhaps we should keep it in order to refer to the movement in its historical context and also as a general term for work that is largely with 'amateurs' (another word that has a status connotation in English, but not in every language). If you get rid of the phrase 'community dance' completely there is a risk that you lose both a useful generic term and a link to, or marker of, the principles and philosophy that started it all off, and still motivate many people. The whole idea of community is still problematic in the 21st Century, but it will always be there at some level or another, because it's about how we live with other people, how we value others and feel valued, at all the different levels in society, from family to state.

I think an interesting debate would be started by the suggestion that we drop 'community' from the name of the Foundation. That would get us all talking. That said, we in the arts/dance world don't always manage to achieve a high standard of debate. I have been struck by the difference when meeting with scientists, for example. The conversation is often much quicker, more incisive and more intellectually challenging.

That may sound a bit sweeping, but as a sector we need effective debate, and for me personally questions are what make life interesting and push me forward. That, and the feeling that I am learning something new. I am motivated by change. The challenge is to challenge yourself and not just keep doing the safe things. At the same time I have spent a lot of my career trying to follow in Peter Brinson's footsteps in terms of setting up structures - both institutional and intellectual - that will help sustain the movement. That may seem like safe stuff, but I think it's important.

In successful community dance I see the embodiment of my communitarian ideals, by which I mean one gets a glimpse of what society could be. It doesn't so much show you how to get there as give you the feeling of what perfect community would be like.

It's easier away from Britain sometimes, where people are at an earlier stage and a more idealistic one. Yet I'm aware that those dancers won't find it easy to earn a living as 'community dancers'. And that one day they might be debating whether to drop the word 'community'...

I think it's important not to become stuck in one's thinking. When I feel blocked I question my assumptions, and I find that usually shows me a way forward. But I hope I'm not complacent. I have doubts and worries like everyone else about whether I'm being as effective as I could be.

If I try to identify my core values, a belief in the power of dance and movement is a constant. I also believe in the perfectibility of people. To that extent maybe I am an optimist.

If I had to write my 'manifesto', it would include:
  • I believe in the ability of people to change their own thinking and therefore their own lives
  • I believe in the power of dance to change people's feelings about themselves, and therefore to change their thinking, and therefore to change their lives
  • I believe that people have to take the first step before you can help them
  • I believe that, if isolated, people do get more frightened and more selfish
  • I certainly believe that if you frighten people they'll respond with violence of some kind
  • I believe that if something is free people don't usually value it (in our society)
  • I believe that in spite of the first line of my manifesto, people find it hard to change
  • I believe you have to focus your energies where you can make a difference
  • I believe that whatever we do, the world will go on much as before, but we have to act positively in good faith because we don't know what will make a difference
  • I believe in depth not breadth
  • I believe in art
  • Believe in trying to say what you mean - language and languages are a map of thought and of cultural change
  • I believe in reason
  • I believe in friendship
  • I've learned that if you give people a chance they'll always have something positive to contribute to an enterprise
  • I've learned - very belatedly - to trust my instincts, though in fact I think my 'instincts' are actually the totality of my experience, so my judgement is better, I hope.
So what do we need to do next? Dance needs to catch the wave of Strictly Come Dancing2 fever while not being swept away by the Olympic breaker. We need to work effectively with DCMS and all the cross-cutting agendas like health and diversity, while not losing sight of the art. There is also a real challenge in balancing access and excellence, still. The work being done on finding and supporting 'exceptional talent' is posing many interesting and potentially tricky questions. At the same time, it's a huge opportunity to have these conversations - about style and training, and access, and parental support, and how we teach, and about diversity, hybridity and social inclusion. We need to keep talking about what kind of dance artists and dance profession we want to create for the next generation.

Ultimately we need to establish dance once and for all in the national self-image. 'We are a dancing nation.' (3) Just repeat this every day and make sure it's a catch phrase that's repeated often enough... It just might work.

Christopher Thomson, Director, Learning and Access, The Place and can be contacted on chris.thomson@theplace.org.uk

References
1. Devlin, G. (1989) Stepping Forward - strategy document for the Arts Council of Great Britain
2. Strictly Come Dancing. BBC Television Series (2004/5)
3. Bartlett, K., Dyke, S., Knight, H., Pollard, N., & Stenton, C (eds) (2001) Dancing Nation. Leicester: Foundation for Community Dance

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Animated: Spring 2006