On training for Dance:
‘I’m not interested in how people move, but what moves them’ said Pina Bausch…
I was recently asked if, in order to do a module on physical theatre a student needed to hit the gym twice a week, and I blurted out ‘yes’ as much as a genuine recommendation as a sly provocation…
I remember as an undergraduate discovering that ‘Dance’ wasn’t just the repetition of a choreographers routine on an idealised body, but an open invitation to explore the possibilities of movement in a body, any bodies, or any thing…
What is dance training then? How does one train for dance when motivation is central, when a gym can provide a conditioned body, and when anything can, and should, move?
I attended the The Bridging Dance Training Contexts symposium at the University of Winchester, on the 18th December in 2018, perhaps with these long standing questions in the back of my mind.
The symposium sought to discuss the issue of how to bring together the different educational, social and cultural approaches to teaching dance, at a time when dance education is under a constant process of resource cutting, and fragmentation.
Opening remarks from Fiona Bannon set the terms well, avoiding the ‘technique/creativity either/or’ trap in favour opening up a discussion around how much dance training should be about fostering artistic citizenship – finding ways for students to become well rounded individuals.
If dance like any other subject is means of understanding what it means to be human, then what is the balance of studying the ‘subject’ in relation to studying ‘us’. What would students think, if on signing up we said – you are not here to learn how to dance, but to dance to become a citizen… it might sound visionary, but also like it was avoiding the subject…
So training finds an immediate value in building a foundation, but not a physical one. Of course ‘training’ is so much more than simple ‘preparation’ for a style. What was made clear at the symposium was how training is a direct experiential window onto tradition, history and the cultural languages of dance. Further, that by engaging in such training, one becomes part of that shared social and cultural history, and one gains agency in it. So the entry into training, becomes an entry into citizenship.
Often the counterpoint offered is that creativity, the core quality of the arts, is framed as a rejection of training, and as a rejection of cultural norms… And while I hold those views to a degree, I’d also point out two conditions – that the norms of training are often what creativity kicks against or works within. So formal training becomes the foundation for radical acts. Further, as speakers frequently pointed at the symposium, dance is social. It It is the reliable formality of dance training and tradition, that help create dance’s social contexts.
Once a week I see my children practice their martial art drills, and Irish dance routines. There, through training, they make friends, form a community, and contribute to the life of these body based practices.
At the symposium, there was a reasonable amount of discussion of the merits of meta-learning, or teaching students how to learn. As both a means of fostering life-long skills, but also a critical awareness of the limitations and politics of the traditions or techniques that students learn. A frequent refrain is that dancers are glad to have encountered ballet, but would rarely practice it now due to a range of problematic features. Again this critical pedagogy is an increasingly vital approach. The question is how to engage students at that level of inquiry, when what some might simply and justifiably want, is to learn moves.
Openess and transparency seem key here. To acknowledge that dance is there for those who want to know and interrogate the form, to experiment and play with it. That dance is also there for those who want to move with others, be social, to learn an embodied language. These two aims should be compatible, or at least able to be held in the same space.
Also that teaching of the dance and the arts in practice is an inherently messy worldly business, and that is a positive feature. That the more advanced the studies into dance or any other art form become, the more complicated they become. At this point the need for well rounded individuals becomes paramount, not least because we move from students who learn from us to those who learn with us. This is the kind of training we are moving to – where the practical development of specific skills in dance, must come with an engagement with the personal capabilities such as resilience and self-care needed to acquire them.
So often teachers have to consider training for the ‘industry’ that itself may change, or require different skills in the future. So often teachers are told to consult with employers on what skills should be developed in students… the employers may not know. The people often left out of this equation are the students. As they are ‘tomorrow’s industry’, and will be forming it without a well resourced infrastructure, we might be better placed working with them to discover the skills and capabilities needed.
During the symposium a practical session was held, and I joined in. To begin with I could grasp the ideas and execute the moves, but as the moves became more complex, I stumbled. My moves becoming an approximation of the far more accomplished group. Simple repetition would have got me there in the end. What kept me going, dancing badly but improving, was the company of other dancers, the ideas at work, a sense of play with the the material, the stories of what the moves meant to those who created them, and the germinating seed of what they might mean to me.