Dance, when it is at its very best, is an indelible representation of the history of the human species. Dance as art and human expression has flourished since the dawn of mankind. It is the natural way to communicate. Indeed, it preceded human language and from its outset dance has dwelt in the land of abstract symbol and also of representation as a way to communicate with unseen forces as well as those in plain sight. As pre-verbal communication, dance became a personal art form, an encapsulation of the values, beliefs, and hopes of peoples from every corner of the world.
Whether theatrical, ritual, therapy, or art, each type of dance had a specific intent to carry out in no mistakable terms. There was no ambiguity then as there is now about what dance is. When we ask “What is dance doing in education?” we need to think of Dance with a capital D, of Dance as the quintessential art form, of the big picture of Dance from the dawn of civilization to the present moment. It is Dance that turns the body into a crucible of energy and an instrument of expression. It is Dance that expresses all that is important to the species throughout history. The study of Dance, therefore, should be the rich study of cultural anthropology, of humans responding to their plights and expressing their joys, of people at their best and worst, of dance as the preservation of cultural identity and the means to pass on values to the next generations. Dance should be investigated as a record of history’s major cultural revolutions and an art form that is bound by artistic principles of design just as all the other arts are.
Today, dance is more likely to be thought of as “dancing with the stars” or a half-time show and therefore seen as highly-rehearsed spectacle and as competition. Dance is often more trivialized in society and in education than studied for important reasons like the other arts.
Dance entered the realm of education only 25 short years ago–before there was any clear educational model that would enable it to realize its full potential as an educational discipline within arts education. At that time, dance was a “presentational model.” Still today we find that kind of outdated model rooted in school-based programs and in higher education. However, in 2016 we have now have clarified many of the parameters that would ensure dance is a strong educational presence when it is taught holistically with educational rigor and integrity. One such model is the holistic 6DC model of educational dance which is infused with six defining characteristics to ensure dance measures up in education. It is rooted in the artistic processes and human development. We are in the process of taking the 6DC model to yet a more enriching and well-articulated system of education that is genuinely transformative.
Still, the old 20th century models of “dance instruction” for the purpose of a big performance still prevail in some states (i.e., the presentational model). It is time to shed new light that will guide those programs forward so they may replace their outdated 20th century practices in K-16. It will take a three-way effort to align educational dance practices with the needed 21st century practice. There must be a coordinated effort a) to update higher education teacher preparation practice, b) to raise the expectations of the school administrators who hire dance specialist for K-12 so they know what to look for and what to promote, and c) professional development of existing dance specialists in the field.
The new core arts standards demand such a renovation of the old paradigm if we are to prepare teachers to conceptually align with the main principles, processes, and structures in dance’s artistic processes (creating, performing, critiquing, and connecting). To those who perpetuate the old, limited model in public education we should say, wake up. It is time to rethink what kinds of specialists we are certifying. It is time to look at what we are leaving out of their certification curriculum and their dance experiences in higher education (such as critique of major dance works which is lacking in most teacher certification programs). It is time to relegate the popular dance teams and performance-driven programs to be reborn as compelling, enticing afterschool programs but not allowed to replace core educational curriculum during the school day. These old habits die hard once started and grandfathered. But it is time to examine individual programs from all angles to ask “Exactly WHAT is dance doing in education?” “Is it truly educational or merely informational? Is it more entertainment than education? How educational is it and how firmly rooted in the art and practice of the best of dance? Does it overemphasize one style that imbalances the program?” Those beg more questions: “How can we approach dance as an opportunity for educational renewal and transformation? What is needed to align it with a holistic, conceptually-based subject that offers greater benefits during the school day than our present program?”
Dance, the ephemeral visual and kinetic art that exists only in the moment and then evaporates, is the quintessential art made of our humanness. Just because it is elusive in practice does not mean it should be elusive in education. There are specific vocabularies to acquire in order to speak of dance and think about dance. These vocabularies are universal–not just stylistic terms. There are the underlying principles, processes, devices, and structures to enrich understanding of the kind that support skill development in all four artistic processes.
While not the same as a live experience, there are beautifully filmed examples of major art works of dance. How else can we recapture dances once the curtain falls or be able to restage dance’s major works over time? And who keeps alive the major art works of dance anyway? There are various organizations that devote themselves to preservation in different forms, among them the practice of writing movement scores through the intricate science of Labanotation® and the freer form of Language of Dance®. Forms of literacy such as dance notation should be included in education just as the reading of music notes and scores is part of music education literacy.
This is the year to increase dance literacy of this sort to better appreciate the intricacies of dance. Dance is far more than what is seen and then forgotten over time. Start now to teach dance and dancing in the context of its major art works just as the other arts do.
To become literate requires gaining particular skills in each of dance’s artistic processes (learning how to create, perform, critique, and relate to important aspects of dance and dance works). There are spectacular dance works across time and place and cultures to investigate. In addition to the dance notation systems, there is the dance element lexicon that describes the body in space and time. There is more to dispense in educational dance than steps and sequences. Unless educational dance is immersed in fine exemplars of the artistic discipline of dance, then education is reduced because the art form itself is bypassed. Any arts education that believes that its techniques are more important than the art works its best artists create is doomed to failure in education.
What promotes illiteracy is too many hours spent in technique classes, rehearsals, and main stage performances in K-12. Such a one-dimensional approach narrows the curriculum, cheating it of the three-dimensional substance that brings the art form to life through the senses and the mind. Now is the time to focus on holistic education–including the study of major dance works from around the world—to transform the learner and also to replace the practice of dance education as presentational and performance driven.
Dance instruction that is self-centered by being performance driven loses its way in education. It doesn’t have a leg to stand on. It is for show and lacks substance. Would that all high school principals realized that Dance is more than merely dancing in a spring show! Would that principals instead supported literacy and education as they do in other academic subjects! Dance literacy is only achieved by learning the languages of dance and by seeing and understanding dance in the context of its major art works. That process takes time and consistent practice to analyze a broad spectrum of styles and works through a systematic four-step critiquing process (see Viewing Dance—Vocabularies for Critiquing).
Choreography, like visual arts, is to be appreciated, understood, and decoded in order to grasp particular movement techniques and to tease out the creator’s mastery of spatial and temporal design. By comparison, how could visual arts education teach effectively without calling attention to major art works as exemplars of the best in the field? How could they convey the breadth of the styles and cultures within visual arts? How could they demonstrate the design principles that students are to master in order to create cohesive works? How could students be moved or inspired by major artworks if they never saw any? And how can students be moved and inspired by great works of dance unless they see them through the eyes of one who is informed enough to also decode them into words and concepts? How can they begin to make sense of masterworks unless they are dance literate and how can they use the design principles inherent in them if the principles are absent from their dance curriculum (which is the case in approximately 95% of school programs)? Dance is trivialized when it revolves around the act of dancing instead of the art of dancing.
Dance Curriculum Designs’ passion is to create inspired teaching tools that emphasize master works of dance as an important context for learning to dance and learning in dance. Unless today’s students see exemplary works of dance as art they are devoid of models to follow. So if they are illiterate about one of the world’s most powerful art forms, they risk believing that dance is “all about them.” Contextual learning in dance is one way to open those blinders as well as to increase dance literacy. Contextual learning in dance directs students to major choreographers and styles as a starting place to develop their own skills. This artistically-driven perspective has the power to transform dance education and to enrich the creative spirits of those who study dance.
Dance taught from a holistic and artistic perspective is transformative to all involved. It takes the “me” out of the center of dance education and puts “dance as a multifaceted art form” in. Once the shift is made, the rewards are far more satisfying than the “one and done” show-stopper musical theatre productions that impede dance’s ability to succeed as education in education and that cause dance students to graduate as illiterates.
How can we do less than build a three-dimensional context for dance in which each student sees great works that make the human body into the instrument of expression that is the tangible, breathing vessel for human expression? How can they experience Dance which is well-crafted in space and time as momentary reflections of the body’s ability to communicate all of what it means to be human and to be alive?
Brenda Pugh McCutchen is the author of Teaching Dance as Art in Education, a foundations text for dance teacher preparation in higher education (2006: Human Kinetics). As a retired professor of dance and state-level arts education administrator, she creates teacher materials that support literacy and strengthen learning contexts. She is at the heart of the initiative to transform teaching in dance education.