The Conversations that Shift and Shape Dance Education

By Patricia Reedy


“An Unfinished Canvas: Arts Education in California: Taking Stock of Policy and Practice,” the 2007 report on arts education sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, told Californians what many of us have known all along—that arts education is not reaching all students in California, that it is disproportionately inaccessible to children in low-income areas, and that dance remains the least-represented art form taught in California public schools. On a sunny day in March 2009, a diverse group of dance and education leaders gathered at Mills College for the second San Francisco Bay Area Dance Education Forum to discuss why there aren’t more quality dance programs and to offer ideas on what we can do about it.

The forum’s goal was to open up a dialogue among practitioners and decision makers of dance education programs—to meet colleagues in the field, raise the important questions, and gain a broader and longer view of the work that has been, and continues to be, done statewide. Following a gallery walk of quality Bay Area dance programs, a purposefully selected panel addressed questions of program quality, resources, traction, and accountability to elicit some of the key issues. Then came the heart of the forum: four breakout groups in which real discussion could take place, unburdened by the need for immediate solutions, task force action items, or consensus. Participants came from throughout the Bay Area and beyond, with several from southern California. They represented all players in the dance education community: teachers, principals, arts managers, dancers, researchers, representatives from the traditional dance community, professional dance companies, afterschool, in-school, and community programs, early childhood education, service organizations, the funding community, and universities. Each brought a unique personal perspective to bear on the conversation.

As one of the forum planners, I was most interested in people’s response to this question: In the Bay Area we’ve seen evidence of good dance projects or programs, but we have problems with traction—getting programs to build and sustain. So where are the pivotal places, the tipping points that we might want to pay attention to, and what should happen there? However, the first few questions—What contributes to a program’s success? Why aren’t there more quality dance programs? Who is teaching dance at the elementary level and who should be? What is the value of dance education? What kind of assessment or program evaluation supports quality?—brought such a flurry of comments and interest that it was clear we needed more opportunities to talk to each other about these tough issues first.

From these questions, many issues were raised. Most poignant was the déjà vu nature of the discussion. Dr. Albirda Rose, who has worked relentlessly for more than three decades training dance teachers, building dance programs, and advocating for a California dance teaching credential, spoke of the need for dance educators to have determination to move the field forward. At the same time, she lamented the lack of progress made over the last 30 years. Even at the forum, at times it seemed as if our community continues to remain at the same level of discourse. Rather than embracing complexity and possibility, we continue to create artificial divides between cultural dance and dance as a performing art. We continue to defend the intrinsic value of dance even after the California Visual and Performing Arts standards were set up precisely to value dance for dance’s sake, including the rich historic and cultural contexts of dance in California. We continue to be caught up in the problem of having no dance credential, which creates a shortage of dance teachers and provides an excuse for no dance programs, even as some in the dance community fear that a dance credential will take the art out of the art form.

These issues have been played out over and over again, but this forum shed new light on them: an openness to hearing each other, a sharing of resources, and a willingness to embrace “and” rather than “or” thinking about many of the topics. For example, imagine an Oakland public school that has a credentialed dance specialist teaching students weekly, standards-based, discrete, “dance as an art form” classes; classroom teachers versed in dance using this program, as needed, in the context of the classroom, and supporting the discrete program because they value dance as an art form; and the school inviting in local community and cultural dance groups for workshops, afterschool programs, performances, and field trips. This is precisely what New Highland Academy in East Oakland is attempting to do. Francis Phillips, who sits on the board of the California Alliance for Arts Education, spoke of how advocacy efforts over the past year have brought California the closest it’s been in 30 years to a single subject teaching credential in dance—all that is left is for school districts to indicate a need for this labor force. However, the recent crash in the economy is leaving everyone reeling; this may not be the best time for districts to indicate a need for anything “new.”

Looking through a twenty-first-century lens, new issues also emerged that affected the older questions and created new food for thought. Ted Warburton, a UC Santa Cruz professor, spoke of the need for scale and how technology might play a part in this, citing the California Dance Network as an important starting point. Others discussed whether we might leverage the role of dance in the media to increase access to dance education. From soliciting major television programs such as Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance to fund dance education programs, to using MySpace and YouTube to empower students to see themselves as dancers and demystify dance, the need to embrace technology and the media was a major topic.

Rising to the top of every conversation was the unique value of dance, and the public’s fear or lack of understanding of what exactly dance is. We know that dance is many things, yet at the center it is the way individuals connect to time, space, and the world. It is a social experience that intrinsically requires a level of awareness and an engagement of the self and other unlike any other experience. For the past 90 years, research has increasingly shown that moving is intrinsic to learning, that people learn best when active and interacting, and that dance is the first and most universal art form. Yet as long as policymakers continue to create institutes of learning that require sitting in isolation and taking paper-and-pencil tests, we will continue to damage the brains of our youth. As long as the public continues to see dance as a frill, we will continue to ignore the potential of this art form that, by its very nature, can bring the heartbeat back to education.

This article appeared in the April 2009 issue of In Dance.

Patricia Reedy is the Executive Director of Creativity & Pedagogy at Luna Dance Institute. A lifelong learner, she enjoys sharing her inquiry process with others.