Dance Education Today!

By Ann Kipling Brown, PhD

Most administrators, teachers, students, parents and members of the communities in Saskatchewan believe in the aim, goals and objectives of the Arts Education Curriculum.

Ann Kipling Brown, Ph.D. is presently a professor in dance education in the Arts Education Program in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina. She works extensively with children, youth and adults in public and dance studio settings. In this work she has choreographed and led classes in technique, composition, and notation. She has also choreographed for theatre productions and continues her own work in performance and choreography. Her research and publications focus on dance pedagogy, the integration of notation in dance programs, the role of dance in the child’s and adult’s lived world, and technology in arts education.

The modern dance of the 20th century provided the foundation of many dance curricula today. Influenced in particular by the work of Rudolf Laban (1879 – 1958) and Margaret H’Doubler (1889 – 1982) the focus, as stated by Laban in 1948, is “… not artistic perfection or the creation or performance of sensational dances which is aimed at, but the beneficial effect of the creative activity of dancing upon the personality of the pupil” (p. 11). This philosophy became the core of many dance curricula and today we are aware that many schools, provinces, states, and countries have excellent dance curricula. There are outstanding documents to prove it and there are many experts and scholars who support the role of dance in education. And yet, dance educators continue to bemoan the fact that there is a paucity of dance in our schools and that some dance that is offered is inappropriate and does not achieve the goals set out in those excellent documents. 

In the province of Saskatchewan dance education has long been provided through programs offered by university and school programs, professional artists and community programs. However, I contend that not all children in our province are receiving arts-rich experiences in the arts and in particular in dance.  One of the most difficult myths that dance educators face is that dance is often positioned in contrast to more “academic” disciplines.  We see its marginalized status when it is used for the purpose of improving a young girl’s deportment, calming down an energetic boy, increasing students’ engagement or advancing understanding in another subject. It is praised for its role in improving students’ self-concept, enhancing social skills, developing motor skills for everyday activity. It is described as non-threatening, non-competitive, encouraging of individual differences, good exercise and as therapy! There is no mention of what is learned in, about and through dance!

In 1990 in Saskatchewan the implementation of the arts education curriculum for all K – 12 students began.  The curriculum identifies that arts education should take “… a broad approach to teaching and learning in the arts in which all students are enabled to understand and value arts expressions throughout life” (p.iii).  Dance was identified as one of the four arts strands and became core curriculum. Classroom teachers at the elementary level were expected to teach dance to their own class. In high schools specialist programs were encouraged. However, in both contexts it appeared that there were few teachers either equipped to teach dance or committed to including dance in their students’ program. Oftentimes the dance has been relegated to a classmate who has taken dance in an extracurricular program or a guest is invited to provide one or two experiences. The comprehensive curriculum that invites children to investigate dance, to explore their own dance expressions and learn about why people dance is ignored.

In the academic year 1996-97 an evaluation of the implementation of the Arts Education curriculum was undertaken and in 1998 the Arts Education Grades 1 – 9 Curriculum Evaluation Report was presented. The evaluation was undertaken in order: to evaluate the extent of implementation in the province; to collect information about practices and student experiences: to identify supports and barriers to implementation; and, provide information for future implementation and maintenance. Interviews, focus groups and telephone surveys were employed to access information from administrators, teachers, students, parents and local arts communities. In addition, case studies of classrooms of six schools were conducted. The universities also provided information about teacher education programs. The following summary reveals the situation in 1996-97.

Most administrators, teachers, students, parents and members of the communities in Saskatchewan believe in the aim, goals and objectives of the Arts Education Curriculum. The curriculum evaluation project has revealed that some elements of the curriculum are being implemented as intended in some locations around the province, and in some cases very successfully. However, implementation is not progressing at a desired pace, and will require measures to enhance the process (p. v).

It appeared that dance was the least taught of the four strands (dance, drama, music and visual arts) with teachers saying that it was difficult to teach if they did not have any experience in the area. There was confusion as to whether dance would be covered by the Arts Education or Physical Education teachers and observations that there was little time or space for a dance program in the schools. It was recommended in the evaluation report that a clarification of the differences between dance in Arts Education and Physical Education should be made and that there should be more professional development for the dance strand.

In 2013 it appears that the same problems exist. Even though training in dance education and professional development for teachers has been offered the presence of dance in schools is very low. Where graduates who have been trained to teach dance in public school education, working in either a generalist or specialist role, are in the schools there is success; however, we hear the same arguments of space, time and lack of confident teachers. The question is why dance programs are not being implemented and all children receiving a dance education? It would seem obvious that we need to encourage administrators, teachers, parents, ministries of education, etc to become familiar with the ‘language of dance’, to appreciate the creative dance form, to recognize the learning that is happening in the creative dance lesson, to give children a voice through dance and to better train our teachers to provide such experiences.

To read Ann’s full report on arts education and international initiative, read her full report.