the value of artistry in dance and health

Last week I was delighted to speak at the Culture, Health and Wellbeing International Conference on a topic that is very important to me and was the basis for my research into the role of the dance artist in Community practice. 'The value of artistry in dance and health...' argues the need for a shift in focus from rationale and best practice, to artistry and the creative integrity of the individual artist. Here I share with you the presentation that I gave with a few amendments to make it more suitable for reading:

 

Introduction:

"This presentation is driven by my experience and practice as a dance artist and scholar, and looks at the diversity in artistic approach needed in dance and health touched on by Richard Coaten in the previous presentation, but at a deeper level:

What I am discussing is the need to preserve the integrity of the individual dance artist and develop understanding of his or her own voice and practice; I’m interested in how this can be augmented by health knowledge and rationale, but not superseded by it; and in developing ways to place the voice of the artists at the core of dance in health - which is fundamental to ensuring artistic quality and maintaining the unique value of the practice.

 

Presentation:

Dance based on specific health rationale has become more common in the last decade. The boom in targeted dance initiatives for specific populations such as people with Parkinson’s or Dementia is a product of our socio-political climate – in a time of austerity budgets and cuts to state funding for the arts, we are forced to find innovative ways to generate alternative funding (1). What once under New Labour would have been considered a valuable socially conscious project with ‘intrinsic’ cultural benefits for the individual (2), can now be reclassified as a ‘health’ project to demonstrate its value in other ways – this is no surprise to you all I’m sure, as the arts have always been adaptable and able to prove value in diverse and meaningful ways. However, my particular interest is in how this may impact on a ground level for artists delivering the work.

A re-branding of cultural participation as positive for health and wellbeing (3) has led us to value research highly, not just for monitoring and evaluating a programme but as a fundamental strand of the work – and in some cases as the driving instigator for dance activity. Research provides us with the language to advocate for the benefits of dance that are specific to health and wellbeing, and therefore gain credibility outside the bubble of the dance sector.

And so we find ourselves in an era where evidence based practice sits at the heart of community dance – you just have to look at the courses and summer schools available for professional development in the dance sector to see this. There are courses in dance for Parkinson’s, dance for dementia, dance for disabled people and dance for people living with cancer - all delivered by industry leading bodies and specialists. The value of these programmes within dance professional development is partly based in their specificity – evidence based models such as dance for Parkinson’s provide a clear structure from which to deliver best practice, and provide delegates with tangible examples that can be applied effectively to teaching these specific populations; however I have witnessed on many levels that placing importance on proving benefits of dance rather than accepting that these values of intrinsic to the work, leads to evidence and outcome driven practice and distils that artistic integrity as well as stripping participants of their autonomy.

In my own work as an independent dance artist I deliver across a number of these health sectors including disability dance, dance for Parkinson’s and dementia; as well as in end of life care, with people with rheumatism, recovering from stroke, those with MS and people with learning disabilities including autism. And I give this presentation today following my own experience and practice based research in the field of dance and health, to plea for a shift in focus from rationale and best practice; to artistic integrity.

My MA Community Dance research focused on the intersection between ‘best practice’ and ‘artistry’ in the shaping of the creative experience of dancing. I argued that an elusive ‘meeting point’ exists within the dance studio whereby dance artist and dance participant contribute as equals to a shared dance experience and that only when artistry is valued is it possible to achieve a truly democratic style of working which gives autonomy to the participants.

Through reflection on my own practice and research into others, I developed a framework for dance and health delivery which has three strands:

  • The first is Rationale (this is the specific knowledge of certain health conditions that enables dance artists to evidence and support the work they are doing)
  • The second is Best Practice (this is the use of teaching resources including language, demonstration, touch – and how they are applied across a scale of didactic to democratic in order to give dancers autonomy and create equality in the dance studio)
  • Finally but I argue most importantly, Artistry (this is the foundation of the process to which best practice and rationale should be applied)

 

Artistry is the very core of our skills and knowledge in dance, music, fine art, sculpture or any other art form. The fundamental creative starting point to our delivery in all settings including health settings should be our artistic and creative vision.

My concern is that many artists I come across, teach and mentor lack a basic awareness of their own artistic integrity and how to communicate this. In my experience delivering CPD including an ‘introduction to dance for Parkinson’s’ course, as well as my own evolving practice in this area, I have noticed that a large proportion of artists seem to understand the delivery of health initiatives based on a ‘model’ approach, rather than an artistic approach. What I mean by this, is that a great many people attend courses for professional development expecting to take away a ‘method’ for teaching that they can ‘copy’.

Through my research, I have observed countless dance artists delivering in a variety of settings – some situated in health rationale and others not. But the key thing I have observed, is that many artists are stuck in models that they have learned in professional development courses and don’t know how to adapt and make their own.

This goes some way to explaining how we may get to a situation of diluted mimicry – in any scenario whether it be dance or otherwise, if something is copied, it is only possible to copy from a surface level – the things you can see and hear from the outside. This leads to a significantly watered-down practice – a distilled version of the original; as one of the key things that gets lost in this process of mimicry is the artistic intention behind the practice.

The dance programmes that I have worked on have been honed into a strong and concise models of practice that other artists could easily mimic due to the research and evidence that supports them – but their strength comes from their foundations in artistry and creativity as a starting point. What I’ve seen in my research outcomes is that a focus on health benefits and evidencing practice can lead to a more directive teaching style using language, touch and demonstration to show the ‘correct’ way of achieving an exercise, as dance artists find themselves more conscious of delivery and less on their artistry. Without an artistic vision behind the work, dance can become simply Rationale and Best Practice combined to create what looks more like physiotherapy than art.

It is the responsibility of the sector as a whole, to consider how we build artists sense of integrity in their independent practice, in order to avoid diluted practice or mimicry. In my own teaching of professional development courses, I repeatedly come back to the delegates for their own input – ‘how will you infuse this knowledge into your existing way of working’, how might you adapt this model to suit your own style’. The aim being that artists will see this as an opportunity to find knowledge and skills based on a particular rationale and then take that away to inform their existing practice, not be defined and governed by someone else’s. If I was to offer dance artists a model which outlines exactly how, why and for what purpose a project should take place, their creativity is essentially disregarded in favour of outcomes.

 

To Summarise:

There is a wealth of knowledge that has developed in distinct practices of dance for populations including Parkinson’s and Dementia in the last decade – and without question, the skills of the artists that have led these initiatives are highly specialised.

The evolution of dance and health has been primarily linked to the need for evidence based programmes as we are continually challenged to find new and innovative ways to fund community dance activity. This is both a blessing and a curse. Positive as it has led to the need for ‘proof’ that dance is worth funding – and the investment in medical and socio-emotional qualitative research has meant we are able to successfully evidence the benefits of dance to the wider world outside of the industry – we have a language with which to discuss the value of dance which is meaningful to the general population. This has in turn led to specificity in the knowledge of conditions such as Parkinson’s which presents a clear, concise and digestible model for expanding the practice of teaching people with that particular condition.

However, in a negative way, the community dance industry has to some extent begun to place physiological or medically restrictive boundaries around the practice of dance which undermines the foundations of this field - belief in equality, co-ownership of the artistic experience, and the rights of all people to access dance. In so doing, artists whose practice might be fundamentally grounded in inclusivity, are now questioning their ability to lead specialised groups such as dancers with dementia, as they have not done the CPD or (in their eyes) gained the skills required.

We may benefit from a reflection back to the evolution of integrated and inclusive practice - artists such as Celeste Dandeker and Adam Benjamin in the early 2000’s whose foundation for inclusivity was not dissimilar to my own practice today – one of breaking down hierarchy and power-structure in dance teaching and dance making – one that prefers spontaneous improvisatory practice over codified ‘method’. In particular, a practice that offers all people the opportunity to dance, regardless of age, ability, gender or experience. From this place of inclusivity, the refining and distilling of practice for a small group base on health outcomes could appear restrictive and one might argue that it encourages a ‘normalising’ approach to dance by focusing on ‘benefits’ of movement and not on the freedom to participate without a label or expectation.

My suggestion is that artists should be encouraged to spend time honing their individual practice and style of working, rather than clocking up multiple courses that offer models that have been honed already by other artists. Perhaps a radical approach might be that a course for dance artists could be developed entitled ‘Developing your artistic voice: creative ways to access your artistic integrity’. Supplementary modules on existing practices could be offered as a way to share skills and enable the widest range of dancers to access high quality dance, but the fundamental focus is the practice of the individual.

 

References:

(1) Harvey, Aidren (2016) ‘Funding Arts and Culture in a Time of Austerity’ Arts Council England and New Local Government Network, April [online], London: New Local Government Network, available from http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication/funding-arts-and-culture-time-austerity 

(2) Matarasso, François, (1997) Use or Ornament. The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts, [E-Book] Gloucestershire, Comedia

(3) World Health Organisation ‘Health Survey for England’ (2009); Department of Health’s ‘Review of Arts and Health’ (2006)