In contemporary sociological usage, the term culture refers to the sum total of all knowledge, customs, beliefs, attitudes and values shared by a large group of individuals with other common linkages. Theories formulated by David Carr suggest that culture can also be described from an evaluative point of view as the things that are worthwhile to the humans (Carr 2003, p7).
Carr goes ahead to suggest that it is a challenging fact for individuals to distinguish which of the various learning experiences they analyze in the various cultures is important for personal growth and development. Carr’s proposal has a definite application in dance education particularly because all the elements of the practice can be isolated using either the sociological or the evaluative criteria.
This essay seeks to illustrate that the teaching experience particularly when it comes to dance is an amalgamation of the cultural elements manifesting through curricula and syllabi specifications. To this end various forms of literature shall be investigated to provide the background information necessary for the creation of a solid argument.
Personal experience as a dance instructor shall also be drawn into the discussion and this shall be interwoven with theoretical frameworks proposed by different scholars in the field to offer even more credibility to the essay.
Over the years dance studies have gained prominence all over the world. The knowledge and field requirements are under rapid evolution and both the practitioners and instructors in the field have to go through a specified amount of refresher training.
Social and cultural shifts particularly in the student markets have necessitated the removal of the traditional boundaries between various academic disciplines. Teaching dance is becoming more and more complex and in institutions of higher learning dance is crossing across all academic spheres with the introduction of such programs as dance medicine and dance philosophy.
Dance education Syllabi
There are three main syllabi that are well acceptable in the dance instruction field. These are named according to the institutions/personalities that established them and they are: Dance Vision International Dance Association (DVIDA), United States Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance (USISTD) and Arthur Murray.
For each and every of the three well recognizable dance curricula, there are three primary levels for ranking student talent and abilities. These are bronze, silver and gold. However, each and every syllabus has its own primary focus that aims at strengthening a student’s skills and abilities as well as acting as the foundation for which more work can be based on.
The foundational stages of all the three curricula are aimed at identifying students’ abilities and talents as well providing proper the theoretical information to guide the trainees in subsequent stages. Through discipline and commitment, students in senior levels of training work on already acquired techniques and they build on them, in the process perfecting their skills.
In order to illustrate how both the evaluative and sociological definitions of culture can apply to the dance profession, a comparison of the practical elements of credible dance syllabi in educational facilities has to be provided. This will mainly focus on the presentation of the dance as it is the final product of the entire training process.
For the purpose of this discussion, the analysis shall be based on bronze level performance of nine competitive dance routines. These three dance instruction syllabi are defined by the unique approaches they each take in the performance of various dance routines. These differences are summarily detailed below.
It is worth noting that this discussion has been restricted to the major competitive styles which are widely accepted as the common point of reference for all the dance teaching syllabi. The important elements under discussion for all the dance styles analyzed include, the progression, the uniqueness in steps and the relevance of the knowledge gained to the student.
Waltz – The Arthur Murray has well distinguishable number of steps and aside from giving the dancer the option of variety it also goes ahead to use layering in developing a definite motion pattern across the dance floor. The USISTD also entertains the distinguishable steps as Arthur Murray but doesn’t leave room for variety.
This therefore makes it only ideal for professional dancing at the expense of social dancing. DVIDA has provisions for variety but does not have elaborate movement styles until much later in the syllabus. It has however been fronted as the best curriculum to follow for the Waltz.
Tango –DVIDA has a clear and fun scope of teaching the tango but tends to involve the trainees in skillful moves too early in the curriculum. This is particularly because it tends to demand a change in alignment regularly and also requires high levels of accuracy in orientation which in a way makes it very challenging to navigate.
Arthur Murray has various variations in the first half of the curriculum and the remaining half comprises random movements. UISTD on its part lays emphasis on the primary usable movements and lets the trainees develop into the routine naturally.
Viennese Waltz – It is very difficult to analyze this category as there are numerous approaches to the American Viennese. This makes it difficult to establish the genuine presentation format of the dance at the bronze level. Trainees who follow the DVIDA syllabus tend to approach this dance routine at a slow pace and then develop the drive as the training progresses.
The primary Viennese movements are introduced almost midway through the curriculum and then the American patterns are introduced much later into the syllabus. Arthur Murray on the other hand tends to kick off with complex styles both in terms of speed and drive and then gradually move into slower aspects.
The UISTD introduces the students to the core elements of Viennese and then integrate them with unique American aspects. As the syllabus progresses, the more complex American patterns are introduced and fused with the previous techniques that the trainees have picked up over the time.
Cha Cha – The UISTD starts with an almost conservative number of steps. DVIDA is almost similar to UISTD but it tends to be open enough to allow for slight innovation. Arthur Murray is entirely conservative and it does not give the performer enough credibility by the time that he/she is done with the training.
Rumba – Arthur Murray’s Rumba tends to be dull from the outset and then incorporates a number of complex steps as the syllabus progresses. UISTD has unique technique descriptions and these develop in a compounding manner throughout the training period. DVIDA starts definite patterns but has limited fifth position endings.
East Coast Swing – For this routine, DVIDA tends to omit a number of important steps such as the outside turns, points and kicks. It is therefore very difficult for a dancer who is well versed with this technique to gel well with a dancer from a different syllabus.
It however has great technique description. UISTD starts on a triple which makes some steps such as the whips challenging. It also has great technique descriptions. Arthur Murray has solid steps and a great technique which makes it appropriate for both social and competitive dancing.
Bolero – The USISTD bolero tends to be more like a rumba dance version. As a matter of fact, individuals can use steps from the latter in learning the bolero. Arthur Murray’s syllabus stipulates that individuals have to be at bronze level before they can start the dance. DVIDA has a number of definite steps with well written technique descriptions making it a fun to pursue syllabus.
Mambo – The DVIDA mambo comprises a wide array of steps but has some unpopular endings. Arthur Murray encourages proper timing and a great technique. It however lacks variety and this tends to make the syllabus lose its appeal. UISTD is slow from the outset but gradually morphs into a fun-filled second half.
Foxtrot – DVIDA’s foxtrot tends to coerce the dancers into SSQQ timing and some of the steps in this technique at the bronze level appear awkward. Arthur Murray encourages alternate timings and encompasses great variations to make the dance even more interesting. UISTD generally tends to start with proper and progressive steps but the entire piece at the bronze level appears like a re-jig of the waltz.
Movement and the historical/cultural aspects of dance
The way a dance defines the movement explains the primary aspects of the style and the historical context of the dance. The techniques and skill of a dance routine are attributes which are conferred from one generation to another in a form of broad cultural transference.
However, individuals studying and performing dance from time to time tend to reinterpret traditional dance styles and present them is ways that make sense and are comfortable to them. The three dance syllabi analyzed above present students with the chance to gain comprehensive knowledge of dance.
Students from each curriculum learn the different dances based on how the dances were presented by the founders of the syllabi. The students therefore base their techniques and skills on the historical and cultural significance of the adopted style.
In this way, they can easily evaluate their work by comparing it with the established framework of the syllabus that they learn in. Irrespective of the chosen curriculum, there are five key gains that students of dance are expected to have made at the completion of the training period; these are:
- They must have gained sufficient knowledge of the elements of dance.
- The must clearly choreograph a dance in such a way that it reflects the elements of the syllabus they followed.
- They must be in a position to apply the skills gained in non-competitive (formal) presentations
- The must be able to evaluate both professional and non-professional dance practice.
- They must know how to elaborately communicate ideas through choreography.
These five elements are based on the broad appreciation of dance as an art form that is primarily grounded on culture and tradition. In this regard, tutors and instructors should ensure that the items included in their syllabi are well planned and comprehensively cover each and every component of their primary targets.
Curricula should be developed and implemented using various instructional routines which put students in better positions to go through varied experience. Bearing in mind that most students have different learning rates, tutors should ensure that all their students achieve the desired levels of performance based on the chosen syllabus.
Based on a broad perspective of dance and dance education, the roots of dance can be traced back to the origins of human kind. Dance has been used as a way of expressing cultural values by giving individuals the opportunity to reconnect with the past and link it to the present and create visions of the future. In a way, every coming generation recreates culture through dance.
By the students understanding the historical and cultural heritage of a number of dance routines exposes the students to understanding the functions of dance in different social settings. Proper curricula enable students utilize their critical thinking abilities to envisioning, describe, provide an analysis and evaluation of a given dance piece in a credible manner.
Students are able to assess various techniques and styles based on the presentations they receive in class. This kind of understanding makes them better understand most of the elements in each and every sequence.
Formal education and dance culture
Dance had been traditionally viewed from a narrow-angle perspective as a performance art with no real significance in the real world and therefore most individuals opted not to go through formal training (McCutchen 2006).
However, through years of study and enhancement of professionalism in the field, it has been found out that the people who go for training acquire skills which are important in achievement in other areas of life not related to dance. These students tend to develop proper self-understanding and appreciation of human relationships and also tend to auger well with their external environments.
Aside from this, they are able to enhance their critical thinking abilities as they are able to question the reasons for certain actions during the dance practice as well as properly defining meaning from choreographed pieces based on their respective curricula (Carr 2003).
Formal education has changed over the years to accommodate fields that were previously regarded as unimportant to societal development. These include the likes of dance and other performing arts and over the years there has been a cultural shift towards incorporating these fields into educational curricula with an aim of recognizing them as worthy professions.
As much as individuals can easily attain their goals through setting up personal structures for reading and networking, practical fields such as dance tend to require the presence of tutor/instructor who will serve as the assessor for growth.
These tutors are now under constant pressure to have gone through a formal educational system, and particularly have obtained college certification which will put them in a better position to evaluate the talents and needs of students.
A tutor who has grown through a credible educational system will no doubt be in a position to determine the kind of information that is important to the personal development of his/her students and filter out from knowledge that has become obsolete and irrelevant (McCutchen 2006).
However, it is definitely clear that exposure of students/trainees to a wide array of subjects will further broaden their competitive advantage in the real world.
The students who have a varied knowledge system will be better placed to communicate with persons who engage in other elements of the professional dance field and they will also be in a position to understand how their roles as professional dancers interrelate with other professions in such a way that the jobs influence each other.
There are two elements of education that tutors should have in mind when designing dance training programs. One is that formal education gives students an opportunity to expand their way of thinking. This means that individuals are expected to graduate out of particular training institution with knowledge that they can use to circumvent any challenge that may arise in their line of duty (McCutchen 2006).
Secondly, the education is supposed to provide them with an entry ticket to professional recognition. This recognition, however, can only be sustained by the quality of their work and as long as the tutors focus on instilling the necessary ethic to their students it can easily be entrenched in their (the students’) career routines.
One of the ways that can be used to ensure that this is attained is through ensuring that the students have extensive theoretical and practical knowledge of their area of specialization. This coupled with personal post-training experience will determine how successful an individual’s career life will be. It should be noted that there is a difference between getting a formal academic accreditation and getting an education.
The real point of training is to offer the student the opportunity to learn how to think and feel deeply about a particular profession in such a way that they can not only make a living out of it, but also make a life through the knowledge gained.
The importance of curricula in defining growth
All of the recognizable dance curricula particularly at trainer/college level introduce individuals to the process of research in order to isolate knowledge that they can relevantly use in coaching their students. College education also trains students on how to practically deliver everything they have picked from theoretical sessions and how to face challenges and seemingly mundane activities with honor.
Most of the value picked from college dance education is a representation of how much a student was able to apply him/herself to the course and endurance of the difficulties encountered (Barker 2008). As dance educationists, we are under constant pressure to decide whether to extensively expose our students to theoretical knowledge or to concentrate on the practical application of the basic knowledge garnered.
However, it is vastly acceptable that an individual with credible certification in any professional field must be in a position to practically display his/her ability as well as explain the theory behind the actions he/she partakes in (McCutchen 2006).
It therefore becomes the responsibilities of the tutor to identify those individuals with reading disabilities and finding ways of ensuring that they pick up the critical theoretical elements of the dance practice, even if it means having to give them audio notes and oral tests.
The various dance curricula have their own delivery and presentation styles and it therefore becomes challenging for tutors to establish a general format that will appear appropriate across the board.
Even with this bottleneck, individuals-particularly educationists- should have it mind that the most important element of the knowledge that the students are getting is that it puts them in a better position to reevaluate themselves irrespective of the cultural elements of the society in which they were raised in.
The commercial benefits of a career should not be viewed as the primary driving force of an individual who prides in having gone through proper education and formal professional training (Barker 2008).
Instead, students should be made well aware that if they fully apply themselves to their jobs and deliver everything with professionalism, they will be able to supersede societal/cultural pressures and lead fulfilling career lives (McCutchen 2006).
As a matter of fact, college/tertiary education enables students learn how to enjoy their lives outside their jobs as well as giving them the opportunity to pursue perspectives based on their personal intrinsic values.
Students who are made to clearly understand the importance of entertaining ideas and perspectives eventually end up happy in both their professional and personal lives.
While it arguable that individuals can still learn this outside an academic institutions, it has been proven that individuals who choose to pursue this route tend to spend a lot of time on certain irrelevant things before it dawns on them that they need to move on to the next agenda.
It is therefore appropriate, particularly in practical fields such as dance, that individuals enjoy some level of liberal education alongside the formal elements that can only be provided by academia (Carr 2003). Research has it that most practical skills are better picked outside of academia which tends to concentrate on giving theoretical and general education.
However, most people will not have the drive and motivation it takes to learn a trade using this route. It is therefore the responsibility of the instructors to establish curricula and syllabi which will give their students both the ideal general knowledge to survive in the competitive ‘outside’ world as well as horn their skills in attaining professional competence in their respective trade.
Role of the instructor/trainer in defining dance culture
The design and creation of a dance curriculum is a reflective process that requires the tutors and instructors to actively engage in a number of questions that will focus on the strengths of the delivery process.
Teachers should clearly know that the main goal of the training process is to enable their students develop proper creative and expressive techniques as well as adequate dance knowledge to see their careers develop from strength to strength (Carr 2003).
From personal teaching experience, I have been able to understand the delivery and presentation of dance concepts are two independent but related elements of the practice. Like other traditional academic delivery syllabi, dance syllabi also focus on delivering certain concepts and elements in isolation.
However, being one of the few professions whose products are clearly noticeable, the entire learning process for dance is aimed at ensuring that all the knowledge obtained in the different classes is integrated in performance. It is of paramount importance that students understand how to create performances based on the basic elements of dance that they pick up in class.
The instructor/tutor is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the students fully understand all aspects of the instruction, because the weakness of one component dramatically reduces the quality of the entire performance. The students should be able to have a clear perception of dance as well as place the different elements in their cultural and historical position based on relevance.
In this way, the students will be able to understand and view dance as a form of art through the development of an awareness of spontaneous movement and they categorically understand the underlying principles and elements of dance.
Through creative expression, students who have been well tutored in the dance art form are able to combine their knowledge on body sciences and fitness with dance elements to come up with presentations that are both impressive and professional. All of the syllabi analyzed earlier follow similar frameworks where students first learn the basic and simple movements of a given dance before progressing to more complex aspects.
Role of the student/trainee in defining dance culture
While trying to establish the relevance and importance of certain elements to students, it is worth noting that the primary factor that will dictate the reception of information is the students’ personal approach to the knowledge they are receiving. Some individuals just take to formal education in order to get the bare minimum that will get them noticed by field agencies (Carr 2003).
This mindset significantly reduces the gains they make from the training and it therefore becomes even more challenging for the instructor to try and get them to pick up knowledge that could adequately contribute to their personal development.
With the limited number of employment facilities for dancers, educationists should make it their responsibility to ensue that their students define their career goals not only by the broad/sociological aspects of culture but using the evaluative elements. The latter will prepare them to creatively use the information garnered in school in establishing themselves as marketable individuals.
This also means that even if they don’t get hired to work for other people, they could easily set out on their own and still earn a decent livelihood out of it. In this sense, an average student who has the drive and determination can easily end up starting his/her own agency and hire all the brilliant and fast students they were in training together.
Societal participation in defining formal dance culture
Most individuals particularly those in culturally ‘respectable’ professions tend to regard dance as a trade that does not necessarily require an individual to have gone through formal education to make it (Carr 2003). This misconception has in recent times come to be dismissed as it has been established that individuals can easily gain the varied life experience required understand the needs of the profession through proper education.
Even the basic general knowledge that students detest while in school will come in handy at some point in their lives irrespective of the chosen career path. It is also manifest that just a few individuals have the ability to learn on their own but even these persons need to have the basic groundwork which can only be founded on formal training.
With the constant demand for degrees and other notable certification by employers and recruitment agencies, colleges and other training facilities have been pushed to accommodate individuals who would otherwise never have qualified for such education (Barker 2008). This heavily impacts on delivery as the limited facilities are overstretched demanding the instructors and tutors to concentrate on offering theoretical lectures.
Unfortunately, some programs such as dance require enough practical lessons as this is what the world will use in analyzing the skills of the professionals who graduate from such fields. It is therefore the prerogative of the trainers, instructors and tutors to establish the relevance of the content they are presenting to their students as far as personal and professional growth is concerned.
Good educationists will ensure that the knowledge they give their students sets the tone and confers on them skills to cope with the challenges of the profession (Carr 2003).
It is unfortunate that individuals graduate from training facilities without the basic idea on how to practically apply the information garnered while their counterparts who chose to follow the longer way of learning through practice can cope with any of the challenges thrown their way.
While it is admirable for tutors to focus on helping their students develop useful skills it is clear that with the rapid changes in society, such skills may lose relevance in a very short time. It is therefore important that curricula and syllabi be focused on turning students into well rounded individuals who can easily adapt to professional, societal and cultural metamorphoses.
In an effort to illustrate both the broad and narrow definitions of culture as applies in the dance profession, this essay has raised a number of critical issues as summarized below.
First, there are three primary dance curricula which are well recognized in competitive dancing. These are the Dance Vision International Dance Association (DVIDA), United States Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance (USISTD) and Arthur Murray.
All the three draw elements for their syllabi from how a given societal group used to present them. This goes in tandem with the sociological view that culture is a set of practices shared amongst a group of individuals with common characteristics and who end up defining how things shall be done within the group.
As has been illustrated using an analysis of nine bronze level competitive dance styles some elements have been left out or added by each of the three curricula based on convenience and appropriateness to the performer. This supports the evaluative view of culture in the sense that the teachers of particular syllabi have to establish which aspects are important to their students’ growth and which ones serve no definitive purpose.
Coming to training accorded to dancers, it has in recent times come to the appreciation of individuals with diverse backgrounds that dance can be taken as a meaningful career.
With this introduction of professional appreciation, diploma and degree programs have been set up to specifically offer proper training in dance. It is this kind of appreciation that has led individuals to seek academic certification and in the process learn which elements are necessary for their personal growth.
While developing curricula for their students, teachers and other instructors are charged with the responsibility of ensuring that they determine which aspects of the training will be of relevance to each and every student in the class. As a result, they more or less dictate how the culture of their classes would be shaped as opposed to relying on hand down set ups.
The training of dance professionals can be evaluated based on two elements. These are the delivery of the knowledge from tutor to students, and the presentation of the learned skills by the students. The latter is however entirely dependent on the former and it is with this knowledge in mind that instructors ensure that the syllabi and course outlines support elements that will put their students at a better place to learn.
However, even with the tutors and instructors playing a critical role in how the information they present to the students will be received, the students themselves have to be willing to absorb the knowledge they are given. As a result, they also contribute greatly to how the skills they acquire become of relevance to them. In other words, the students are also responsible for how culture is defined within their places of learning.
Society also has a critical role to play as far as the definition of culture and professional dance practice are concerned. This is primarily because most individuals tend to depend heavily on societal influences in establishing their career paths with most of them going against the desires of their hearts to join professions that they are not interested in.
It is this desire to belong to a given cultural grouping that has for a long time caused performing arts such as dance to be seen as less important as compared to other careers. However it has been recently realize that the more society opens to change, the more people are comfortable going for professions that enhance their personal growth.
It is worth noting that culture is a constantly metamorphosing element of society. It undergoes changes from time to time and when it comes to professions such as dancing, the tutors and trainees end up dictating which aspects of the cultural practice are useful to them and which are not.
This project has served to illustrate many key-note points in regards to the importance of culture in dance training. The information obtained in the research has served to broaden personal knowledge on the profession particularly from an instructor’s point of view. This is the kind of knowledge that can be practically put to use whenever drafting syllabi and developing curricula.
This paper has provided extensive data on the various aspects and elements of the dance profession and has illustrated how they ling to both the sociological and evaluative definitions of culture. Various elements of syllabi creation have been critically highlighted using data obtained from books and publications credited to various professionals in the field.
This information has to some extent been broken down to such levels that individual who are non-professionals can easily pick out relevant bits of data from the essay and be in a position to relate them to their respective environments.
The presentation has taken the form of a research process report by critically evaluating the topic of discussion with relevant explanations being given to evaluate concepts. The final product is a well laid out paper that if well reviewed can be used to provide background information to guide other professionals in their own projects on related topics.
Barker, C. 2008. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage.
Carr, D., 2003. Making sense of education: an introduction to the philosophy and theory of education and teaching. London: Routledge.
McCutchen, P.B., 2006.Teaching dance as art in education. Illinois: Human kinetics