Friday, March 22, 2013

The Hindu/ Footloose/ Learning to Teach

Learning to Teach
A relationship of a shishya or student with his or her guru or dance teacher is a strong one on many levels. Students turn to their teachers for guidance consciously, subconsciously and even unconsciously.

Indeed, this puts a whole lot of responsibility on the shoulders of those who consider themselves ‘dance teachers’ or call themselves ‘gurus’. The awareness of this responsibility led me to examine just what kind of teachers are we today. It dawned upon me that before we talk about the proper or correct method of training students, there needs to be some reflection on the ways in which we teach dance. Teachers need to ask themselves - Are we trained or training ourselves to be educators? Do we see ‘dance teaching’ as a ‘side-job’ or an actual education? What do we consider to be a dance education?

The first question begs further questions to be answered such as – Is knowing how to dance well, enough to be a good dance teacher? If not, what involves training to become a teacher of dance? These questions need to be addressed and their answers sought out before one even begins to think of becoming a dance teacher.

Moreover, why one teaches dance also becomes an important question to ask. There are several performers who teach ad hoc in various schools and dance institutions. I can say, with almost complete certainty, that one of the reasons for performers drifting into the pedagogical world of dance is because that is where they can earn a steady income. But is that a good enough reason? Teaching to earn a stable income is one thing, and given the abysmal conditions of performing opportunities and financial support for dancers, it is a justified reason for stepping into the world of dance pedagogy. After all, dancers have to make a living somewhere! But is that one reason, reason enough? Where does income measure up to the passion of passing on knowledge and transmitting skill? Is dance teaching more than a ‘side job’? Is your training a bland and robotic handover of information or an actual education for your students?

The string of questions leads to yet another one. An important question – what do we consider to be a dance education? Is teaching steps through imitation and repetition enough? If it is enough, then perhaps DVDs of steps, dance sequences and dance pieces should replace us as teachers. If it isn’t enough, then what else goes into dance education? In my view, dance education would involve an instruction in understanding rhythm, cultivating musicality, encouraging creativity, guiding students to research into dance history and theory.

A Bharatanatyam student is not educated if he or she learns an entire margam without knowing names of the adavus or the talas and ragas of the Bharatanatyam pieces they perform. A contemporary dancer who trains in the Graham technique is not educated if he or she does not understand the life and philosophy of Martha Graham, and a hip-hop student who is not aware of the social and political surroundings from which hip-hop was born has not had a complete education of the form. In order for our students to be educated in dance, our teachers must value dance education, be educated and constantly re-educate themselves too.

Friday, March 08, 2013

The Hindu/ Footloose/ Keeping Dance Scholarship Alive

Keeping Dance Scholarship alive
In agreement with my previous article in ‘Footloose’, a regular reader asked for my thoughts on the possible solutions or guidelines to “instill and motivate academic scholarship in dancers” and students of dance. The answers, which came to mind, were both easy and difficult to implement at different levels. But it was immediately clear that the answers lay in a multi-tiered revamping of the way we view dance education in India.

For the positive transformation of dance scholarship in India to take place, changes would have to be made at four distinct levels – at the level of the government, institution, at a private as well as individual level.

At the highest level, the government would have to take the arts much more seriously than it does. Every year, funding for the arts diminishes further and further. This has serious repercussions on the study and practice of dance. It affects the incentive of people to take up dance even as a performance art - dance as an academic study, which already has a subordinate position in the dance education hierarchy, then has no hope. Further, the government needs to approve or incentivize schools, colleges and universities to give importance to dance education. This doesn't just mean that the government merely tells all educational institutions to include dance in their curriculum, but needs to put effort into making sure that this directive to include dance in education is implemented properly and effectively.

At the institutional level, funding bodies and institutional heads of schools, colleges, universities and dance institutions need to give dance academics and theory importance. A school, for example, must be able and willing to hire properly trained dancers and dance educators specifically for the purpose of educating the students in the area of dance, rather than using a certified Physics, Mathematics or English teacher to do the job.  

At the college and university level, we need to have Performing arts departments that offer practical and theoretical modules for all of the performing arts - theatre, music, dance. None of our major university departments have this. The few dance institutions that have opened up in India in the last decade also do not offer dance theory and history as a priority subject. I conceptualized and initiated a dance history and theory course for Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts, here in Bangalore and I believe it is one of the few dance institutions that now offers this kind of study into dance.

Third, there are several dance students who study dance privately - either at privately run institutions or they attend private lessons with a dance teacher. These privately run dance schools and private dance tutors also need to prioritize a wholistic dance education, which includes the history and theory of dance, at least of the dance form that they are teaching. This also needs to happen at a larger scale. I do not know of many of these that teach theory and history as an important and integral part of learning dance. Most of these private educators concentrate on the practical aspect of learning dance, and some completely ignore even the basic theoretical aspects of dance that are integral even to the correct performance of dance.

And finally, at an individual level, dance practitioners and students need to take initiative to constantly educate and re-educate themselves. Just as they do riyaaz regularly, so must they read regularly on dance, go to conferences and seminars on dance, perhaps even organize and initiate them. A change has to take place within the very minds of practitioners and students that makes them realize that they cannot be whole by learning only a part of what knowing dance is all about.

To conclude, dance scholarship needs to be encouraged at all the four levels and will need the cooperation and will of people from varying backgrounds with varying powers to make this change. Without changes on all the four levels – government, institution, private and individual – we cannot hope for dance scholarship to gain the importance it deserves.