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«Enabling Dance: Dance Education in Australian Schools – practice, pedagogy and quality PD Presentation at DEAS by Dr Katrina Rank, Education & ...»

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Enabling Dance: Dance Education in Australian Schools –

practice, pedagogy and quality PD

Presentation at DEAS by Dr Katrina Rank, Education & Training Manager, Ausdance Victoria

14 April 2011

I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we stand and to you for

having me here today.

I’m going to start with a story (first recounted by arts in education advocate, Sir Ken Robinson).

There was once a little girl. She was 8 years old and disruptive in class. She couldn’t keep still, neglected her homework and was generally disengaged. Her teachers suggested that she may have a learning disorder and advised her mother to take her to a specialist. Her mother did and they discussed all her problems for some time, while the little girl sat on her hands, trying to remain still and to appear as normal as possible. After a while the specialist let the little girl know that he and her mother had to talk in private. He turned on the radio and left the room. He and the mother watched the little girl stand immediately and move to the music. He turned to the lady and said “madam, your daughter isn’t sick, she’ a dancer.” This girl was, on the specialist’s advice, enrolled into a performing arts school, and later became a dancer with the Royal Ballet, reaching soloist status, performing many wonderful roles and later turned her talents to choreography. Her name was Gillian Lynne, choreographer of Phantom of the Opera, Cats, A Simple Man and many Broadway and West End shows.

In his research for his book Epiphany, Sir Ken asked Gillian what affect the “diagnosis” had on her education. She said: “I can’t tell you how wonderful it was. I walked into this room and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.” I have 6 sisters and 2 brothers. Yes, I know… a good Irish Catholic family…My siblings are all very smart. One is a doctor, 2 are scientists, 3 are teachers, one is a painter, another is a musician, one is a writer. All have degrees. Between us, in our family, there are 2 PhDs, 3 Masters, 3 education degrees, and more besides. I was the dancer. I finished school at year 11, trained for another 4 years and performed professionally after that. During the professional stage, I really felt my unfinished education. Given the weight of my family’s achievements, I felt uneducated. I tried to teach myself, but so much of it I couldn’t absorb. I read history, the classics. I tried to read Shakespeare. None of it stuck.

It wasn’t until I was in my 3rd year as an education student that I realised that learning didn’t have to be via one method. This was before Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences had made its massive impact. I realized then I needed a combination of inputs – auditory, visual and kinaesthetic to learn. I was studying Elizabethan and Jacobean Theatre and found that my reading and comprehension was too slow for the course. But when I combined the text, with a video, reciting the text and moving while reading, I began to take it all in. And I mean physically, embodying the meaning. It’s an intellectual process, but it’s not just in the head. It’s also in the body. My body helped me experience the meaning behind the text. This is difficult to articulate in words but perhaps I can use a metaphor. You can read the theory of how to drive a car. You can learn and recite a car manual. (Well, I can’t, but perhaps some of you can!) but you don’t understand what driving a car means until you sit in the driver’s seat and experience the whole world of driving from controlling the car to being aware of the conditions and calculating possible future events.

1 Dance is like that. It’s interactive, holistic and it’s specific. When people dance they’re aware of past experience. They’re also actively engaged in the present: considering the quality, size, speed, direction, orientation and intent of their movement while simultaneously negotiating their moving bodies with other dancers in the space.

But their bodies aren’t just moving; they’re working intelligently. Ther”re using many parts of the brain The frontal lobe (which is involved in problem solving, judgement, impulse control), the parietal lobe (movement, orientation and speech), the cerebellum – (which helps us learn, control and coordinate movement, posture and balance) and the hippocampus (the body’s RAM – which contributes to long term memory, interpreting incoming nerve signals and spatial relationships) When dancing occurs, the brain sends signals to muscles to contract and release at precise measures - at specific points in time. An arm above the head by this point in the music, while at the same time, holding a partner to one side, galloping forward on the right leg for 8 counts in a star formation to another location in space by a certain point in the music.

At the same time the dancer is considering the execution of the next series of movements and remembering imagery, examples and critical feedback that has improved past performances.

This process of metacognition shows that students are aware of, have control over (or beginning to have control over) the thinking processes involved in their embodied learning.

I could of course be describing the processes used by a great footy player or a synchronised swimmer, but what really marks the difference is the artistic and creative imperative and the ways in which dance engages with the other art forms: (music, drama, visual arts, media and design).

So we see really intelligent people dancing. I don’t know any stupid dancers. Those who may not be “book smart” (good linguistic communicators) often show intelligence in other ways. They demonstrate understanding via their bodies in space and show skill, critical and transformative thinking through the way they manipulate choreographic elements or the way they choose to interpret actions, characters and contexts. Really savy people.

Recently I taught in a primary school in the northwest of Melbourne. This was in an area where most kids only got access to computers at school. None had mobile phones and very few had access to digital cameras. For the majority dance was only experienced at school. They loved Mondays. Over 10 weeks we played with digital cameras and made little dance films. The students learnt physical control and coordination and made inroads to developing individual movement vocabulary.

Through the noisy, seemingly disorganised chaos, these students worked intelligently, creatively and collaboratively. They considered and articulated ideas about identity and community. They invented and arranged original movement. And they directed the editing and final look of their 3 minute doco-dance film. So many intelligences being engaged, tapping into the literacies of dance, English and media.

Literacy "the ability to communicate by reading, speaking, listening and viewing" 2 We all know that Australian education is demonstrating an increased interest in literacy. This is shown in the general capabilities in the Australian Curriculum and you’ll see it demonstrated in the pages of the My School website.

Now, while generalist teachers have been trained sufficiently in the literacies used in English, their pre-service training in the arts generally lacks depth and breadth. Arts training is usually in Music and Visual Arts. Ken Robinson, again, has a perspective that few here would argue


“In most school systems there is a hierarchy in the curriculum in which some subjects are evidently considered to be more important than others. At the top are languages and math and at the bottom are the arts… Within the arts, there’s another hierarchy. Art and music are generally thought to be more important than drama and dance. Dance is usually at the bottom of the heap.” Although we should not indulge in begrudged attitudes and while there are progressively more schools that embrace dance and work to realise its potential, the reality is that the majority of schools do not. Teachers teach what they know. Principals approve, and in some instances, decide upon professional learning. If there are attitudes that place dance as the least significant of the Arts disciplines, how is a generalist teacher going to get training and PD so that they can teach dance confidently in a way that is pedagogically sound, aesthetically challenging and relates to other aspects of the curriculum? How can the kinaesthetic and spatial tools of Dance be used promote learning in other areas, so that students learn through Dance as well as learn about Dance as an artistic form?

Before answering these questions lets take a step back. Dance will be a subject within the Australian Curriculum. This is a good move. This is thanks to the focused efforts of a small number of arts advocates who have plied their knowledge of policy, research about the benefits of an arts education their absolute conviction that a curriculum without the Arts is one that is limited and short sighted, and unable to prepare students for the creative demands workplaces will place on them in the 21st century.

So Dance is included. The implications for the dance sector are huge, exciting and challenging.

Let’s take a moment to imagine what sort of creative environment we would like to encourage.

Let’s think back to our own dance training: the role models, classes, studios, spaces and opportunities and the flip side, practices that we have sworn as teachers not to repeat: teaching by terror, the weekly weigh in, practices of exclusion, overtraining and pressure to work through injury.

It’s important to consider WHY people dance. I see 5 main reasons. There may well be more.

Why People Dance 1 PLEASURE:

Fun, enjoyment, satisfaction, joy, feeling alive as attention, body and mind work as one. Without the fun, why would you bother in the first place? Without pleasure the rewards are too long term and


for the beginner.

It’s easy to forget this one essential element as dance teachers. Our dance lives started with the pleasure, but then we become serious. On the journey towards professionalism, we sometimes 3 assume the fun and find rewards in the challenges. People experiencing dance as a social, recreational or educational activity need the pleasure and the satisfaction up front.


Social interaction – clubbing, jamming, dance classes, dance to celebrate, cultural events, community dance projects.

In the social media and digital age, our interaction is designed and edited. We select how, when and where others will see us, hear us. When primary communication is via blogs, nings, wikis, Face book, You Tube, Twitter and emails, community connection is placed at risk. We socialize, but for man, the interaction is modified. Instead of being immediate, it is channelled.

Our physical connection is reduced, limiting the growth of social, physical and emotional intelligence. This is of concern when talking about students and education. Without others, sharing experiences in the same space, students have little chance to appreciate the subtleties of human interaction: the energy exchange between individuals, nuances of body language what is said, left unsaid within a particular context.

One can dance alone in a room and it can be cathartic and liberating, but in a room with others, all striving to achieve similar physical goals it becomes more than this. There is a sharing of space, of time and a tangible exchange of energy. Dancing with others energizes. Sharing ideas, values or perspectives fosters a sense of community and companionship.

Why People Dance 3 HEALTH & WELLBEING Yes, some people use dance to get fit and lose weight!

As someone who values dance for its liberating and expressive potential, I find this a little mundane but the reality is there; this is one reason people start to dance, and we cannot deny the importance of encouraging people to do more physical activity when we find that Australians are becoming more obese every year. In fact many community OR school dance projects begin with health and well-being objectives. There is significant financial support for activities that improve the physical, mental and social health of our nation.

Why People Dance 4 AFFIRMATION:

This is about dance as an expression of self.

When people dance, they take ownership of the dance: its movement and intent. They orchestrate the combination of elements, patterns, rhythms, dynamics. They layer it with their own experiences and imaginings. No-one is just a dancer. I believe that everyone is a creative dancer, or to put it another way – everyone has artistic potential. All have something to say and say it, whether others notice or not.

I guess this is why injudicious criticism can hurt, especially with less experienced dancers – because for them there is no distinction between what they do and who they are. Dance and identity are closely bound together.

We’ll demonstrate this with one of the videos from Yours Truly, a community dance project I did in 2009 as Artist in Residency for the City of Darebin, the outcome of which was an installation of 5 short dance films, shown inside 5 x 30cm square boxes with peep holes cut for viewing.

4 The participants were people with disabilities. The films had a focus on personal expression, private lives and cultural voyeuristic tendencies. This is Andrew and Shea.

Why People Dance 5 EXPRESSION and MEANING: (of self or of a wider community).

This is an extension of 4.

Dancing expresses the inarticulate. By that I mean that the experience does not easily translate into other languages, such as English or the Sciences. Bodies are tangible and visible. The communication is layered, immediate and embodied. Its not rocket science. Dance simply needs others to learn its language. One wouldn’t expect a student to understand French without teaching them the language and the context in which it is spoken. So too do students need to learn to read the human body in action. And by this I mean, at a more sophisticated level than a Yr 9 Health class on “body language”.

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