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Building a 21st century pedagogical model for community dance
Ken Bartlett asks if we need to develop new methodological approaches for community dance to suit the needs of people and dance.

The best part of my job at the Foundation for Community Dance is the opportunity it affords me to travel this country and beyond and celebrate how brilliant community dance is, what it achieves and how it transforms the lives of people and their communities. Work led by members of the Foundation and other artists, companies and organisations who share our values and ambitions for dance and dancers wherever they are and are keen to widen access and increase participation in high quality dance experiences that offer a life long relationship for people with the art form.

 

However, The dance critic Judith Mackrell in the Guardian newspaper guide described and wrote off community dance as ‘mediocre and politically correct’. Clearly she’s seeing a different range of work than I am. However, it is a criticism that I think we should consider, given its origins: Judith is a smart cookie and knows her dance.

 

After I’d hit several roofs, I had to consider whether she had a legitimate point, and if she did, what did we need to do as a sector to be able to challenge her assumption in the long term? Because I don’t believe that anyone working in community dance wants to deliver work that is mediocre or politically correct per se. I believe that we want to deliver work that is of the highest quality and that is transformational.

 

One of my concerns is that I don’t hear enough critical debate about our methodologies and approaches to pedagogy in community dance. This is perhaps not surprising, given the nature of the work: individually led in the privacy of the ‘studio’, with everyone finding their individual solutions; a sense of threat when we are asked to reveal what we have been doing or even reflect critically about it. I suspect that as the profession has included a wider range of dance professionals and more dance styles and genres, these kinds of discussions are difficult and would be seen as highly critical of the individual practitioner’s right to define their own working practices.

 

That being said

 

Community Dance as a manifestation within the dance ecology of the UK has now been established for some 30 years and as circumstances and funding opportunities as well as the aesthetics of dance have changed over this time so have the outward manifestations of community dance.

 

The overriding aims of the community dance sector have largely remained the same - to increase access to and widen participation in dance.

 

Over the past thirty years from the nature of the ongoing discussions and debates that I have been involved in with the sector has also has based its work on a fairly consistent set of values about the practice:

 

o               Placing the participant at the centre of the activity

o               Respect for difference

o               Dance as an empowering tool for participants in the dance and the rest of their lives

o               Practices that are inclusive rather than exclusive.

 

 

It seems to me that in accepting a wider range of practices that the definitions of what community dance is have themselves become blurred. It has become increasingly difficult to establish a cohesive idea of what the professionalised community dance sector is, how it works and what it can achieve for those who take part.

 

Over the past ten years because of the particular take of the Labour Governments we have become adept at arguing for the instrumental impact of dance at the expense of deepening the debate about its intrinsic values.

 

It would appear from the current media profile that dance is receiving from such programmes as ’Strictly Come Dancing’ and ‘the Tmobile adverts, that dance is the arts activity of the moment. Figures for participation and for dance audiences are rising significantly. The arenas for engaging people in dance continue to expand and artists are embracing new contexts and people to engage actively with the form.

 

So where is community dance in this developing picture of increased access to and participation in dance? What is indeed its territory?

 

In my childhood when I lived in a small village in the Pennines, the local cricket club would hire the defunct village school hall and run whist drives to raise money for the coming season. Everyone in the village would attend from youngest children to the oldest person; no one was excluded. After the whist drive, food, prepared by local women would appear, and drink, ferried from the local pub would be distributed. The card tables were pushed to the sides of the hall and a three or four piece band set up in the corner and everybody danced, they included traditional English dances as well as popular dances such as the waltz and the tango. Couples danced together and the young people were gathered in by the elderly to learn the same dances that had been passed down from generation to generation. This is an example of a dancing community that is social, inclusive and learning from each other without the need for any kind of dance professional or community dance artist.

 

There are many styles and traditions of dance being arranged for people to participate in across the UK largely as a result of the incredible mix of culturally diverse and multi ethnic people who now live here. Whilst people might originally attend these sessions for social reasons, meeting old friends, maintaining a cultural heritage etc. What happens is that they become expert in those particular dances getting more confident, learning new dances enjoying the full pleasure of participation in the activity of dancing. What they become after a while of dancing together is a community of dancers. This can be a mixture of the professional and non-professional or separate groups of both the key is the pleasure take by all participating in the particular dance.

 

Community Dance as I want to define it currently, has learnt much from these manifestations - its inclusiveness, the social interactions it can promote and the sheer pleasure of dancing communally with other people. The historical distinction that distinguishes community dance in the UK from these other manifestations, is its historic link with theatre/concert dance tradition. This link with the development of ‘New Dance’ in the UK in the 1970s; building on such things as pedestrian movement and contact improvisation. This work allowed/encouraged a small number of professional dance artists to see that there were alternative ways of engaging non professionals not only in dance but more importantly in the art of dance. In the UK there were a number of important initiatives supported financially by the then Arts Council of Great Britain – the first Animateurs and Dance Artists in Education initiatives - that allowed these approaches to take hold and inspired other artists to develop new skills and approaches that placed participants not only in the role of learner but in the role of creator/artist, which gave purpose to the process by placing art making and performance as part of an ongoing process rather than an end in itself. These artists were equally concerned with the artistic quality of the whole process as well as the well-being and empowerment of the participants they worked with.

 

It seems to me that as we progress into the 21st Century that there have been significant changes in the way people choose to engage with each other socially and as members of society as well as political and economic changes to the nature of long established communities, as we move from the industrial revolution through the technological revolution and into what some are beginning to call the cultural revolution.

 

We have seen massive shifts in the nature of work that large parts of the population are engaged in, a shift in the skills base that are demanded by the economy, a huge shift in the nature of the population itself with different loyalties being expressed as part of individual and collective identities. The ‘Credit Crunch’ has sent shock waves through the very fabric of our local, national and global identities leaving us as members of a society that is not at ease with itself and where the individual demands a voice as of right as well as more disparate collective voices demanding to be heard as we come to terms with the fast and eccentric rate of change that we are dealing with in this age of uncertainty.

 

This new modus vivendi has had impact on artists as it has on the people they choose to work with in community dance settings and it is in this context that I believe that we need to review our practices and pedagogic models to see if they are appropriate for our current and developing context.

 

When I look at the established professional dance world in England of producers, promoters, companies, conservatoires and funding bodies I am occasionally reminded of a closed religious order: The absolute truth was established back in the mists of time and the only way to survive, is to submit to the rites, rituals and responses that have been established without question for generations. Rituals that have ossified over time and brook no opposition, and certainly don’t take account of the changing winds and breezes of the outside world.

 

Pursuing my ecclesiastical metaphor, hopefully not stretching it too far, someone once told me that she thought there were two kinds of nun and for me there are two kinds of dance professional. ‘Those that have experienced God, and those that have been on their knees so long that they have no alternative.’

 

I hope that you can see that I am attempting a fundamental challenge of how we in dance operate and how we widen access and increase participation and indeed actively seek to include difference and diversity in our pantheon of what we can call dance and I am challenging whether community dance should continue to align itself to a narrow set of aesthetic values currently embedded in the professional theatre/concert sector, and I want to ask whether in this present fast changing context whether that we should continue to privilege that sector as something to aspire to and measure ourselves against when we are often being seen in deficit by that sector when we don’t match up to their ‘standard’ or view about what  ‘dance’ is or might be.

 

I am seeking to ask us to consider a 21st Century pedagogy in community dance that has art making as its focus and the participants at the centre of that operating as creative artists with control over content, form and context. A pedagogy concerned with facilitating people to make meaning through the art of dance not drilling people in how to dance in a particular style or tradition or fit into the learnt aesthetics of the established dominant modes of dance or learning a set of steps. A pedagogy that is concerned as much with how the dance feels as much as how it looks.

The dominant model for the development of professional dancers still appears to me to be primarily concerned with the training of dancers rather than the education of dance artists and this model appears to me to unnecessarily leach into the development of youth dance some work in schools and the practice of some dance companies. In the state schools sector I have heard recently from colleagues that the educational basis of dance in schools is becoming less highly regarded and understood.

 

What these centres and the teachers/facilitators/dance leaders, who ascribe to the training model are failing to see is that people come to these sessions are already dancers; with dance in their bodies based on a whole raft of dance experiences actively and virtually experienced together with an awareness of what dance is, as they see it and feel it in their bodies.

 

It seems to me that we are a long way from the time when people, particularly men, say ‘I can’t dance’ there is a whole generation for whom dance of some kind or other is one of the things they do. (I remember being at a conference about dance and disability, and the two speakers before me, a disabled artist and the local mayor, began their speeches with that dread phrase “I’m not a dancer”, yet both of them danced their way through their presentations, giving sophisticated physical emphasis that added clarity to their talks).

 

I am reliably informed by colleagues around the country that young people in particular, come to dance sessions already dancing, albeit informed by popular and social forms, that are immediately expressive and often technically very competent, but also bringing with them individual and original forms.

 

These people are vessels that are full of dance, not empty, waiting to be filled with our view of what they need to become, what I want to see in Community dance is a much more complex journey that will demand a different pedagogy than that learnt from the established order

 

So what kind of pedagogue and pedagogy am I looking for in the 21st Century?

 

I think I have already laboured the point about accepting people as potential artists where they are when they enter the dance space, and placing them and their aspirations, ambitions and ideas at the centre of the process and also about the importance of bringing a range of aesthetics to the fore rather than privileging a narrow historical framework

 

I don’t want to see community dance practitioners with an obsession about identifying the talented and the gifted against the narrow criteria of the Centres of Advanced Training but operating as people who are prepared to take the time and make the effort to unearth potential and develop it rather than spot it and train it. People who can work with the half full rather than the half empty.

 

I think we really need to become people who are experts in the body - what it can do/can’t do - what it wants to do and doesn’t want to do. A pedagogy based on much more than a short course in anatomy and physiology – one, as Miranda Tufnell suggests in her chapter ’Beneath our Words’ in ‘What to Dancers Do that Other Health Workers Don’t’ pub. Jabadao 2000, ‘that develops a deeper connection to the experience of the body and a personal creative language, widening the field through which we perceive and experience ourselves and the world around us.’ One more concerned with whether it feels right rather than what it looks like, one that understands the body’s development through our ages but one which doesn’t stigmatise what people can do because of their age or medical condition, that celebrates what they can do rather than what they can’t. Or what we think they can’t. One that demonstrates we are experts in the body. As Amanda Fogg reported in the Spring 2008 issue of Animated about the work of the Mark Morris Company with people with Parkinson’s disease “this (the dance class) is an opportunity to put the disease on the back burner, it’s a dance class, we don’t look at it like a therapy class”

 

I am also interested in developing a pedagogy that puts content and meaning back into the dance mix - saying things in dance that are truly interesting or meaningful about the human condition. Now don’t get me wrong, I am happy to be a witness to dance that simply creates ripples in the air around me, or makes the air in a room circulate as ballroom dancers communicate their joy in moving through space. Nor am I banning people just having fun with putting their bodies into interesting shapes, positions and gestures to see what will happen. I’m perfectly happy with the Dionysian play of body on body and communicating the joy of that to an audience. Most of my most exciting times as an audience member are when I have danced with the company as they move, without even trying to make sense of what the piece was about.

 

However I am more interested in us passing on what I’m calling the deep rules of dance not its many outward forms, supporting people of whatever body size, shape fitness or age to explore together, asking ‘I wonder what will happen if…..’ and then becoming highly skilled in manipulating the massive potential of the tensions between those deep rules of stillness and movement, silence and sound, darkness and light. People who are interested in supporting the making of meaning through dance rather than imposing their dance on people

 

I think we have to become more knowledgeable and multi-lingual about the dances we know so that when we are supporting and facilitating community dancers to make their work we have as wide a range of reference points to draw upon to support the precise meaning they want to convey in their dances and these reference points need to include historical, the culturally diverse and the social dances. We need to recognise still the need to name the distinctive dance practices, yet as American dance artist Liz Lerman has suggested in several speeches over the past few years:  “recognise that they are only separated by a permeable membrane.” In other words we stop configuring dance genres as a pyramid or even a continuum that indicate that some are more important or intrinsically valuable than others.

 

We need people who have knowledge of a wide range of dances and movement techniques so that they can use dances to add to the meaning, rather than force people through the funnel of one dance style or set of steps. I also think we have to take a greater responsibility to know about more dances not only so that we can include them where necessary but so that we can respond positively to the dances that people bring with them.

 

Supporting people in art making is more than providing an expressive outlet, it is supporting and facilitating the conscious, knowing, illuminating and constructed.

So how do we move from the expressive wriggle of the two year old, apart from relying on them to begin to make the move to consciousness as part of the natural progression of child development into the more conscious, controlled, embodied and communicable piece of dance.

 

For me the first is to unearth and identify the content that the community dancer(s) want to communicate and from there we can begin to identify the form and steps that best serve the content and the dancers.

 

It seems to me that if artists choose to work in this way they have to possess a rich understanding of what the body can do, what it is safe to do and how to protect it for the long term. Also we need to become more intuitive, curious and knowledgeable about what specific bodies might be able to do and the risks we can ask the owners of those bodies to take, and indeed whether we can include what they do within our frame of reference as dance.

 

In summary then I see a pedagogy that needs more educated dance artists who can engage with current issues facing their dancers and the wider world and less trained dancers; a pedagogy based more on negotiation than instruction and which fully embeds its values in the practice; one which gives more value to the making of meaning, art making and content within the process; one that has as a multidimensional view of what constitutes art and dance and dance as art and has a multilingual, multicultural knowledge of dance and dances; pedagogy that is concerned with passing on the deep rules of dance - the grammar not just the vocabulary; dance artists that have the skills knowledge and competence to call themselves experts in the body and finally a pedagogy that doesn’t make careless assumptions about what is appropriate for individuals or particular groups of people. 

 

I would like to see attention to these qualities and perspectives included in all the undergraduate courses for community dance and to see if we can embed them in the National College for Community Dance so that as people progress through their careers they can acquire them and use then positively so that no longer can anyone suggest that community dance practice is mediocre or just politically correct.

 

 

contact ken@communirydance.org.uk or 0116 253 3453 / visit www.communitydance.org.uk