Dance Movement and Spirit: Issues in the Dance Education Curriculum

Article excerpt

Like an erupting volcano, River-dance drummed into the world ten years ago as a seven-minute act to represent a traditional dance form when the World Singing Championships were presented in Dublin. In short order the unique amalgamation of Irish step dancing and indigenous, natural dance and rhythmic forms from other nations created a synergistic phenomenon. Standing ovations and cheering at concert after concert demonstrated the pure joy and blood-surging energy that millions felt across the globe. Like the words Kleenex and Jell-O, Riverdance is now a noun, synonymous with this kind of kinetic social and cultural extravaganza based on pulsating and flirtatious precision step dancing. Uniquely these spectacles draw together dancers and viewers in a transfixing ritual that transforms and joins people in a spiritually dynamic moment.

Other dance forms are equally embued with humanity as a common denominator. From its playful beginnings as experimental athleticism, Contact Improvisation (CI) is a generic dance form blending egalitarian partnering with American sport and Asian martial arts. In the 1970s, dancers began to consider new ways for people to touch, hold each other, and share weight that relied more on physics and mental and spiritual awareness than on brawn. The resulting spiralling and falling, non-gendered partnering, and game-like rules inspire movement based on the human body in its natural state. Contact Improvisation is making an impact on the way dance is taught and experienced as technique.

Today we expect to see communal folk and cultural dance performed with stylized rhythmic perfection and brisk unison precision. Postmodern choreography includes daring and unbelievable CI-inspired moves such as an almost sideways-supported spin by a female of her male partner. Dancers flow from one partner to another, flying through space seemingly without the pull of gravity. These are but two examples of recent synergy or sharing among older forms.

Influenced by the way dance is presented in our increasingly global culture, how does the general public, students and their parents, administrators, or colleagues develop their expectations for what dance is? A general understanding of dance begins with how it appears in popular culture--the summer festivals, parades, football games, pageants, and reenactment spectacles. This starting place is either ignored or devalued in the formal curriculum, by the values portrayed in syllabi and by teachers' pejorative pronouncements. High and low cultural divisions are often perpetrated by dance textbooks and theories that separate theory from lived experience. Our fast-paced, Internet and I-pod world is sending shockwaves of change to the world of educational theory because artists are responding to and expressing social, cultural and economic climates in our global community.

Have we ever studied how dance is defined and represented in popular cultural venues? Is it essentially anti-art to be inspired by the almost supernatural performances of male ice dancers floating into the air to rotate three times before lowering to the ice and gliding backwards in an extremely high-angled arabesque? When students urge the creation of ballroom dance contests, because they have seen a current television series chronicling such contests, do teachers discourage them? Is the Chinese lion dance mistaken for the dragon dance? We can look to such extraordinarily popular hits as television's Dancing with the Stars, Olympic ice skating, the Chinese New Year's celebration, and the role of dance in the film industry as the latest empty fads that diminish the straight arrow goals of art education, or we can respond to these events as messages about the evolving level of technical brilliance and expressive refinement found in popular culture.

For the last 20 years, art educators have been preoccupied with the need to define dance as an art form separate from any other endeavor or interest. …