Recently, I’ve been thinking about why I teach dance, why I feel dance is important, and the role examinations serve in educating children in dance.
My views on dance have changed a lot over the past decade. I used to believe ballet to be the most “elite” form of dance, I would get caught up in competitions and examinations proving the value of a dancer, and I pushed for technique over everything else. As I have grown older and gained further education, I have learned to love dance in its purest form. The style of dance does not matter. Anyone can experience the joy, the creativity, the exploration of movement, and the self-expression dance can provide the opportunity for. I also love that life skills which can be gained through a dance education – discipline, goal setting, patience, and determination to name a few.
Something I have been struggling to reconcile is the purpose of exams in the teaching of dance. Particularly with children.
My main issue is that the examiner only views a snapshot of the work a dancer has put it. They have no idea of how the dancer has worked through the year. They have not seen what the dancer has had to deal with in their life outside of dance, they don’t see the massive amount of work a dancer has put in to become “average” in terms of their marking. What may be a huge improvement for a dancer could result in what is perceived as a “low” mark.
Many new ideas are coming out of the huge amount of research being done in regard to child development and the way children are educated. It is beautifully explained by Sir Ken Robinson in his talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” in his talk, he quotes Picasso “All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up”.
It leads me to question how we, as dance teachers, are possibly contributing to the loss of creativity in our students.
I believe in my heart that dance should be for everybody. But exams (despite what exam organisations are saying about equality and being more accessible) can do more harm than good.
Now don’t get me wrong, I do see the value in exams. They help teach dancers to set goals, manage their time, (I hope) practice by themselves, and learn to perform under pressure which all help to prepare dancers for exams at school and university and other high-pressure situations in life. Sitting annual exams also provides a record of achievment for dancers and as they grow older, the higher level exams can be included in resumes and scholarship applications.
But the joy, exploration, creativity, and self-expression can absolutely be lost in preparing for an exam. When there are set exercises that need to be performed in set ways the dancers (and teachers!) are restricted creatively. In addition, as a teacher, having to prepare students for exams restricts what we do in class. A dancer may ask a question about a new step that I would love to spend time exploring, whether spending 15 minutes looking at photos and videos, looking up definitions in the dance dictionary, or dedicating an entire lesson to the topic but due to time constraints we just have to move on to continue learning the exercises.
Now this could be worked around if we had students in their exam class for 4+ hours a week but that just isn’t feasible. Firstly, I love my dancers to be well rounded individuals and have the opportunity to explore other interests or just have time at home to relax. Secondly, 4 hours for each exam class won’t fit into our timetable. And thirdly, most families understandably don’t want to be paying $50+ per week for their 8-year-old to attend dance.
So what is the solution here? Do we just not offer exams until the age of 12 when generally, dancers are taking more hours of lessons and have spent a good few years understanding the fundamentals?
(I refuse to take the route of only offering exams to students who we feel will get a “high” mark)
Do we leave it up to the parents and the dancers themselves to decide on their own?
Do we only hold exams every two years to allow dancers enough time to fully understand the work and be physically capable to gaining the mark they deserve?
In my teaching, I aim to focus on the “whole” child. So going into 2023, sitting an exam may not be the best for each child. I don’t want students to lose their intrinsic drive so I plan to offer other options so all dancers are still setting goals and feeling a sense of achievement. But I want to hear from parents too, what do you think? Feel free to comment or send me an email, I look forward to having a discussion about how we can better support our dancers.
Mā te wā,
Canterbury Academy of Dance