In what ways does community dance practice and rhetoric link to politics?
Community dance is defined by its emphasis on process (rather than product) and benefits of the process on individuals and communities. These benefits coincide with national priorities of government and this explains the traditional support given to community dance by national government in the UK until recently.
However a less traditional understanding of community dance that runs into social choreography points to a different form of Political currency.
What is Community Dance?
In simplest terms, Community dance, is “participatory dance activity that’s done by amateurs and often led by professionals” (Houston 2008 p11). It is a wide field, not limited by any particular style (Foundation for Community Dance 2012) and for example might include “A North Indian Kathak class for adults in a church hall (…) a three month project in a theatre for aspiring young ballet dancers (…) A one day workshop in street dance for anyone inquisitive enough (…) an intensive year-long course in contact improvisation for visually impaired adults (…) [or even] folk dance” (Houston 2008 p12). This list of examples reveals the range of duration, traditions and participants possible within community dance.
This simple definition already distinguishes community from ‘vernacular’ dance as found on streets, and in parties and nightclubs where there are not clear leaders, and certainly not professionals. However vernacular styles might be adopted by community dance practitioners (for example Houston’s street dance example) just as they might be adopted by professional dance (for example Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church which incorporated vogueing) (Tramway Arts 2013).
Community dance is also traditionally distinguished from professional dance where the participants are professional although this distinction is disappearing. Traditionally, in the West at least, professional would mean both that someone had undertaken a period of training of several years (for example in a conservatoire) and that they were paid to dance. But these two things are no longer coterminous since the ‘untrained’ dancing body has become accepted as valuable as the trained one and today many professional choreographers work with amateur dancers, for example Ea Sola, Jerome Bel and Alain Platel.
There are also the cases of dancers and choreographers who have trained but are unpaid or not fully paid but these might still be considered as a part of professional dance since they are intended as rehearsals or practices for conventional professional dance. The situations might also be distinguishable from community dance since the emphasis in professional dance is on creating a performance — ‘Everything for Performance’ as Peppiatt emphasises (in Wilson 2008). Community dance may still result in performances but these are not a necessary outcome. For example only 45% of community dance projects and initiatives taking place between June 1999 and June 2000 resulted in a live performance (FCD 2002). Even where there is a community dance performance this may may often be subservient to the practice for example as a way to celebrate achievements, raise awareness of the process or even as a continuation of the process (Wilson 2008).
It is worth noting that the community dance professional is expected to have a range of skills that choreographers are not for example “people skills”, “knowledge of context” and “awareness of diversity issues” as well things like “Creativity” although (Amans 2008b p112). While these skills would benefit any profession including professional dance artists they are notably lacking explicit recognition in choreography education or job requirements. This reflects something of an unenlightened ‘by any means necessary’ approach where the only thing directly recognised, evaluated and rewarded is the performance (even though any many other product focussed organisations understand the value of staff care).
Community dance as development
Rather, then the emphasis in community dance is on outcomes that are not aesthetic and may relate to the development of the individual participants or audience members. Houston (2008) sets out four categories of community dance that each place an emphasis on a different type of development: Alternative, ameliorative, radical and community based. Alternative community dance refers to approaches that are holistic, focussing on the mind as well as the body and may link with other alternative practices and therapies. I would suggest that 5Rhythms classes might often fall within this category and I would assume that this is the least Political of the groups.
Ameliorative community dance
Ameliorative is the most common form of community dance (Jasper in Houston 2008) and promotes the well being of individuals. For example the Foundation for Community Dance (FCD) website refers to community dance participants “enjoy[ing] a specific dance style” and “us[ing] dance in a creative way to express yourself and your ideas” (FCD 2012). FCD research of community dance projects identified a range of benefits for participants including dance skills, health benefits, personal skills (for example self awareness, creativity and confidence) and social skills (for example team work and sensitivity to others) (FCD 2002).
The Foundation for Community Dance (FCD) website refers to community dance participants “get[ting] a sense of identity and belonging to a locality or cultural group” and Jasper (in Houston 2008) identifies those projects that focus on the individual as a member of a community and community development as a distinct category.
As well as the benefits to the participants, others have highlighted a broader the benefits for audiences for example in 1984 Sarah Rubridge referred to the aims of “demistifying dance as an art form” and “reinstat[ing] dance as an integral part of the life-style of our society” (in Amans 2008a p4) while Wilson (2008) writes about community dance have the ability to help audiences understand the aesthetic and non-literal meaning of dance. In line with this, the FCD’s research from 2002 found that 58% of community dance projects identified an increase on their profile locally and 19% gained new or unexpected audiences. Furthermore in community dance projects with an audience nearly three quarters of audience members gained a new insight into the potential of the participants and over half of audience members gained an experience of dance they’ve never had before (FCD 2002).
Another important characteristic of community dance is the local dimensions to it. In fact Benjamin (2008) goes as far as to assert that localism is the defining characteristic of community dance. “Community dance is made in a neighbourhood and performed by neighbours…It might be seen in one or two venues around the neighbourhood…but it rarely tours and does not often place itself on the market shelf (Benjmanin 2008 p105). Research by Wilson into community dance projects found that 94% audience members who responded claimed to attend a performance because a friend or relative was performing. And it is therefore of little surprise that FCD’s research found 58% of community dance audience members experienced an enhanced sense of their own community (FCD 2000).
To recap then community dance is different – bit not always clearly – from both professional and vernacular dance. It involves amateur participants led by professionals in dance activities where the primary aims relate to the process and its benefits to the participants rather than a performance. Possibly most importantly community dance participants and individuals are largely drawn from the same neighbourhood.
Ameliorative and community-building: Community dance as Political preparation
It is here that we see the first potential link with Politics in the potential for community dance to act as a form of citizenship education. The Citizenship Foundation (2006) for example, asserts that “Democracies depend upon citizens who, among other things, are: (…) concerned about the welfare of others; articulate in their opinions and arguments; capable of having an influence on the world.” Clearly there is a fit here with the individual and group benefits of community dance. Although not referring to dance per se Matarasso (1997) points out that “Participatory arts projects, with some exceptions, are more effective in building people’s confidence than in translating it into political consciousness.
Politically embedded instrumentalism
It is important, particular for this essay, to note that this instrumentality is not something that begins and ends with the project. The community dance ecology is not (although it may have once been) a field of similarly motivated networked practitioners. Rather it has sat in the UK within a wider macro-level instrumentality that generally originates (in the form of money and policy) from the government.
This becomes apparent when for example we note that the FCD survey of community dance “focussed on dance activity led by professional community dance artists, and organised by dance companies and agencies, in other words dance activity receiving some kind of subsidy from public sector finances, locally, regionally or nationally” (FCD 2002 p4). The survey results show quite clearly that the vast majority of these organisations’ funding comes from grant-aid or local. national or European public funds.
The report “did not include dance participation provided by locally based private dance schools or dance within the curriculum; classes run for people interested in specific dance forms such as Ballroom dancing or Ceroc; nor did we attempt to include participation in social dance, either informally organised or provided in every city and major town in the country by private leisure companies.” (FCD 2000 p2) It does not go as far as to say that these examples are definitely not community dance and given the ambiguous boundaries already discussed this is not surprising.
This focus may have been in part one of practicality since dance companies and agencies are both countable (the researcher can be sure to reach them all in a way that they could not hope to with private organisations) and accountable (since bodies in receipt of public funds will have responsibilities to both collect and share data on projects). But it seems reasonable to infer that although community dance is not necessarily publicly funded, there has been a convergence of national social inclusion policy and the individual and social benefits of community dance activity (see for example Houston 2005, Lee 2010 and Bishop 2012 for analyses but also Paul (2008) and Amans (2008a) for more practical accounts of how practitioners can dealing with national agendas). It is therefore important to see at least recent phenomena of community dance as something operating at a state level in terms of ambition and resourcing.
The government’s support for community dance as with any arts participation was not entirely an issue of secondary social benefits.
However it is critical to note that much of the evidence and rhetoric stated so far refers to the UK under a New Labour Government. The current coalition presents two challenges to the model. The first is ideological and involves the government’s ambition for “a fundamental shift of power from Westminster to people” promising that they “will end the era of top-down government by giving new powers to local councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals.” (HMG 2010 p11). This is ostensibly based on the rationale that a large state created economic dependency for many which undermined individual responsibility (Cameron 2009). The implication for community dance is that central government is no longer interested in directly supporting local interventions. Linked to this devolving of power is an abandonment of central monitoring such as the public service agreements that New Labour introduced. Even while New Labour were in government specific targets to increase arts participation amongst hard to reach groups such as ethnic minority groups and people from lower socio economic groups were ceased.
Underpinning this is a neo-liberal emphasis on economic health of the nation ahead of physical, social or mental wellbeing. As such the arts are supported in terms of their economic value. While this may or may not then have natural benefits on wellbeing it makes it harder for community dance to find recognition in such a framework.
The second challenge is the financial crisis of 2007-8 which the coalition government has responded to with large reductions in public spending, disproportionately so to the arts (for example Smith 2012).
Together these factors may mean that there will not be the same routes or money to support community dance in the same way but it is hard to predict this. Suffice to say that it is possible that the nexus of neighbourhood priorities and local priorities may loosen.
It would be unfair to reduce Political interest in community dance as being solely a question of instrumentality or at least to ignore there is the well established framework of rights that allows for the Political protection of cultural activity. Even if the current political discourse does not acknowledge this.
A more convincing understanding of community dance as a Political act can be understood with reference to citizenship. Citizenship is the membership of a state and the associated rights that the state is expected to enable and protect. T H Marshall (1950) famously described three sequential components of citizenship in the context of the modern western state: political rights were the first to be established (e.g. the right to vote, stand for office); then civil rights (e.g. rights to justice and personal freedom), and social (e.g. rights to welfare, health, education) – now more clearly referred to as economic, social and cultural rights.
With this last category falls the right to participate in culture. For example Article 27 of the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. states that “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts..” (UN 1948) and Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognises “the right of everyone To take part in cultural life” (UN 1966).
The right to culture is not explicitly denied to any sector of society but it may be that there are a variety of barriers that make it harder for sectors of society from taking up opportunities – equal opportunity does not mean same treatment. For example universal ballet lessons might simply be in appealing to people without a particular ethnic or class background. The point is that a participation in culture may require particular tailored interventions and this was the thinking behind new labour targets for participation amongst underrepresented groups – ethnic minorities, lower socio economic groups and women as much for the intrinsic value of culture as it’s instrumental value . Bishop seems critical of efforts to redress systemic bias.
In Britain today today it might be easy to take these corresponding rights for granted since the state does not impede our freedom to dance and indeed seeks to encourage it to varying extents.
Whereas ameliorative community dance promotes integration Radical community dance enable participants to “overcome discrimination” (Houston 2008 p11). Although perhaps not what was in mind with this description the, use of dance as a literal act of protest (i.e. as an act of defiance, occupation, or communication), particularly when a dance/ activist professional choses to share their skills with amateurs.
An characteristic of community dance that is not discussed in the literature is whether community dance must feature dancing at all. In professional dance there is a large body of theory and practice that separates out concepts of dance, a dance, dancing and choreography. Postmodern dance in the 60s in the USA and UK moved away from codified Western dance forms and introduced pedestrian, improvised and non-Western movement forms (for example Mackerell 1997), subsequent artists like Jonathan Burrows and Meg Stuart have done away with movement altogether (Lepecki 2006) , others have sought to unshackle choreography from necessarily referring to the arrangement of people at all (for example Spangberg 2012, Klien 2008). Others (notably Hewitt 2005) have thrown into question the distinction between the choreography of ‘dances’ and the choreography of every day life with the implications that dances are recognised as enactment of social relations (and not just a representation of ‘real life’); and also that ‘real life’ activity can be choreographed as an artistic act.
Is there a place then for community dance to accommodate these forms? There are some examples but they appear to be scarce in the literature, or not labelled as dance. For example Rosemary Lee’s Melt Down involves 30 men slowly moving from standing to lying positions over the course of fifteen minutes. However Lee does not easily make a distinction between community and professional dance when discussing her work (Lee 2008). Other (Poyner 2008) point to the possibility that while non-stylised dance may not be aesthetically as familiar as more traditional forms it is in other ways more democratic as it allows for a range of experiences and abilities to participate on an equal footing.
Social choreography offers a particular challenge. Lots of work that might be described in this way involve artists working with amateurs and the fact that they are amateurs is essential since their subjective experience and identity is often an explicit component on the work’s meaning. For example in 2003 artist Katerina Šedá persuaded 300 inhabitants of Ponětovice, a small Czech village to spend the day carrying out ordinary activities – shopping at the local store, eating a meatball and tomato sauce lunch, going for a bicycle rides etc – in unison. (Wood 2013) The significance of this work relies on the fact that the artist modified the real choreography of a real village.
It should be pointed out that much of this participatory work emerges from the field of visual arts (Bishop 2012) where the artists may be less able to provide the personal, social and physical support that community dance practitioners can.
Furthermore it is still more akin to professional dance that uses amateurs because the emphasis is still on the performance even though there is an attention to performance that is enacting real relationships rather than representing them.
In some cases the real world activities of social choroegraphies are directly embedded in the Political process, for example Gille Kleiman’s Democratic Dance Team involves members of the public writing to their MP in dance festival settings as a form of dance. Kleiman does not regard this as community dance (perhaps because although she does offer support to those taking part it still relies on the act of writing more than the process) but it might be argued as sitting somewhere in the overlap of social choreography, activism and community dance.
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