WAAE 2009 World Summit, Presentation, Newcastle, UK, 31 Oct.-2 Nov. 2009
Assoc. Prof Ralph Buck, The University of Auckland, NZ.
“I became so aware.” This statement was the main outcome expressed by one of my
dance students when she reflected upon recent dance camp experiences of dancing
around ancient trees, navigating the length of mountain streams and silently walking
the length of a beach. This presentation reflects upon my curriculum and pedagogy
initiatives introduced in the Dance Studies Programme, The University of Auckland. I
reflect on pedagogic values and visions that invite students to dance in forests, on
beaches, in schools, with the elderly, with the disabled, in hospitals and on stages.
I support arguments that advocate for dance’s rich potential in meeting diverse
individual and community needs and increasing personal awareness. This is well
stated in the literature; however, here I outline my curriculum and pedagogy decisions
that have enabled dance to be increasingly an agent of change for my students.
Having created and implemented many courses and degrees in New Zealand over the
last 10 years this presentation reflects on the following questions: am I making a
difference? Is dance making a difference? Are students increasingly aware of their
dance and their ability to use dance in serving society?
Philosophy and Meanings
My teaching and my research is guided by a constructivist philosophy, acknowledging
that teachers and students have views, ideas, traditions and bodies integral in the
building of understandings. Through interaction we construct knowledge.
I endorse Elliot Eisner’s (1985) stance that “the roads to knowing are many” (p.24)
and reason that our understandings of self, others and the world are constructively
apprehended in multiple forms, and are socially and experientially based. A
consequence of this epistemology is the realisation that meanings of dance are
contestable and that curricula, teachers and students play a role in dance’s ongoing
This issue is most exemplified when I visit classrooms and talk to children and
teachers. I remember asking a teacher to come to a dance workshop in his school, to
which he replied, “So, do I need to bring my tutu”. His meaning of dance equated
with ballet. Again, asking a young boy if he liked dancing, he replied, “no, but I like
to boogey”, meaning that he likes moving to music but not learning steps. I believe
that teachers need to be alert to the differing and competing meanings of dance and
work with these. Dialogue, interaction and listening is required to construct
understandings and broaden perceptions of the nature of dance.
In my current teaching at University, the students and I question what is dance, who is
a dancer, where can we dance, why do we dance. I am on-goingly surprised how
much we don’t consider the big questions. By way of broadening students’ vision of
dance and quite frankly their career options, I provide a range of experiences or field
trips designed to challenge students’ ideas of dance content knowledge and also their
pedagogy. One field trip is to a Secondary School where the University students
dance with, and teach students with special needs.
Throughout such sessions and other field trips to a children’s hospital and retirement
village we question assumptions about the learners: what are their needs, do abilities
matter, is age an issue, is gender an issue? In owning the teaching/dancing experience
my students and the students with disabilities create new understandings of each other
as people and then, also, new understandings of the role and nature of dance in
diverse contexts. This interactive process focuses our attention on the ‘human’ rather
than the ‘dance’ and I believe that this focus provides the heart of all arts education
In re-constructing students’ meanings of dance and themselves as educators and
artists, I value the felt experience and ensuing reflection. Experiential learning theory
(Kolb, 1984) suggests that we engage in a learning process, constantly moving
through the stages of: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract
conceptualisation and active experimentation. To learn and understand the nature and
value of dance I argue that you have to feel dance; feel the relevance to and impact on
the self; to own the experience.
In extending this logic of knowing through doing, I concur with Hennesy, Rolfe and
Chedzoy’s (2001) research that argues that dance educators become more confident to
teach dance by actually teaching dance. Doing it, making the mistakes, reflecting and
learning what works for you, is more important than learning more content
knowledge. Arguably, such experiences would be stair- cased or gradually built
through diverse classroom teaching experiences. My point is that ‘the doing’ is crucial
for developing ‘the knowing’.
Learning to ‘see’ (Eisner, 1985) is a core educational objective within my teaching,
and also learning to trust one’s insights. We teachers, researchers, advocates and
networkers are wasting our time if we don’t firstly acknowledge personal values,
ideals, philosophies and practices and recognise that these shape how and what we
‘see’ (Warburton, 2008). In short, it matters that we acknowledge who you are as a
person, a teacher, and similarly who the student is matters. In valuing who the student
is, you value their stories, their context, their issues and you allow them in to the
classroom, and you also manage the classroom such that persons are seen and storied
Too often however, teachers confuse themselves by trying to be some ‘ideal’ teacher
and in so doing ignoring their reality in their classrooms. As a young teacher this was
me. In my first year of teaching Physical Education it was not till I started to be
myself and to also see the reality of the students’ lives that I settled into a wonderful
year of teaching. I learnt the hard way; that I had to be honest with myself, be real and
then I was able to develop relationships with the learners that were genuine.
I am unashamedly arguing that how we teach dance, our pedagogy, is equally if not
more important than content knowledge concerns. In saying this I am arguing that the
relationships (Buck, 2003) and subsequent dialogues (Antilla, 2007) fostered between
the teacher and the learner lie at the heart of quality dance education. As such, it
matters how we value, foster, and see relationships or as Eeva Antilla (2007) at the
University of Helsinki stated, “discern(s) qualities of interaction” (p. 47).
I am increasingly interested in dance in diverse community contexts. Often referred
to as ‘community dance’, this approach focuses upon process, shared ownership,
equity of access, participation, negotiation and creation of shared experiences
(Foundation for Community Dance, 2003). This focus orientates dance pedagogy
towards what Brinson (1991) described as an ‘art for all’ versus ‘art for the few’, or
an ‘Athenian’ popular aesthetic as opposed to the ‘Roman’ elitist aesthetic. Which
indeed cuts to a key question regarding education rationale and education philosophy-
why are we including dance in a child’s education? Is it because we want a world of
skilled ‘elite’ dancers; or students who can use dance and the arts to build narratives
of meaning? As educators are we valuing the intrinsic benefits as well as the
instrumental benefits (Mulligan and Smith, 2007) realised through dance education.
That is, can we relax our reliance on measurable ‘outcomes’ and provide space for the
unpredictable learning and experiences that are inherently personal.
In finishing, I want to leave you with two key words I am increasingly referencing as
influencing my dance education practice. These words are ‘significance’ and
‘solidarity’. The sociologist D.B. Clarke (1973) distinguished these two words in her
attempt to define community. Given that I liken my classroom to being a
‘community’ I see the relevance of valuing ‘significance’, of valuing each class
member, each learner, as being unique, having specific needs and interests and
offering something of significance. Balancing this, as dance teachers do, is the
maintenance of ‘solidarity’, where we maintain in the group a sense of home, unity,
shared purpose, seeing the commonalities, providing familial security and noting the
shared ambitions and outcomes of the group.
I believe in the importance of creating a community of learners, where individuals
feel seen or significant and where they feel secure, being family members and having
a feeling of solidarity or home.
Another, and my final story: in 2005 I had a visiting USA exchange student from New
Orleans participate in my Community Dance Course. While she was in NZ, Hurricane
Katrina flooded her University and home town. She returned home, and after a period
of volunteer work painting classrooms, she observed a sense of homelessness amongst
her peers and children. She applied for a grant to establish a community dance project
like what she had done in NZ. To her and my frustration no-one understood her vision
for the role of dance in building solidarity, in rebuilding lost communities. She knew
what was possible, but it didn’t happen. Irrespective, I was thrilled that she saw the
opportunity and the role for dance in helping others.
Today, I ask what could we offer people in Samoa and Tonga who have lost families
and communities and where dance plays an integral role in their society? I would like
to think that dance would play a role in rebuilding personal significance and some
sense of communal solidarity albeit in a very small and temporal way. I have to add
that I am not so naïve as to think that dance will fill empty stomachs and provide
shelter, but I have seen first hand the power of dance in building community.
In this talk I have used my own practice as a local case study, yet the issues are global
and I believe inform the future of dance education. What we teach matters; who we
teach matters and finally how we teach is crucial.
Akroyd, S.; Bartlett, L.; Jasper, L.; Peppiatt, A. and Thomson, C. (2003).
Thinking aloud: In search of a framework for community dance. Leicester:
The Foundation for Community Dance.
Antilla, E. (2007). Searching for dialogue in dance education: A teacher’s
story. Dance Research Journal, 39(2) pp. 43-56.
Buck, R. (2003). Teachers and dance in the classroom: “So do I need my
tutu?” Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Otago, Dunedin, New
Clarke, D. (1973). The concept of community: A re-examination.
Sociological Review, 21(3), pp. 32-37.
Eisner, E. (1985). Aesthetic modes of knowing. In E. Eisner (Ed.), Learning
and teaching the ways of knowing (pp. 23-36). Chicago: University of
Hennesy, S.; Rolfe, L. and Chedzoy,S. (2001). The factors which influence
student teachers’ confidence to teach the arts in the primary classroom.
Research in Dance Education, 2(1), pp. 51-71.
Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning
and development. Englewood, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Mulligan, M. and Smith, P. (2007) Stepping out of the shadows of neglect.
The International Journal of the Arts in Society, 1(4), pp. 43-51.
Warburton, E. (2008). Beyond steps: The need for pedagogical knowledge in
dance. Journal of Dance Education, 8(1), pp. 7-12.