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Judith Chestnut

The role of the independent dance practitioner in Australia.

Judith Chestnut: "The role of the independent dance practitioner in Australia", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.

1. Abstract

Dance in education can enhance the learning process. Not only does dance involve physical activity, it also includes decision-making, aesthetics, music appreciation, research, project development, assessment, documentation and social interaction. There is more to dance making than learning to move in a particular way and this needs to be the concern of those involved with the teaching of dance. Institutions and organizations that foster dance can develop policies and strategies that encourage dance participation, but it is the independent practitioner that eventually translates these policies and strategies through the medium of dance.

Not only can independent practitioners add to the diversity of dance in education, they can also act as a barometer for the climate in which dance is being made. Administrative and environmental concerns that are usually absorbed by the systems that have been established by institutions and organizations are dealt with directly by independent teachers and dance artists. These issues and how the independent practitioner deals with them are social indicators and need to be considered by those involved with cultural planning. The interpretation of these cultural plans determines the infrastructures and systems that are put in place by local, state and national governments making them significant influences on cultural identity.

This discussion highlights some of the issues concerning dance in education and examines the role that independent dance practitioners play in forming the identity of a region. Although the styles of dance are varied and the geographical locations are different, there are some issues that are common to all, and as such, should be significant to dance in the broader state, national and world arenas.

2. Dance training and teacher education

2.1. An overview

The Currency Companion to Music and Dance in Australia does offer a description of dance training (in Whiteoak ed. and Scott-Maxell ed., 2003:226-229) by explaining the development of dance education from the mid 19th century. However, to gain a more accurate picture of dance education in Australia, it is best to consider this publication in its entirety. Many social, cultural and economic issues influence dance teaching, learning and making, therefore the systems in place for all of this need to consider these influences.

Alison Scott-Maxwell and Susan Street discuss some of the recent influences on dance in education by noting that private studios are important trainers of dancers but that they have been superseded by courses in tertiary institutions. The two authors mention the fact that secondary schools have introduced dance courses and that there is a demand for qualified dance teachers (in Whiteoak ed. and Scott-Maxell ed., 2003:228).

Alison Scott-Maxwell and Susan Street also describe new ways of training and write:In the 1990’s Ausdance promoted Safe Dance, which is concerned with preventing injury. Young dancers are widely using Pilates method training…to condition the body and develop strength and flexibility. Many dancers are also turning to bodywork systems… these new ways of training, which have precipitated new ways of dancing and creative processes, are widely available in classes and workshops.(in Whiteoak ed. and Scott-Maxell ed., 2003:228).

Robina Beard provides a concise description of some of the associations that have examinations for dance that can culminate in teacher training. Beard writes:Opinions vary on the merit of examination systems in teaching of dance. The ballet director Edouard Borovansky is reputed to have said: ‘I’ve never seen a diploma dance in my life’. Most dance students take examinations at some time, but many excellent dancers enter the profession without doing so. The value of taking examinations depends as much on the teacher as the method followed. To this end, research began in 1997 into the feasibility of establishing standards by which to measure the efficacy and integrity of dance teachers and examination systems. This resulted in the publication of Australian guidelines for dance teachers by Ausdance in 1997 and 1998.(in Whiteoak ed. and Scott-Maxell ed., 2003:261)

2.2. A code of ethics

The Ausdance publication for dance teachers does provide a guideline for dance practices and encourages self-assessment with the view of enhancing the professional standing of dance practitioners. The guidelines include a code of ethics for the teaching of dance and emphasises the need for dance teachers to take a holistic approach to dance training. Sections 7 an 8 of the code of ethics clearly demonstrate the awareness of providing a safe environment for the learning of dance and an inclusive approach to its teaching.

Studio principals and individual teachers should ensure that facilities provided:

- Conform with minimum safety and space requirements

- Have suitable flooring, with a safe surface designed and constructed to minimise risk of injury.

Individual teachers should use adequate and flexible teaching skills to create a productive learning environment. Individual teachers should:

a. Strive to foster a love of dance

b. Demonstrate professional attitudes, including punctuality, reliability and responsible care of students

c. Strive to develop self-discipline and self-motivation in students

d. Encourage and support the individual in class and performance

e. Transmit general concepts of movement in addition to those of a particular dance style

f. Strive to develop in the students an appreciation of the characteristic style of each specific technique taught(Australian Guidelines for Dance Teachers, 1997:24)

The knowledge or adherence to the guidelines listed in the Ausdance publication is not a requirement for projects involving dance in education. Unless the dance practitioner has been informed of these guidelines through some form of teacher education, there is no system in place to raise awareness of the issues that are highlighted by this document. Ausdance did initiate a program of developing national dance industry competency standards. Stage one was the publication of the guidelines, stage two was to be a submission for funding to develop this program, stage three would see the development of training packages and stage four the commencement of an accreditation process.

The concept of stage four does need to be debated, as the administration of this stage would be costly and time consuming. However the development of stage three is worthy of investigation and the role of the independent dance practitioner would be vital to this process. Not only would the development of training packages make dance education more accessible to a wider audience it would also provide a platform for research into dance education.

2.3. Training packages

CREATE Australia, which is the national Industry Training Advisory Board for cultural industries, has been involved in this process by initiating scoping studies to investigate training needs (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2003:385). However, this investigation is based on industry needs and does not necessarily consider the cultural environment of individual communities. The cultural planning process is conducted at a local, state and national level and involves many government departments and agencies and this is where the independent practitioner has a vital role to play. The dance practitioner working outside of companies, institutions and associations is simultaneously working at dance on both an industry level and a cultural level. This places the independent dance artist in the unique position of being a provider of a dance service and a user of services concerning dance. The independent dance artist also needs to interact closely with the community in which they work to stabilise and sustain their practice and ensure the success of subsequent projects. Skills and knowledge not available in any formal training are acquired and transmitted through their dance work and this is why the role of the independent dance practitioner is vital to the stability of sustainability of any national dance programme.

3. Independence and paths to reconciliation

3.1. A definition

Eleanor Brickhill describes how independent dance artists became more clearly defined in the 1980s and 1990s and writes:…the term ‘independent’ has become problematic. It has often referred in a general sense to dancers and choreographers who perform outside mainstream companies, solo or in loose peer groups or collectives, without specifying the kind of work they engage in. (in Whiteoak ed. and Scott-Maxell ed., 2003:328-330)

Brickhill goes on to describe some of the collectives of independent dance artists that have been formed and discusses some of the problems they encountered. Brickhill does not however include the many syllabus-based associations, which are also collectives of independent dance artists. This perhaps is because Brickhill discusses the concept that being independent can also imply that the artists are different and it a perception that dance practitioners associated with a syllabus based organization are the same. Brickhill states:…the idea of ‘difference’ implied in the notion of independence raised questions impinging on academic and technical training, heritage and history, choreographic and performative artistry, commentary and criticism, status, authority and authorship. If ‘difference’ was a central idea of independence, to some dance artists it seemed important to think about, articulate and acknowledge those differences and how they were manifested in specific work practices. (in Whiteoak ed. and Scott-Maxell ed., 2003:329-330)

Brickhill elaborates further by stating:In the 1997 National Dance Critic forum one speaker equated the term ‘independent’ with ‘emerging’. Implying that once young artisits had successfully ‘emerged’ they would no longer wish to be ‘independent’. Another view suggested that artists might be independent by default, unwillingly separated from subsidy. Still another view has been that artists might deliberately seek to develop practices that speak diversely of the body and to acknowledge and examine scenarios and contexts springing from different ways of thinking, which shape new choreographic decisions in relation to individual proclivities.(in Whiteoak ed. and Scott-Maxell ed., 2003:329-330)

3.2. Syllabus based organizations

Karen van Ulzen, for Dance Australia, writes about syllabus based organizations and states:Australia has a surprising number of dance syllabus organizations. For such a small population, we have a confusing array to choose from. Many of these organizations are English in origin, but have established their own identities here, others have been local from the start, often confined to just one state before spreading Australia-wide (and in some cases into Asia). Some were set up specifically to foster Australian teaching; others to foster particular styles; others embrace the whole gamut from ballroom to hip hop. There have been attempts over the years, to “rationalise” or bring some of these organizations together, but never successfully.(in Dance Australia, 2003:5)

Van Ultzen explains that the syllabus organizations do provide a standard setting mechanism that acts as a guide for those wishing to enrol in dance classes. Van Ultzen also suggests that membership to a syllabus based organization does not automatically suggest a standard of quality just as non-membership does not have a bearing on quality either (in Dance Australia, 2003:5). So, while the syllabus or constitution of an organization provides a link between members, the members are still independent dance practitioners by default, as the organization cannot provide a guarantee of the service they will provide. The quality of that service is determined by the integrity of the practitioner, the decisions they make about the direction of their work with dance.

3.3. Decisions based on independent practices

The idea of making decisions in relation to individual proclivities as suggested by Brickhill, is the strength the independent practitioner has and the contribution that the practitioner can make to the development of a national dance programme. Natural and habitual tendencies are manifestations of both heritage and the environment. Heritage and the environment are both subdivided into areas labelled as natural, cultural and built. These subdivisions for heritage and environment are then divided further to include regions, communities, families, groups and ultimately the individual. The range of parameters impacting on decisions is diverse and goes full circle therefore, any results of these decisions must also follow that pattern. This is why the independent practitioner becomes a key figure in any national programme and this is why there is often controversy concerning the notion of independence.

If an independent practitioner does not conform to the directions set by current social trends, then the work of that practitioner is viewed as marginal. That practitioner is seen to be initiating work that is not readily assimilated into the infrastructure that has been established by the bodies currently advising on dance trends. To encourage a marginal practice to promote a view of dance that is seen from an independent perspective is seen to be aligning with ill-informed notions of dance. New directions based on local research and some risk taking, does not fit with the current system for dance in education in Australia regardless of the integrity of that new direction. The independent artists must either choose to conform to the notions nurtured by the current infrastructures for dance or conform to the requirements and needs of the society in which they work. Often there is conflict which leads to neglect as progress by both the established infrastructure and the independent artist is hindered because of the lack of a system for reconciliation. Social indicators are ignored and the efficiency of dance in education is jeopardised.

The issue behind all of this is one of identity and decisions are often concerned more with perceived identity than actual identity. To not consider the unique perspectives offered by independent practitioners could be viewed as not considering actual identity Working toward a perceived identity bought about usually by a consensus of opinion can facilitate the planning processes but it can also jeopardise the emergence of best practices. To plan around the views of selected individuals can restrict the outcome to the projected identity of those individuals. Planning for dance in education is crucial to the development of any national dance; therefore all views need to be considered. The views of the independent practitioner have a significant contribution to make. Processes of reconciliation need to be encouraged and open forums for research and development established and nurtured.

3.4. Members of the International Dance Council - CID

Members of the International Dance Council – CID who are involved with dance in Australia bring another dimension to this discussion. There is no official umbrella organization for dance in Australia, no organization that protects the integrity of the art form. Although Ausdance acts as the peak body for dance, it does not have a system in place for professional endorsement nor does the Australia Council and the state ministries, which have dance boards that determine the allocation of funding for dance activities. The CID is the official umbrella organization for all forms of dance in all countries of the world and its characteristics are:

- It is strictly non-profit. Its officers do not receive any fee.

- It is strictly non-commercial; it has no products or services to sell.

- It is open to membership, accepting any person or institution with sufficient credentials in dance.

- It is non-discriminatory. Reflecting the principles of the United Nations and UNESCO, it is open to all approaches to dance, without prejudice for race, gender, religion, political affiliation or social status.

- CID treats all forms of dance on an equal basis. It does not promote a particular view of dance, recognising its universal character as an art form, as a means of education and as a research subject.(IOFA Greece, 2003:3)

These very characteristics make it a haven for independent practitioners. It is to the detriment of dance in Australia, that those involved in and concerned with dance in Australia do not actively access the programmes fostered by the CID as even the single concept of reflecting the principles of the United nations and UNESCO must aid the research and development of dance in this country.

3. Traditional identities and contemporary directions

Bernard Smith writes, ‘A national tradition arises from a people as they struggle with their social and geographical environment’ (Smith 1979:30). Global trends mean that social and geographical environments change over time. So, reflecting back to Smith’s comment it needs to be accepted that national traditions will echo the changes bought about by these global influences. The environment in which they lived determined the histories and traditions of the indigenous people of Australia. These histories and traditions have and will continue to play a major role in shaping the national identity of Australia and when looking at contemporary directions for dance in education the contribution that the Aboriginal society can make needs to be considered. Burnum Burnum makes the point that:

Aborigines are not a group of clones – they are people with personalities as varied as you would find in any other society. With so many different personalities in such vast and varied environment, over such a long time, it is only to be expected that many and varied patterns were developed for all aspects of social and economic life... The great complexity of Aboriginal social organizations, with its networks of contacts, rights and obligations (relevant to the landscape as well as to the persons), balanced life when times became difficult… this made a complex economy - in terms of production, storage and distribution techniques – unnecessary. (Stewart ed, 1988:30)

The key to setting a contemporary direction for dance in education in Australia is to understand that apart from the Aboriginal networks and protocols, much of the present social structure in Australia today has evolved from the historical fact that this nation began as a convict colony and a temporary stopping point, a home for those who were seen to be different in other societies and who wished to travel to other parts of the world. Geoffrey Blainey writes this about the first European settlement in NSW, Australia:Botany Bay was not merely to be a convict colony. In that era Britain and France were competing for mastery of the seas… in any such contest new sea bases are vital. One of the long-term aims was that BotonyBay should be a sea base – a roadhouse and service station for new highways of the sea. And eventually it was.(Blaney, 1982:23)

This settlement was made in a land isolated from the rest of the world by a great expanse of ocean and was based on a system of government administration. The geographical isolation has not changed and the systems of administration have evolved to such an extent that just about every facet of social interaction must comply with administrative standards. Dance must evolve in this environment and dance in education must also compete with all the other aspects of education. By strengthen networks, encouraging dance mobility and diversity in dance education, the evolution of dance in Australia need not suffer the consequences of isolation and can reap the benefits of independence. The protocols and benefits of cultural exchange can balance the perceived restrictions enforced by administration and compliance procedures while environmental considerations can be given the required attention. Appropriate and varied forums can facilitate the exchange of ideas and spaces and resources can be found and dedicated to dance project development. Recommendations can be compiled and made to the appropriate authorities and dance and its associated processes have a much better chance of developing in an equitable manner.

4. Distance, isolation and residencies

Australia is a land almost the same size as the United States of America (excluding Alaska) and is 32 times larger than the United Kingdom. The landscape of Europe and North America dates back 20,000 years while the age of the landforms of Australia date back many millions of years (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2003:15 - 16). Core national interests, the security of the nation and the prosperity and wellbeing of the Australian people drive Australia’s international relations, which give high priority to the Asia-Pacific region (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2003:79). Australia’s resident population is just under 19.5 million, which is mostly concentrated in two widely separated coastal regions. The largest of the regions lies in the south-east and east, the smaller region is in the south-wast of the continent. The state of NSW has the largest population of 6.6 million people and in 2000-01, 380,600 people moved from one state or territory to another.

International migration plays an important role in forming the social character of Australia. In 1999-2000, 92,3000 people arrived in Australia with the intention of settling and in 2000 there were 536,297 visitors from overseas (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2003:111 - 130). Unlike the first European settlers who endured a sea voyage lasting eight months, travellers to and from Australia today have the convenience of daily airflights that will take them to their destination in a matter of hours.

Isolation is no longer an issue within the international arena. Cultural exchanges happen regularly and Australia is a tourist destination for many. Larger dance companies and organizations such as Ausdance NSW often have short programmes that involve international choreographers and many dance practices encourage students to apply for scholarships overseas. However, at a local, state and national level isolation can still be an issue for those wishing to explore avenues of professional development Most activities for professional development in the field of dance happen in the major cities though some programmes that involve specific communities in regional areas have been initiated. Janet Donald writes:Sometimes community-dance artists move temporarily to the location of the project so that they can immerse themselves more completely in the participants’ culture and environment(in Whiteoak ed. and Scott-Maxell ed., 2003:158)

These residencies do have value but are most often targeted at initiating dance in education rather than sustaining and developing it though programmes of professional development. The concept of project-based learning has merit, but in regional areas where often the facilities for dance are limited or inappropriate, the projects usually do not achieve their full potential. Administration is also an issue for project based learning as most dance practices have established systems that cannot cope with special projects that include activities beyond their usual areas of work. This is where the independent practitioner who not only works in that area but also lives there, has much to offer to the education process. These practitioners can act as advisors for intended projects and then participate in the development of that project as part of an ongoing strategy of skills and arts development.

5. Administration, legitimacy and professional development

Most often, for independent dance practitioners to be considered for a place in a programme or project geared for professional development they usually require endorsement in the form of funding, sponsorship or formal qualifications. Dance in education in Australia is directly related to the social and cultural issues of the community in which the independent artist is working and as such, the economic climate will determine the sustainability of an independent practice. Often the income of dance educators working outside of a major institution barely covers operational costs for the practice, making the additional expense of special projects and professional development beyond their means. Funding, sponsorship or formal qualifications endorses the practitioner’s contribution to the field of dance and although that receives little recognition at a community level, it does mean that opportunities for development become more readily available. How this development influences the professional standing of an independent artist is really dependent on the type of opportunities that are presented. The standard setters for dance in education in Australia are those who provide the opportunities for development and it is in this area that the issue of legitimacy needs to be examined.

Contemporary social issues in Australia are dealt with through a series of administrative procedures, which is no doubt the legacy of the cultural heritage of the last 200 years. These procedures are often viewed as restrictions that hinder cultural development. However, administrative procedures are very necessary for professional development and if the procedures are clear and concise, they act as a support for the more creative process of education through project development. All cultures and societies develop rules and standards to ensure its perpetuation, and the processes of reconciliation that are practiced at all social levels, will often result in a set of protocols that enhance cultural development and exchange. Administrative procedures will often enhance the reconciliation process by providing an environment of legitimacy for innovative thinking and standard setting. Independent dance practitioners often question this need for legitimacy as it confronts the issue of personal integrity, however, personal integrity is a variant and therefore, the need for legitimacy becomes a protective mechanism for independence rather than a hindrance. The issue of modernity is crucial to administration being a protective mechanism rather than a hindrance. Legislation is an ongoing process and shapes the cultural fabric of any nation. For dance in education in Australia to progress and thrive, the organizations responsible for dance administration need to be up-to-date, informed and motivated to continue the process. The role of the independent practitioner is to understand the concept of modernity and ask questions and insist that these organizations honour their commitment to appropriate administration. The legitimacy that is needed for endorsement is then guaranteed.

This guaranteed legitimacy can then be seen to be part of the national identity and supersedes the need for an identity to be founded on a social or cultural heritage. In Illusions of identity: the art of nation, Anne-Marie Willis writes:In Australia the transplanted Anglo-Celtic population displaced and soon vastly outnumbered the indigenous inhabitants. The problem then for colonial elites came to be the assertion of an identity they had brought with them, an Anglo identity, yet one sufficiently different from that of the mother country to warrant recognition as distinct. It has been observed by countless writers that the obsession in Australia for the last century has been to find a national identity, though, this as is now being widely recognised, is always something that is assembled rather than discovered. Australia’s particular situation could be seen as one in which there has been a continuing problem of establishing a sense of legitimacy for the particular versions of national identity that continue to be put forward.(Wiilis,1993:32)

If establishing a sense of legitimacy for the exploration of national identity is a continual problem, then it would seem sensible to try to solve that problem. Part of the solution may be acceptance of the procedures with the option to debate for change. This happens in the government arena at local, state and national levels and also needs to happen in the cultural arena. Dance should not be exempt from the debating process and indeed; forums that facilitate the exploration of the many facets of dance should be an integral part of any dance network. Not only can the place of dance in education be explored and developed through an open system of research and development, issues of traditional, heritage, identity, aesthetics and much more can also be explored. This is an important process for any social or cultural issue and no less important for dance.

Any dance organization that works toward establishing a sense of legitimacy by strengthening administration provides appropriate support for the creative development of dance in education. Dance practitioners aligned with such an organization are able to work under the umbrella of that legitimacy while still maintaining their individual identities. Independence becomes the uniting factor of the collective, marginalised practices become the unique characteristic of that organization and in so doing make the search for individual modes of practice a facet of professional development. The administrative structure becomes a vehicle for innovation and progressive development.

6. Conclusion

If the search for a national identity is important to the sustainability of social and cultural values in Australia then that search needs to be supported and encouraged. If there are links between the identity of a nation and its economy then it would seem reasonable to state that the search for a national identity is also linked to the economy. Dance has been used to explore and portray identities for centuries and will continue doing this. Institutions and organizations can facilitate the exploration and translation of dance in the larger state and national arenas and in so doing contribute to a national identity. However, it is the independent practitioner who is best placed to explore aspects of dance at a local level through the process of community cultural development. Perhaps in the end that is the identity that dance in education in Australia will help to display; the nurturing of the individual and the sustainability of a social, cultural and economic environment that will support that individuality.


Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2003) 2003 Year Book Australia, Canberra

Blainey, Geoffrey. (1982) The Blainey View Sydney: ABC and Macmillan.

Smith, Bernard. (1979) Place, taste and tradition: a study of Australian art since 1788 Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Stewart, David (ed.) (1988) Burnum Burnum’s Aboriginal Australia: a traveller’s guide orth Ryde, NSW: Angus and Robertson

Tradition in Art (2003) Greece: IOFA.

Van Ulzen, Karen. (2003) ‘The great syllabus sift’, Dance Australia, August/September, p.5

Whiteoak John (ed.) and Scott-Maxwell, Aline (ed.) (2003) Currency Companion to Music and Dance in Australia, Strawberry Hills NSW: Currency House Inc.

Willis, Anne-Marie. (1993) Illusions of Identity: the art of nation, Sydney: Hale and Iremonger Pty Ltd.

The author

Judith Chestnut lives and teaches dance at Erina, on the Central Coast of NSW, Australia. Having been involved with dance most of her life, Judith has been in contact with many of the various fields of dance practice in Australia. Judith holds a Bachelor of Arts with Honours Degree from DeakinUniversity and is completing a Graduate Diploma in Dance Instruction with Queensland University of Technology. Judith is concerned with encouraging an inclusive approach to dance in education and the sustainability and professional development of independent dance practices in regional areas. Judith is committed to increasing the participation in Dance Day activities in Australia and encouraging an awareness of the aims and objectives of the CID.

Ms. Judith Chestnut


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