Creative Dance Education: In Search of ‘Flexibility’ in ‘Limitation’
Translator: Lee Wan-ling Mary
As my work is related to the development of drama education in Hong Kong, interviewing dance educators and dance troupes has been to me a journey of exploration and revisit. The first decade after the millennium was a period in which new ideas and practices were introduced into the education system, when art education became one of the eight ‘Key Learning Areas’. Drama (pedagogy), dance, and media art were included and discussed in the curriculum guidelines for primary and secondary schools. Since then, many ‘pilot’, ‘seed’, and ‘arts-in-education’ programmes have been launched, overseas research tours organised, igniting researches and discussions of art education. During this period, I have come into contact with dance education in some of the seminars. Coming from a different profession, I was nevertheless reminded of many ‘familiar’ moments by the observations of the field’s situation and opinions offered by the interviewees here, which prompted me to unearth documents of art education curriculum, research reports and lesson plans collected over a dozen years ago, those to be reviewed for piecing together the exodus of the exploration of dance education.
The interviewees are Catherine Yau, Mimi Lo, Julianna Ho, and from Unlock Dancing Plaza (hereinafter referred to as Unlock): Ong Yonglock (Artistic Director), Joseph Lee (Associate Artistic Director), Michael Li (Project Manager) and Tiffany Ko (Outreach Officer). Some of them have worked as dance instructors in tertiary, secondary, primary education institutes, and kindergarten for many years, possessing rich teaching experience. Catherine started teaching a bachelor’s course in dance, culture, and creativity a decade ago; Julianna and Mimi teach at the School of Dance of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts; while the Unlock team has been developing ‘Bodynamics’, a series of creative dance lessons since 2018, inspired by Japanese dance educator Chiyoe Matsumoto’s pedagogy.
In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, many dance courses or projects had to proceed in other forms. Online learning became a popular option. The interviewees admitted that they had been thinking more about the relationship between media application and dance instruction, such as the use of video shots and continuity, reduction of lesson participants, more meticulously tailored syllabus, the use of household items as creative materials, etc. Yet they all agreed that these were just expedient measures in the segregated environment of the pandemic. Taking advantage of the opportunity, they tried some things they did not normally do. For example, Catherine participated in a group project of the City Contemporary Dance Company, researching digital sharing platforms related to art education; by her own initiative, Julianna invited guests from different sectors to online sharing sessions to broaden horizons. Her guests came from the fields of drama education, dance therapy, Japanese dance education, etc. While digitisation and mediatisation are the future trends, the interviewees opined that whether these ideas inspired during the pandemic would develop further depended on the combined effort of the industry. The pandemic seems to have brought the world to a halt, allowing people to reflect on the past, connect the present, and develop the future. With the contemplation inspired by the pandemic, the interviewees examined the progress and development of dance education. The art education concept and research implemented in local schools at the beginning of the millennium will serve as the analytical framework of this essay, main purpose of which is not to discuss dance education in schools but to revisit the framework for the exploration and study of drama and dance education through the progress of art education since the education reform, so as to analyse the possibilities of the local development of dance education.
Dance Education and Creative Dance
This discussion is specifically focused on creative dance, the main reason being none of the interviewees emphasise the teaching of techniques in dance education, a direction which is student-oriented. There are relevant curriculum indicators for reference from other regions. Instead of the training and presentation of professional dance techniques, creative dance centres on exploration, encouraging students to respond corporeally to external stimuli such as sound, visual, speech, physical imitation, etc., based on individual characteristics and experiences, often involving group interaction. The process is not purely imaginative, but about the absorption, application, selection, and organisation of knowledge. This encouragement of the exploration of dance in the form of physical autonomy instead of training according to the skill sets of different genres, is similar to the education reform policy which has been proposed in Hong Kong since the 1990s: The shift of focus from instructor- to student-oriented, activity-based or experiential education. The objective is to cultivate creativity, communication and collaboration, and multi-perspective thinking, with the emphasis on the individuality of students and the ability to collaborate and communicate with different people when they look towards the society and the world. This diverse, inclusive, and individualistic take on education ran parallel to the world trend. In 2002, Hui Ming-fai Margaret, then Deputy Dean of School of Foundations in Education of the School of Continuing and Professional Education, published, with her research team, Enhancing Education Quality Through the Arts: An Investigation of Effective Models of Arts Program for Hong Kong Schools, commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Introduced in the report was the implementation of education reform policy and art-based principle in the area of dance education:
The famous dance educator Geraldine Dimondstein points out that dance education in schools must be conceived from the concept and perspective of the arts, instead of stopping short at the improvement of dance techniques or treating dance as a contest. Dance within the entire education system can cultivate students’ coordination of body movements, sense of rhythm and graceful body postures, and promote understanding and appreciation of themselves and others, as well as the cultural uniqueness in dance, integrating dance and the other art forms in the melody, rhythm, and physicality of dance…
However, all interviewees expressed that they had encountered many difficulties in the local implementation of this kind of open and autonomous dance education.
Difficulties and Limitations
Constrained by the popular conception of dance which focuses on technique, precision of arrangement, and costume design, the expectation for dance education is to accomplish, through adherence to the dance instructor’s choreography and instructions, with rehearsal or drilling, the completion of a work of dance. It does not necessarily involve discussion with students about creative ideas or structure; as long as it is aesthetically and technically challenging, students are happy to take it all in. In creative dance, there is neither distinction between genres nor standard footwork. Instead, the instructor guides the students to explore and create with their bodies. For many, this abstract ‘dance genre’ may be difficult to comprehend. The Unlock team and Catherine revealed that many people knew nothing about and had never heard of creative dance. Also, many dance courses have performances and contests in view, ‘delivering’ whatever is needed for performance. As the demand for creative dance is relatively low, there is less room for development, making it difficult for practitioners to establish a long-term curriculum framework.
The interviewees concurred that professionally trained dancers did not necessarily possess a pedagogic mindset and methodology. Dance education used to be an elective course at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts; and dance instructors often taught in the conventional way of their past dance training through demonstration or footwork practice. Mimi and Julianna recalled being introduced to creative dance at the Academy, but they thought it was a way to elevate dance techniques like the way exercises did. They only gradually realised, after graduation, that the essence of creative dance was not the enhancement of technique. In addition, creative dance requires the instructor to develop students’ use of the body and exploration of movement through guidance, which involves the practice of a pedagogy that does not happen overnight. Some dancers work as instructors for a livelihood without a particular passion for education and may not invest that much time on the concepts and techniques of teaching.
When asked what they expected of creative dance instructors, the interviewees agreed unanimously that they have to believe in the idea behind creative dance. To the Unlock team, instructors do not have to be dance practitioners; while having the ability to use the body flexibly is one requirement, it is more important that the instructors embrace an open and exploratory teaching method. They regard it more crucial for the instructors to hold this belief and be able to practice it. That is why some instructors may have other professional qualifications in, for example, social work, drama, etc.
Mimi and Julianna used to be instructors of the Hong Kong programme of Cloud Gate Dance School. They complimented its rich resources and talents, the systematic development of courses and the clear and precise teaching plans. The teaching and research team included professionals from education, physical education, psychology, and art, etc., and the curriculum was evaluated and revised regularly. Before acting as instructors, Mimi and Julianna attended workshops and learned from their Taiwanese peers, who also observed their lessons and provided feedback. Comparing these to her prior teaching experience, Mimi found that the content of the teaching plan and feedback from the peers provided her with concepts and frameworks to deconstruct and digest the course material, which was helpful for reflecting on what she had learned. She and Julianna lamented that this kind of pre-service and on-the-job support were too far behind in Hong Kong.
Capture Every Little Thing and Look for Change
There are limited exchange opportunities among the dance education practitioners. The interviewees said that most of the course contents were taught and designed individually. Catherine has experience in designing school syllabus. When she first came into this, things were still in the exploratory stage; there was no available teaching materials for reference, and dancers had little knowledge in designing and planning teaching materials, forcing her into the tight corner of ‘going there alone’. As some dance troupes would provide tips to the instructors teaching at schools for the first time, she hoped that experienced dance troupes could provide more pre-service training. For programmes involving different schools and different instructors, Mimi hoped that the dance troupes would communicate with the instructors about the progress and teaching condition in the initial, middle and closing stages of the programmes so that instructors could better understand and improve communication. The interviewees have attempted different ways to open up exchange. Unlock’s classes were taught by two instructors. This not only allowed them to demonstrate the diversity of creative movements to students, but also for their exchange of observations and ideas before and after class, albeit the cost of having two instructors would be higher and coordination necessary, as sometimes differences in ideas of teaching would arise. In Julianna’s studio, instructors were paid for joining pre-employment training workshops. The aim, in addition to protection of the livelihood of her colleagues, was to generate greater motivation for learning. The Unlock team invited colleagues to share and discuss their teaching experiences, but different goals and orientations might have hindered further discussions. It wished to organise another round of the ‘Children Creative Movement Forum: A Case Sharing on Hong Kong, Japan & Canada’, which was held online in January 2021, to focus on specific topics based on the experience gained from this round.
In addition to enhance the mindset and skill of teaching, the effort of the interviewees has also allowed the public and even the dance field to further imagine the potential of dance. In the courses offered by the Department of Cultural and Creative Arts, The Education University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University, Catherine shared with students the diversity of dance, such as the aesthetics of Butoh, dance and disability, community dance, allowing them to create under different themes. As for professional dancers or dance instructors, she believed that imaginations of dance and teaching could be linked together. For example, there is a similarity between the use of space and the way of guiding dancers in choreography and the teaching methods used in dance education. They differ only in their approaches. Linking dance knowledge with concepts of education might create a resonance among dancers. In recent years, Julianna has integrated dance as a teaching method in general school subjects and experimented with a set of learning experiences concerning ‘learning, experiencing, performing, discovering’, exposing teachers and students more to dance. The Unlock team reflected on the individual-oriented dance, defining dance in terms of the uniqueness of the body, liberating learners from institutionalised dance aesthetics. The public participatory project ‘#danceless’ promoted and deepened the diversity of dance. Mimi's contact improvisation project presented different aesthetics to the public and the dance field. She hoped that more recurring performance and sharing would unravel the established concepts of dance or community dance.
Gather the Fragments and Recreate Meaning
With a background in drama education, as I listened to the interviewees’ narration and reminiscence, I felt familiar and was reminded of the twenty-year journey of integrating drama education into Hong Kong, when occasionally I encountered elements of dance. Conceptually speaking, creative dance is similar to drama education. Both are open, active, and exploratory learning. Drama education also calls for bodily expression and creation. Whenever I hear the difficulties and limitations faced by the interviewees, I cannot but wonder how these past encounters might be gathered, whether any meaning remained of all the art education researches and experiments done during the education reform.
The opinion of the interviewees is that openness and self-exploration, in concept and in teaching practice, is uncommon in the dance field. In addition, performance- and contest-oriented dance lessons and the serious lack of teaching materials have hindered the exploration of teaching and development of a holistic curriculum. This is similar to the initial development of the integration of drama education into school curricula. Back then, some schools wanted to experiment with the open and exploratory learning of drama pedagogy to replace the direct teaching model of the past. At different developmental stage of the education reform, I carried out projects on specific subjects or themes at primary, secondary schools and kindergartens, such as teachers’ workshops, lesson preparation with individual teachers, classroom demonstration/co-teaching/class observation, after-class feedback, and evaluation. This type of support programmes transferred the knowledge and techniques of drama education (pedagogy) to teachers, directed at both voluntary and mandatory participants from schools of different cultures and orientations, the hybrid nature of which indeed increased the difficulty of transformation. Without available materials, drama practitioners could only look for overseas curricula or refer to the framework of the Education Bureau. Such experiences informed me that it took time for transformation. It is the art educators’ responsibility to study the materials, put them into a communicable ‘language’, and learn as much as possible about the system and culture of the teaching site. With this in mind, I searched for materials of local dance education, hoping to find new perspectives and possibilities for study.
Since the beginning of the educational reform in the millennium, artists have cooperated with schoolteachers and principals to foster mutual understanding and collision of ideas. I have also participated in some of the planning and training work. At the beginning of the millennium, there was a lot of curricula researches and framework building in the area of dance education, such as the collaboration between the Physical Education Section, Curriculum Development Institute, Education Bureau and the Hong Kong Institute of Education (now the Education University of Hong Kong) on research on dance education, conducted by a team headed by Dr. Chow Pui-yu Lina to counter the lack of dance teaching materials. According to the Collected Transcripts of Dance Education Conference 2001, the ‘Integrated Dance Curriculum Development Project’, begun in 2000, included teaching materials for creative dance, social dance, street dance, etc. The project, from preparation to fruition, took more than two years, and involved sixteen secondary and primary schools. Part of the research results was published in printed and digital formats and are available for online viewing and download. The following are excerpts of the examples from the same teaching materials, to illustrate the ideas of teaching content and methods provided by these materials.
Dance Learning and Teaching Package: Creative Dance, pp.9-11 (excerpt of exact wording from the source)
Example 1: Space – Aerial Pathways and Shapes
Upon completion of the lesson, students should be able to:
• Express body shape or level of contrast for each movement
• Express control over effort
• Demonstrate different movement pathways
• Demonstrate clear starting and ending poses
Learning level: Primary school (Level 1)
Number of lessons: 4
Life source / Creation concept: Paper airplane
Above is an excerpt of the creative dance teaching plan example. It is compiled in the form of a course outline with objectives, processes, and simple steps of the learning content, and instructions on the use of classroom space and classroom management. It suggests a fixed model that begins with the body in combination with dynamics, space, and relationship, organising the myriad details into learning objectives, with each lesson taking an individual element as learning focus and ascending levels of difficulty. The students begin with observation before experimenting movement. Through observing each other (peer learning), the students explore, deduce, and create works with the airplane as the theme. However, this example provides few instructions on how to guide and facilitate exploration (i.e., verbal instructions in class), and lacks specific question constructions. There is room to discuss and experiment with the details of this outline. For instance, dance instructors may form small study teams in which different teaching methods are practiced and where languages of teaching and modes of teacher-student interaction may be explored; or by Microteaching, i.e., one plays the role of instructor while the rest that of students, taking turns so each instructor may execute his or her own ideas for further discussion.
Regarding the lack of experienced creative dance teachers suggested by the interviewees, while the above package is written for schoolteachers and is relatively simple, such ready-made examples can be the starting point from which dance instructors further study, hence solving the problem of the lack of pedagogical designs and materials. Teachers can focus instead on class organisation, discussion or experimentation on the use of instructions and questions, class management and interaction; working from these teaching techniques and details in turn triggers reflections on the learning materials and design. When I introduced knowledge and technique of drama education to school teachers, I found that there could be many reasons for teachers to flounder: Incomplete activity process due to unfamiliarity with the content, rigid adherence to steps hence neglection of students’ reactions and their failure to coordinate, inexperience with classroom management in the form of physical expression activities hence the uneasiness about students’ moving around, direct instructions instead of guidance to students to self-explore through questions… These details not only reflect teaching qualifications and experience or understanding of the ideas involved, but also the teacher’s attitude towards education, children, manners, teacher-student relationship, and so on.
Based on individual qualities, the facilitator has to be flexible when providing guidance to improving teaching techniques. Giving prompts to teachers with exploratory teaching experience as they teach or helping with the teaching plans and operating instructions during after-class evaluation, often lead to rapid progress. Teachers with less experience or confident in activity-based teaching benefit more with static games as they can familiarise themselves with the operation and instruction methods. By encouraging them to observe the students’ reactions and give response, gradually they may let go of their mental barriers and be more willing to try. There is no good or bad, high or low among the many teaching methods; demonstration and oral guidance are two points on the same spectrum. During on-site support, demonstrations are sometimes used as the main method for transformation. Some teachers pick up the essence just by observation, while some miss the point and only imitate mechanically the external conditions. Postponing evaluation to feedback sessions without providing immediate assistance in the classroom may mean missing the opportunity of forceful follow-up based on the specific situation of the teaching site. It is apparent that discussions about teaching should be meticulous and down-to-earth. The analysis and deconstruction of the lesson is another important element in the transformation of knowledge and techniques, which is also conducive to the establishment and extension of the curricula, since teaching is both the tree and the forest, and related to the progression of lessons from shallow to deep. Between levels, the linkage of units also forms the prototype of a curriculum, while the content can be derived from the overall context to become individual teaching plan designs, being all interrelated.
Other than lesson plans, the relevant curriculum structure introduced during the education reform is more specifically explained in Intelligent Moves: Dance Education Handbook (hereinafter referred to as the Handbook) published in 2003. Part of the ‘School Dance Education Research and Development Project’ by Hong Kong Dance Alliance in collaboration with the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, it was researched and written by Chan Chung-ying Anna and translated by Sze Tak-on Cecil. Based on the ‘four learning targets of art education’ recommended by the Curriculum Development Institute of the Education Bureau, the learning and teaching package includes four levels of learning activity examples. The four learning targets are: Developing Creativity and Imagination, Developing Skills & Processes, Cultivating Art Appreciation, and Understanding Arts in Context. Examples follow the format prescribed by the Art Education Curriculum of the Curriculum Development Institute, i.e., from the four learning targets (see table, first column), extending to the various learning objectives (second column), elucidated by examples of activities (third column) and teaching examples (fourth column). These teaching examples (including processes and steps), designed on the ‘Three Key Learning Processes: Appreciating, Performing and Creating’ methodology, are non-linear and can be rearranged in order and frequency according to the learning objective. The Handbook also illustrates one teaching example (ranging from two to five hours) for each level. This kind of curriculum framework which derives learning objectives, activities, and teaching examples from learning targets in a way that they are interrelated, is worth studying in terms of analysing whether the selection of content, processes and steps correspond to the relevant learning objectives and targets. The following table is excerpted from the Handbook, listing only the learning objectives (second column) of the teaching examples (fourth column). There are still a large number of learning objectives without examples. It is hoped that colleagues dedicated to dance education would continue to develop and research into it.
Intelligent Moves: Dance Education Handbook – Suggested Dance Education Framework for Level One (excerpt of exact wording from the source)
Convergence and Divergence, Creating Endless Possibilities
The transformation of teaching techniques and thinking is often regarded as merely a formal shift. However, the ‘paradigm shift’ proposed by science historian Thomas S. Kuhn does not only refer to the transformation of knowledge and method, but also the understanding and execution of theories, examples, standards, and concepts in different professions. To identify a target for transformation requires multi-party understanding and cooperation. The diversity of dance suggested by the interviewees requires regular discussions and sharing sessions to educate the practitioners and the public. Practitioners have few exchange opportunities, while different objectives hinder the sustainability of discussions. Having organised many large and small drama education seminars, I understand that at the beginning each has his or her own interpretation from which the moderator may not be able to draw connections or inspire thinking. The different ideas and stand points may even lead to antagonism or silence during exchange. Yet seminars and sharing sessions can bring fellow practitioners together, make visible practices and thinking, and facilitate understanding within the field. Regular interviews or observation reports of teaching projects, given sufficient time and combing, will eventually bring directions for planning and discussion on to the radar screen. The pandemic opened up many possibilities for discussion with overseas art practitioners as well as improvements of technical equipment. All this should be further developed.
Both developing and long-term dance education projects are opportunities to encourage study among teaching teams. Since the launch of the Arts Capacity Development Funding Scheme by the Home Affairs Bureau, some art groups and artists have used it as an opportunity to research on and enhance the skills of art practitioners. So how is dance education promoted? Seen from the previous projects participated by the interviewees, I found that there are few train-the-trainer courses on top of short-term, on-site support programmes, a situation which affects the transformation of dance education into knowledge and skills and the formation of a knowledge construction framework. This may be attributed to resource allocation and market demand. Formulating medium- and long-term dance education projects will not only allow experienced dance instructors to establish teaching theories and practice frameworks, but also enrich the establishment of a teaching ‘language’, which is not restricted to teaching instructions and compilation of lesson plans but includes dance scores, generalised practices/activities, and spatial use in the construction of teaching sites.
Furthermore, in the process of collecting data, it is found that little literature on local dance education is available. Documents such as research reports and guidelines are scattered in different corners, in public or university libraries where some publications can only be consulted onsite, while some are nowhere to be found except from my own bookcase. Will tracing the dance education development in Hong Kong be a matter of concern to the field? I recall how drama education (later referred to as applied drama/theatre) was promoted during education reform, when specialised organisations were set up for promotion and research, the education/outreach departments of theatre companies received more attention, Master’s courses opened at the Hong Kong Art School and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. The emphasis of audience participation/co-creation in contemporary theatre also led to the shift from the discussion of the social functions of drama education/applied theatre to that of aesthetic theories, topics, and methodologies. Some interviewees expressed the hope that dance education could be promoted by more full-time practitioners or organisations. As most writings on dance education are found in specialised publications, one should opt for a ‘separated or combined’ development, out of considerations for progress, strategy, or cultural background. The ‘Dance Arts Education/Research Collation Grant’ recently launched by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council encourages dance practitioners to develop new research and teaching materials. Will this allow the above-mentioned, different forms and fragments to be gradually gathered, condensed, and converged, breaking through the quandary?
 Kong Shumei, Zhu Lilian, Wu Wangru, Zhang Quancheng, Training Reference Material for Arts and Humanities Learning Area. (Taipei: National Taiwan Arts Education Center, 2009).
 Hui Ming-fai Margaret, Ng Heung-sang, Li Pak-hung, Yu Wu Yuet-wah Ruth, Leung Chi-cheung, Rebecca Cheung and others and others, Enhancing Education Quality through the Arts: An Investigation of Effective Models of Arts Program for Hong Kong Schools, ed. Hui Ming-fai Margaret (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Arts Development Council, 2002), 38.
Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, Dance (Version 8.4), accessed 2 November 2021, https://australiancurriculum.edu.au/f-10-curriculum/the-arts/dance/
Chan, Chung-ying Anna. Intelligent Moves: Dance Education Handbook. Translated by Sze Tak-On Cecil. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Dance Alliance, 2003.
Cheung, Kit-ying Natalie. ‘From the Editor – The Teachers’ Splendid Attire: Ideas on Training and Support at the Teaching Site.’ In Collection of Pedagogical Models for Pre-school Drama Education (in Chinese), edited by Chow Chiu-lun, Tam Shui-keung, Cheung Kit-ying Natalie, 11-13. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, 2016.
Fong, Yan, ‘A Study Report with Unconstructive Conclusions – Several Responses to A Comparative Study on the Dance Education of New York.’ In dance journal/hk 3-4, April-May 2001, 5-6. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Dance Alliance, 2001.
Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Proceedings of Dance Education Symposium 2001: with index of dance education practitioners and organisations (in Chinese). Hong Kong: Hong Kong Arts Development Council, 2002.
Physical Education Section, Curriculum Development Institute, Education Bureau. Dance Learning and Teaching Package – Creative Dance, accessed 2 November 2021, https://resources.hkedcity.net/resource_detail.php?rid=1694373526.
Pun, Siu-fai, ‘Comparative Study on the Dance Education of New York.’ In dance journal/hk 3-2, February-March 2001. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Dance Alliance, 2001, 2-6.
Hui, Ming-fai Margaret, Ng, Heung-sang, Li, Pak-hung, Yu, Wu Yuet-wah Ruth, Leung, Chi-cheung, Cheung, Rebecca, and others. Enhancing Education Quality through the Arts: An Investigation of Effective Models of Arts Program for Hong Kong Schools, edited by Hui Ming-fai Margaret. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Arts Development Council, 2002.
Kong, Shumei, Zhu, Lilian, Wu, Wangru, Zhang, Quancheng. Training Reference Material for Arts and Humanities Learning Area. Taipei: National Taiwan Arts Education Center, 2009.
Catherine Yau shared with students the diversity of dance in her class. Image courtesy of Wong Bing Lai Music and Performing Arts Unit, Lingnan University.
Finale performance of Let Our Hearts Integrated By Dance presented by Mimi Lo. Photographer: Jeff Ng. Image courtesy of Mimi LO Performing Arts Development Foundation.
Workshop for families hosted at a primary school by Rice Journey Studio. Image courtesy of Rice Journey Studio.
‘Bodynamics’ by Unlock Dancing Plaza. Photographer: John Wen. Image courtesy of Unlock Dancing Plaza.