Partnerships Across Borders: An Australian Artist Joins Colleagues in the UK

By Danae Rees


THIS ARTICLE IS THE SECOND IN A THREE-PART SERIES looking at dance education from an international perspective. The first part, published in January of this year, described how my background and training as a dance artist/teacher in Australia informed my understanding of dance education and set my expectations for the possibilities of the field. This article continues my professional journey from Australia to the UK.

The UK and Europe have a deeply rich dance history that has always intrigued me. When granted a sabbatical in 2001, I chose to travel to the UK in order to gain perspective on and expand my knowledge base of the different dance education programs within these two continents. Who would have thought that this two-month artist-in-residence sabbatical would become an eight-year study on how a culture for dance can bring about change, and launch a rewarding dance career for me?

Seeking work during my sabbatical, I approached many teaching agencies who informed me that it was “highly unlikely” I would get any kind of steady work in the UK public school system teaching dance. After the vast and diverse experiences of my early dance professional life in Australia, this statement surprised me. Given the admirable social acceptance for dance I had encountered in the UK, I found it a challenging idea that dance was not being implemented in schools—this was because at this point dance was largely still living within PE.

Reflecting on my experiences in the UK and the powerful impact that building a culture for dance can bring, led me to examine the infrastructure and opportunities available for students, artists and teachers there. I want to unpack the method behind the structures and policies that make dance education accessible to everyone within the UK.

The idea that dance extends beyond the classroom is embraced through a series of policies that have been developed to support “Every Child Matters”—similar to the United States policy “No Child Left Behind”— which mandates that every child has the right to be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contributions and achieve economic well-being. Dance education in the UK celebrates the use of partnerships—professional and educational worlds coming together, the ability to provide adequate funding and support, the development of national K-12 dance curriculum – to cultivate an audience for dance. The goal is to create greater employment opportunities and bring more people to dance.

My first indoctrination into the UK dance education structure came when, despite initial discouragements, I was fortunate to land a job at an arts college within inner London, becoming one of three specialist dance teachers at the school. “Arts College” was a relatively new status as part of government initiative to raise achievement in secondary public schools “in partnership with business and the wider community within a specialist area” (As stated in “The Specialist and Academies Trust”). Awarded schools were injected with money to provide specialist facilities, teaching staff, support staff, and resources.

At Primary School Level (Grade 1–6) dance is still intrinsically taught within PE and is creatively explored through a thematic basis. At this level, dance is often taught by the classroom teachers, though some schools employ specialist PE or dance specialist teachers on a part-time basis. Part of my role within the arts college was to be a lead support teacher for schools offering dance in the Borough in both primary and secondary sector–providing model dance classes for classroom teachers, training workshops, curriculum overviews and resources to support the teaching and learning of dance in their settings. We also ran a Youth Dance Company, part of a district wide initiative to work with gifted and talented students from our feeder primary schools (Grade 4-6), developing their creative and performance skills in dance. This project allowed the students to work with local dance artists in fully equipped dance studios at their associated high school.

At High School Level (Grades 7-11) dance is offered as one unit per year in PE with an option as an elective at grades 10 and 11. Dance elective curriculum encompasses the teaching/learning of choreography, performance and appreciation through a set of syllabi comprised of three components. As Head of Dance, I was responsible for creating and implementing dance throughout the school from year 7-13, with an emphasis on developing dance learning in partnership with our feeder primary schools, ensuring a clear continuum from grade 1-13.

One goal, through the Arts College status and the schools I worked with, was to extend the learning beyond the curricular expectations of the classroom and into the community. This was provided through extra-curricular activities in dance covering a range of dance styles and opportunities for students to participate in dance. One such project allowed me to work with gifted and talented students, providing more specialized training through colleges of Dance (The Place and Laban) and connections with the DfES Music and Dance Scheme: Centre for Advance Training. These organizations linked directly with school-based dance teachers to develop and track student progress and development through dance in a cohesive learning experience.

From Grade 12-13 (which is a transition course for students wanting to go onto higher education) dance is again an elective, with an array of courses offered depending on what is available at individual schools and students’ personal interest. Vocational courses in dance are becoming increasingly popular at this level as they provide students with real-life experiences associated within the dance/performing arts sector. That give them the opportunity to take on further study or be able to apply practical skills directly to the workforce. At this level we developed a professional company, Xcellerate Dance Company, as part our Dance Academy—the first of its kind nationally in the UK. The Academy challenged students to raise their expectations and experience the realities of a career or further study in dance. Working side-by-side with a local dance company in residence, we provided a specialist dance-training program for students across four high schools within the district, offering individualized access to vocational pathways. The purpose is to develop highly skilled, responsible dancers for college/university education and beyond. This was a successful program, not just for the schools, but also for the exposure and mentorship of up-and-coming dance artists seeking development of their educational strand.

Higher Education in dance provides many options for students to pursue dance in a variety of fields, such as dance performance, choreography, dance analysis, dance science and dance teaching. Six universities/colleges in England offer a post-graduate degree in Dance Education, allowing teachers to specialize in teaching dance in the public school system. One of the key successes of the intake at these institutions of higher education was a cohesive relationship with secondary education in dance—giving opportunities for secondary students to see and experience what colleges and universities had to offer and allow them to make the right choices for their future dance career.

In establishing relationships with places of higher education, I acted as school-based tutor for post graduate students in Dance Education, working with students from The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) during their allocated teaching practice in our public schools, as well as students from the University of East London, as part of their post graduate training course for Physical Education. Having links with places of higher education was beneficial for both the students and the dance curriculum in ensuring consistency of standards for dance. The RAD’s graduate course qualifying teachers to work in the public school was newly implemented in 2003. From an institution steeped in a long history of training ballet dancers and ballet teachers, this was an enormous acknowledgement to the interest for dance in schools. The RAD has also had 100% success rate in placing their graduates into the public school system.

The main celebration for me is that the dance programs I was part of and helped to develop, demonstrated that every child really does matter. When the UK implemented this policy it instantly became a part of the National Curriculum that is monitored by OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skill). Through their regulation and regular inspections of schools, their curriculum, teachers, and the education sector at large, are held accountable to the progression of learning through dance and the education policies that support the art form. Places of higher education are also held accountable through inspections in order to maintain the standard expected in dance education within the UK.

While not stated explicitly in the Arts Colleges literature, through the five years of working there, I came to see how including dance in the initiative to create Arts Colleges built a culture for dance through a clear scope and sequence of dance learning and through building relationships with the wider school and dance communities. This was a huge shift for dance education in the UK. The public and government had not seen these types of relationships being used in the previous decade, but they had become an essential core development strategy for schools and dance artists/organizations. It was also this network of collaboration that enabled me to draw on these resources when I left, and I now employ these strategies to build thriving dance departments wherever I work.

Dance education is well supported by the British Government–in policy, practice and funding. It was brought in at a time when the UK dance scene saw struggling dance organizations beginning to flourish, yet not all children had access to the art form. “The Dance Manifesto” (document supporting dance presented to the government) underpinned everything needed to bolster support for dance in education, and as an art form, whilst making it clear to the government that although dance in the UK had developed considerably, with the right resources and support, more could be achieved.

Though this solid infrastructure for dance education demonstrates success, it is not yet consistently applied throughout the country due to factors not too dissimilar here in the US: access to funding and available expertise, resources, facilities and general support. This is achievable through more monitoring and more collaborative links to ensure equality of opportunity in dance across this country. There is clear aspiration for developing our infrastructure throughout this country as evidenced by the number of regions of the UK who have their Dance/Arts Education Action Plans outlined and publicized on their websites, an increased number of credentialed dance educators (because of the implementation of sustainable dance curricula), and the multiplying number of projects and funding sources available to schools, artists and companies alike.

Coming from such a rich experience of possibility, it has been challenging to come to California and now be in a position of having to fight for dance education. Even within Arts Education circles I have had to shift my focus from being an “influencer” to a “convincer.”

The third and final installment of this series will explore more of my observations and lessons learned as they have translated over to my first year in California, with thoughts on how dance in California might have a brighter future.

This article appeared in the March 2010 issue of In Dance.

Danae Rees is currently Manager of Model Programs and the School and Community Alliance at Luna Kids Dance. Prior to moving to San Francisco she taught in Australia and the United Kingdom.