Since time immemorial, dance has been recognised as a unique art form which allows for pure self- expression, generating an exchange of movement dialogue between individuals and communities (Kogan, 2013). However, through modernisation, dance has evolved into a theatrical spectacle, with audiences racing to see a perfectly presented dancer leap across the stage (Anderson, 2001). Although beautiful to watch, this then establishes a question regarding the confined notions of what it means to be classified as a dancer?.
Evidently, through societal views, an individual that utilises the movement of dance to aid them through everyday life would not be considered as a dancer or viewed in the same sphere as a performer on stage. This is due to elitist stereotypical beliefs regarding what a dancer should be. Moreover, contemporary dance culture has influenced a clear hierarchy placed within the field of dance, establishing an exclusive and elite community. Furthermore, this essay will explore the defining benefits of community dance practice, and how this has, in turn, gradually generated the establishment of an inclusive community within the field that is not defined by stereotypical beliefs. Additionally, the expectations of who can be a dancer is constantly being redefined through a broad lens that accepts all beliefs regarding religion, culture, history, race and differing body types that comprise of a community.
Community dance is utilised as an empowering tool which allows individuals to express their aspirations, feelings and identity (Poynor and Simmonds, 2009). The intended purpose of each project is to promote community wellbeing through significant high- quality arts engagement, that supports the development of flourishing communities (Stevens, 2019). This is achieved through an inclusive and meaningful collaboration between all stakeholders that responds to a need within their specific community. Additionally, the project allows communities to continue their own artistic and cultural development after the completion of the process (Australia Council for the Arts, 2019). However, although community dance is extremely beneficial for the communities involved, the practice constantly has to fight for recognition within the field. Community dance is constantly marginalised by the exclusive community within the ‘professional dance world’. Artists working in community contexts are frequently unacknowledged and undervalued by the elite establishment that only accepts dance to be a highly stylised form, demanding a specific aesthetic of performer. (McKechnie, 2014). Additionally, due to this belief dance has an extremely low profile in the realm of community arts practice, as dance is viewed as something that only the elite can perform (Poynor and Simmonds, 2009). However, despite the challenges, artists within the field of community dance continually strive to redefine the beliefs of who can be a dancer. This is predominantly seen within the field of community arts health and wellbeing. McKechnie (2014) states, “Community Arts, which dancers are an integral part of… has the capacity to reach into every corner of individual lives, down every last bush track and across the breadth of this huge country”. McKechnie gives a powerful reminder to artists and communities, emphasizing to them the integral role community dance offers as an empowering tool for differing communities, allowing for connection and engagement.
Dance for health is revolved around the concept that the mind and body are connected. The process utilises the components of dance and movement as a healing tool, allowing for health and growth (Levy, 1988). The practice is a specific form of community dance, that focuses on responding to an individual need from a community within the field of health. For example, the project could take on the format of a dance class specifically designed to help aid teenagers dealing with a mental illness. Each project is completely unique in its approach, based upon the community it is catering for. However, the underlying concepts of the projects remain the same, to ensure continuity within the practice. This is based upon the understanding that the “only universal language, is one that is communicated through the movement of our body” (American Dance Therapy Association, 2014). This specific aspect is emphasized in each project, as the process is based around having fun whilst being spontaneous and creative, allowing for a healing relationship where dance and movement are the primary mediums (American Dance Therapy Association, 2016). Jeffrey states that the specific sensation of ‘letting go’ is often described by participants upon the completion of the project (Jeffrey, 2019). This sense of freedom and spontaneity allows individuals that would not normally engage in dance practice feel more comfortable. McKechnie (2014) states that “due to the narrow understanding of dance and the perceived level of specialisation demanded, the potential of dance is not widely recognised”. Through community dance, individuals are gradually recognising the benefits of the practice, and how they can utilise the outlet to express themselves freely.
The American Dance Therapy Association (2016) states, “the utilisation of community arts health and wellbeing through dance has both the capacity and potential to produce treatment outcomes”. Moreover, many organisations such as The American Journal of Dance Therapy, Queensland Ballet and The English National Ballet, have conducted extensive studies. Although the organisations recognise the benefits found medically, there is no clear trend that applies to every patient (Donald, Houston, Lee, McGill, and Watkins, 2015). However, a recent study conducted through the Queensland Ballet, examines that although not all of their participants recognised physical or medical advancements to their overall health, 100 per cent of participants describes they had gained a more positive outlook regarding their quality of life. This was evident throughout multiple facets, including emotional, cognitive, social and artistic aspects (Jeffrey, 2014). Through the power of dance, individuals suffering from debilitating diseases, are experiencing how dance and movement can help aid them through tasks in every day life.
Dance for Parkinson’s Disease is a specific example of how practitioners in the field are developing community dance- based projects, for the purpose of creating a significant difference in an individual’s life through dance. Parkinson’s is a progressive, degenerative condition that results in the inability to initiate movement, keep movement going or the inability stop movement voluntarily (Donald et al., 2015). Therefore, every- day tasks and actions can be extremely difficult to achieve. Founded by the Brooklyn Parkinson Group and the Mark Morris Dance Group, Dance for Parkinson’s Disease offers specialized dance classes for people with Parkinson’s, their caregivers, family members and friends. The classes are taught by professional teaching artists within the industry, that strives to integrate choreographic movement repertory from a range of styles (Dance for Parkinson’s Australia, 2019). Jeffrey (2014) states “the participants in the class are encouraged to approach movement like dancers rather than as patients”. Participating in the Dance for Parkinson’s Disease project encompasses a vast range of benefits for both individuals suffering from the debilitating disease and also for their family, friends and caregivers. Additionally, the project also plays a role in the process of reshaping the exclusive community of dance, whilst redefining the question of who can be a dancer.
According to research determined by the English National Ballet, the social dance class community that is established throughout the program, is the most beneficial aspect for its participants (Donald et al., 2015). Individuals commented “you think you are all alone with this situation, but the dancing makes you realise you’re not” (Donald et al., 2015). Jeffrey (2019) adds, that when viewing a class, you can see the joy bubble up in each individual as they participate. Evidently, the environment is extremely welcoming with a strong sense of inclusivity. Although the general dance community is an exclusive and elite environment, Dance for Parkinson’s Disease has gradually influenced the professional industry. This has been achieved through widening the dance community, by utilising real dancers as teaching artists within the program. Furthermore, this allows artists with the opportunity for potential work in the industry, which is extremely limited within the professional dance field.
However, it also creates a sense of belonging to the organisation as there is an abundance of opportunities regarding performance work and residency programs. This establishes a close community between both the participants and the artists, as they create something monumental together (Dance for Parkinson’s Australia, 2019). Inspired by the aesthetic experience that focuses on developing artistry and grace whilst addressing health concerns, participants of the Dance for Parkinson’s Disease project have also taken part in the establishment of redefining who can be classified as a dancer. Participants of the program shared “I now identify as a dancer and no longer just as a person with Parkinson’s” (Jeffrey, 2014). Evidently, through slowly establishing an inclusive community within the field of dance, individuals are more inclined to partake in dance classes as it is recognised as a form of expressing one’s self and not solely as a highly stylised art form that demands athleticism
To conclude, through modernisation dance has evolved into a highly stylised spectacle, which possesses confined elitist characteristics. Evidently, a clear hierarchy has been placed within the environment, establishing an exclusive community. Furthermore, these views have marginalised dance to only be viewed as an art form that the elite can partake in. However, through community dance, these inaccurate views are gradually being redefined through the benefits of the practice, as participants are experiencing that dance can be utilised as a tool to express your true identity.