Research cash loss to cripple dancing

April 25, 2003

The flourishing development of British dance artistry and scholarship is in danger of being hobbled by the higher education white paper, the discipline's representative body has warned.

Since the launch of the first dance degree in 1976 and the beginnings of dance research 15 years ago, the international position of British dance in academic circles has leapt to world-leader status alongside the US, says the Standing Conference on Dance in Higher Education.

These spectacular strides have created a rich training environment that has helped launch the careers of top artists such as Matthew Bourne, who attended the Laban Centre for Dance and Movement, and Akram Khan, a graduate of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.

But proposals that could lead to the separation of teaching and research, and greater selectivity in research funding, could result in the "contraction" or even the "death" of dance in British higher education, Scodhe warns in its white paper response.

These concerns, which topped the agenda of its research conference at Leeds University this month, raise fundamental questions about the principles driving higher education reforms and their potential impact on new and emerging subject areas.

Dance has qualified for research funding only for the past ten years; its highest research assessment exercise rating is 4. Yet in a relatively short time the discipline has not only gained significant international standing, but has also founded its own research organisation and launched a refereed and internationally recognised research journal. Alongside this, graduate courses and successfully completed doctorates have burgeoned.

Scodhe says it welcomes both the establishment of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which is helping to protect the interests of performing arts, and the decision to designate dance as an emerging subject area with capability funding for 3a and 3b-rated departments. But it adds: "Such a decision, however, regarded in isolation from other factors, fails to recognise the precarious position into which the long-term future health of dance as a university-based research discipline has been placed."

The first of these other factors is the science-driven model of research funding outlined in the white paper. Scodhe says this is "insufficient to our present and pressing need in dance to secure a healthy diversity in research approaches".

"Such diversity in an emerging subject area is a strength rather than a weakness, in that it enables a fuller reflection of the nature of the discipline to evolve at an early stage rather than to strangle future promise at birth." Another critical factor is the potential for white paper proposals to drive a wedge between dance teaching and research.

Scodhe says that a direct link between dance and inspiring researchers is crucial to ensuring that undergraduates and taught postgraduates are equipped with appropriate knowledge, and ways of thinking and creating, to enable them to meet society's needs.

Jo Butterworth, Scodhe chair and head of the research centre for dance at Leeds, said: "I do not think that the government has taken into account the importance of the synthesis between teaching and research in... dance.

"There is little point in us simply preparing our students to leap about on cruise ships. They need to learn principles, backed up by research, that they can apply in a great variety of contexts."

Yet another worry is that dance teaching, which is relatively expensive because it requires a high level of contact time and a lot of space, is being squeezed by funding constraints.

Dr Butterworth said: "We are concerned that some universities are getting nervous about giving staff time for practical teaching. If we lose staff time on those parts of the programme, then the standards of performance and choreography will drop. We will then end up with people who have the ability to conceptualise dance but cannot demonstrate those concepts in the discipline itself."

Viccy Chappell, policy officer for the Council for Dance Education and Training that accredits many dance programmes, said that some private dance schools that the government wants to push into the higher education sector were very worried about this.

She said: "Dancers really need 25 to 30 hours contact teaching time a week.

Higher education institutions are not going to produce professional dancers if they cut this down."

Christopher Bannerman, head of the centre for research into creation in the performing arts at Middlesex University, said the biggest worry was that the government was unaware of the impact its policies were likely to have on fragile disciplines such as dance.

He said: "We have been very agile in responding to change, but certain areas are still very vulnerable. We are concerned that it would be very easy for damage to be done almost as a result of thoughtlessness."

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