When I entered full-time vocational dance training in 1979, it wasn’t the complex, wide ranging and thorough learning experience it is today – mostly we just danced – however we were occasionally asked to use brains without bodies. On one of these occasions, we were asked to consider what I now know to be a well-worn conundrum, but at the tender age of 17, it was new to me:
It is the end of the world. A spaceship is taking off to start a new human colony on a distant but suitable planet. There are only 12 places available, and the powers-that-be are interviewing representatives from each profession, who must convince them of their worth for inclusion to help build this brave new world. How would you argue your case as a dancer?
The reason this event sticks in my mind, is because it seemed obvious to me that any sane dancer or choreographer would stand aside to make way for more useful people such as doctors, teachers, farmers, construction workers and the like.
It seemed a strange way to introduce a group of keen young students to the arduous training for their chosen career: by pointing out that career is ultimately useless, futile and selfish!
With the glorious arrogance of youth, however, this didn’t seem to put me off, and I danced and choreographed until my mid 40s. There was a crossover, though, with the career I have today – teaching, writing, training, speaking and yes, sometimes still performing.
When I re-consider that conundrum today, it makes me ponder the nature of learning, of employment and of expertise. It’s still true that being able to dance is not the greatest of contributions to society – but I use the skill set its grounding gave me in every aspect of my life: spatial awareness; balance; trust; taking direction and criticism; observation; analysis; co-operation; respect; flexibility; a sense of rhythm – the list goes on, and crucially underpinning it all, is a real sense of self, self in relation to others and the joy, tragedy and fragility of life.
An education in any field can enable a person to carry out a set of tasks – essentially to do a job – but doing a job is not who you are, finding out who you are and finding out how to be on this planet with its other occupants, finding a place for yourself – that needs more than good test results.
There seems to be an increasing onus on a successful education being one that leads to employability – and yet the employment isn’t there for our youth. Expertise can be hugely successful within a narrow field of focus, and yet to be able to pass on that expertise requires a broader range of abilities.
It is now a cliché that we don’t know what the future landscape of employment will be – what jobs will be available to / required of the children who are entering their educational lives today – but it’s a truism that no matter what their chosen specialism, they stand a better chance with a broad and deep set of transferable skills.
The Arts are one of the places where these skills can be cheerfully achieved – but it’s an uncertain future for all Arts Education when our children are encouraged not ‘to be’ but to put all their emphasis on ‘to do’.