Creating a New Focus: Dance Education Reform

By Danae Rees


Where is the place for Dance Education? This is a hard question to unpack and the question can be interpreted in so many ways. From my own experience as a learner, teacher, mentor, program designer, youth dance facilitator, performer and choreographer–it is obvious that dance should be a part of every child’s education. There is plenty of evidence to support this standpoint but sharing the evidence would require a whole other article. Let’s assume that dance education is supported in theory; why isn’t it supported in practice?

In this, the final of my three part series on dance teaching, I will address the current state of dance education in the United States through my current lens as dance advocate. Having now spent a decade of dance teaching in the public school system across three countries (Australia, United Kingdom and America), with depth and breadth of experiences in all possible teaching situations, I offer a frank look at the state of dance education in California with a hopeful outlook on what could be yet to come.

In putting these articles together, I spent a lot of time agonizing over just how much I could share of my learning of the dance curriculum and where it is placed for me. Even as a creative person, I struggled to craft an enticing argument rather than dictate a strict bill of reformed rules. Where is the place for dance education? I find myself asking this question constantly. Coming from a rich and diverse background of experience in two countries, I was ready for what America had to give me. I found myself in California, however, a state where there is no dance teaching credential, few schools implementing the state set standards for dance, and little to no accountability for them. It makes me wonder sometimes what I have gotten myself into. Because I’d seen so many high profile dance shows coming out of the U.S. I think I came with higher expectations than what was presented to me when seeking work. It almost seems that the companies behind these shows are so eager to look for raw talent of dancers to compensate for the lack of dance presence in our public schools. The roots of the problem are not being addressed.

Australia and the UK have both undertaken the mission of encompassing a solid infrastructure for dance education with clear lines of progression. So clear, that both countries have full scope and sequence with specialist teachers at the helm and integrated relationships with places of higher education and the artists within their community. This infrastructure is sustainable across K–12 and is providing universities with a much high caliber of dancer. The relationships across the spectrum of dance education means that there are now programs that identify early potential in dancers and develop raw and/or acquired talent further in order to develop creative and skillful dancers, ultimately fostering a new generation of dance artists—primarily through the public school sector. They share one common notion in dance education that extends beyond the fact that dance should be made open to all children and young people; that is to build a community of arts learners who can embrace dance through a better understanding of it.

What does America offer that is comparable? Standards for dance have been developed nationally and consequently implemented into State education standards for dance. That much is clearly evident. These are comparable to the standards in Australia and the UK, highlighting that dance has universal expectations through education. There are endless numbers of organizations that support dance and the arts along with artists who work in schools to implement dance into school curriculum. However, what is not clear is whether or not the standards are considered or utilized in planning dance curriculum, or more so, whether artists or classroom teachers even know of these dance standards. This, unfortunately, is due to the lack of focus in the area of dance education in higher education institutions. Who can be surprised by this when in California, we can’t even provide a teaching credential for our specialist field?

If we look at current efforts to get a dance teaching credentialed back in California, it becomes somewhat of a “chicken or egg” scenario. The state department of education has a difficult time justifying a credential for dance because of the misconception that there is not enough demand for dance in public schools and not enough demand at the college level for colleges and universities to justify a course of study to “house” the credential, since there would not be enough dancers to enroll in the program, leading dancers to think there are not enough jobs out there. Yet if there was not demand, why do we have dance standards that are expected of schools? Through my experience in Australia, once you start to bring through these credentialed specialists, the demand for dance in public schools increases with the knowledge that there are trained specialists teachers available. This in turn increases the intake of potential dance teachers into higher education courses, hence bringing a clear and steady integration of dance pedagogy into dance training at all levels.

Through recent discussions with some of my dance colleagues it became increasingly apparent that dance pedagogy is something easily dismissed or taken away from higher level dance training due to lack of funds and/or lack of time. It’s staggering to think that this is so quickly taken away when the life of a dancer will inevitably turn to teaching at some point– whether it be through choice or circumstance. The National Dance Education Organization (NDEO)—a non-profit organization who set national dance education standards, of which the State of California follows—references the Statistics for Employment in Dance and highlights the fact that developments of employment opportunities for dancers and choreographers will grow more slowly, continuing on to recommend that dance pedagogy be implemented more in colleges and universities.

Our education of dance should extend beyond the classroom and into the families and communities that we work with. In this economic climate, building a culture for dance is even more important in order to maintain the standards we expect in dance education, which will in turn push the profession at large. We are all suffering through these hard financial times and the education sector as a whole needs to make better use of the resources it has and create more fundamental relationships across the different sectors of education. Schools should be using each other as a resource in order to meet the needs of the students they serve. Elementary, middle and high schools here have not coordinated dance programs to allow students to have the full and rich experience of what dance can deliver. In countries where this continuum exists, we see more commitment for dance, more expectations for teacher quality, more teacher training and inevitably more employment. In the same way, schools have often not utilized local dance artists and organizations as a means of cultivating a culture for dance in their school (discussed in my previous article). Our economy has left people afraid to be creative in how education (in general) can be supported or enhanced and perhaps higher education can play a part in developing stronger dance pedagogy by working closely with schools to develop a high standard for teacher training and development delivered through their settings—feeding back into systems that precede them instead of seeing themselves as a stand alone. In the short term, these more collaborative approaches across the education sector and the dance community would allow teachers to share resources and support dance learning through the continuum, contributing over time to build a stronger network of dance educators who bring enduring focus to the field and more financial support through their commitment to developing dance education.

Australia, United Kingdom and America have standards for dance that are similar and hold high expectations for dance. However, the application of standards here in the U.S. has not developed the culture for dance I have seen elsewhere. They are not full recognized and appreciated enough to expect that they are implemented in a way that builds a strong culture for dance. This requires continuity from K—College and employment opportunities that cycle back. It requires paying attention to our audience, our clientele and our general public, and thinking of what benefits them and how the benefits can be shared. If there is to be a true culture for dance in America, then educational reform needs to happen swiftly.

This article appeared in the April 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.