It’s time to step up efforts to introduce dance education as a subject in the national school curriculum.
DANCE plays different roles in different cultures but it is primarily a form of expression and communication.
An education in the creative arts such as dance contributes to building cognitive capacities that develop 21st century skills including creativity, critical thinking, analytical ability, communication and collaboration.
While there is a burgeoning interest in dance education globally, the field is slow to gain momentum locally.
The National Department for Culture and Arts (JKKN) has an arts outreach programme in every state in the country, yet, dance education is not acknowledged by the state as being relevant in our national education planning.
It’s not an integral part of our education curriculum but only a co-curricular activity in the primary and secondary school curriculum.
Though there are currently five arts schools in Malaysia, with another expected to open in 2019, the education curriculum has also not met the standards for higher education at the tertiary level.
“Of all the arts courses in the country, dance education advocacy receives the lowest priority,” lamented Prof Dr Mohd Anis Md Nor, chair of the recently concluded Second International Conference on Dance Education (ICONDE 2018).
“They don’t realise that dancing requires the right and left brain to work, so it helps develop multiple intelligences.”
The Education Ministry’s emphasis is on boosting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses and producing more STEM graduates; the arts is often neglected.
“Children of the 21st century are expected to be open to the world and benefit from various information and cultural resources. The exposure to novel and attractive cultures, however, would jeopardise children losing appreciation of their own culture, and becoming passive receivers of such continuous flow of information without sufficient knowledge to evaluate it.
“The teaching of dance education should not only be devoted to personal creativity to enrich people’s lives, but also to enlighten our civilisation and industrial creativity to stimulate market activities and innovation,” he said.
Themed “The Spirit of Creativity in Dance Education”, ICONDE 2018 was held for the second time in Kuala Lumpur, after the success of the inaugural conference in 2014.
It was organised by Nusantara Performing Arts Research Center (NusPARC), the Faculty of Music and Performing Arts, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) and MyDance Alliance, and sponsored by JKKN.
During the conference, 29 local and international scholars and leading authorities on dance education presented a selection of papers that resonated strongly with Unesco’s emphasis on “how children learn” rather than “what children learn”.
Building cognitive skills
In her keynote address entitled What Is Dance Education? Why Is It Important?, Dr Jane Bonbright, the founding executive director of National Dance Education Organisation (NDEO USA) emphasised that dance has served as an educational tool since the beginning of mankind to teach beliefs and value systems, customs, rituals, history, tradition, and ideology.
“From birth, movement helps shape the brain. And the brain impacts everything we do, say, think, and become. Dance stems from movement which has been made expressive through applying basic physics. Simply put, physics explores bodies in motion, existing in the dimension of time, space, and energy/force.
“Dance has form and function, which is evident through characteristic movements, style, rhythm, and structure. Movement alone does not.
“Research shows that dance teaches specific sets of thinking skills that are rarely addressed elsewhere in the curriculum. Such skills include visual-spatial abilities, reflection, self-criticism, risk-taking, and the willingness to learn from mistakes – all important skills in life and work. If we include dance arts instruction in our curriculum, it should be justified in terms of what the arts can teach that no other subject can.”
She added that dance education is also important for the benefits associated with physical health, kinesthetic learning, cognitive development, creativity, student and academic achievement, social/cultural awareness, the affective domain, and for children-at-risk and multicultural populations.
In another keynote address, Dr Lauralee Zimmerly from Idaho State University, United States, noted that scientific research is validating what dance educators have known intuitively and practised all along – that dancing builds the cognitive capacities of the brain.
In The Power of Dance in Teaching and Learning is the Power of You, she said movement and cognition are powerfully connected, making movement education an effective cognitive strategy for educating youth.
Dr Zimmerly said, “Creativity is an essential power of humanity that makes us feel alive and is a function of intelligence, a function of our brain. It is exciting to see children wake up their creative capacities through art and to express what is inside of them.
“We all have the power to make a difference in the lives of our students, and reciprocally.
“As dance artists and educators, we understand the aesthetic value of dance expressions as knowledge imparted through the lived body and through the resonance created when we are co-present with other beings in space.”
Creating a peaceful community
Dance and music can also be used in peace building and conflict resolution, pointed out Dr Mumtaz Begum Aboo Backer and Dr Pravina Manoharan from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).
The duo carried out a project with Rohingya refugee children to provide a safe space and opportunity for them to create “peace communities”.
Despite being protected by UNHCR from being locked up by local authorities, these young children are still vulnerable and subject to forced child labour, harassment, rape and trafficking.
“Dance and music workshops are conducted on a fortnightly basis at the Peace Learning Centre Penang, founded by the USM School of Social Sciences.
“They help address emotional and social challenges of adapting to their new home, ease the trauma of displacement, regain self-confidence and create a sense of communal belonging.
“Preliminary findings reveal that the majority of these children demonstrate a keen interest in participating in the workshops. Children are more vocal and willing to participate in the various movement activities rather than engage in verbal conversations.
“Amidst all the uncertainties curtailing the future of these children, we hope that through the creation of peace communities using dance and music, these children will be able to find their voices, express themselves freely and cope better with their new surroundings,” they said when presenting their paper on Creating “Peace Communities” through Dance: A Project with Rohingya Refugee Children.
Presenters also discussed the various models of teaching dance to the masses.
According to a video presentation by Dr Yoav Kaddar from West Virginia University, United States, on Teaching Dance in the Digital Age, “Our ability to use the Internet to bring dance up close and personal to students in all its multitude of artistic and cultural facets is one that dance educators in the 21st century must embrace and use to their advantage.
“Online education has the potential to expand our face-to-face student teaching in the studio and conventional lecture halls, as well as to expand our audience in the concert halls.”
The conference also saw the launch of the Bahasa Malaysia version of Prof Emerita Dr Marcia Lloyd’s book, Creative Dance: A Manual for Teaching All Ages (Tarian Kreatif: Manual Pengajaran Untuk Semua Peringkat Umum).
It is aimed at all age groups and contains numerous lesson plans, illustrations and black and white photos.
There are also examples of “brain dance” activities to improve cognitive and motor behaviour amongst younger students.
“Every child is unique and has a unique brain. Creative dance is for children of all abilities, is non-competitive, and is a process of development that engages inquiring, thinking, sensing, observing, feeling, inventing, responding and evaluating. Nothing ever goes wrong when you teach creative dance! It can only be improved,” said the eminent scholar from Idaho State University, United States.
Dr Bonbright summed up the conference, “We carry the torch for dance education. It is our responsibility to glean as much information as possible in our lifetime, contribute to that knowledge base, and develop new pathways for the next generation to transform the field.
“In the interim, we may have to establish new or different professional associations as homes for the next generations to learn, thrive, and teach dance in ways not possible before.
“The NDEO had to do that in 1998, and that ‘movement’ catapulted the scope and depth of dance arts education forward – after 100 years of discussion and debate. That was our responsibility in the USA. That was our challenge. That is our collective charge for dance in the 21st century.”