Reframing arguments about the value of contemporary dance: putting creativity at the centre of dance

In This Article


This paper is based on the Ausdance Peggy Van Praagh Memorial Address which I delivered at the World Dance Alliance Global Summit in Brisbane in July 2008, the eighth in the series which began in 1991. 

The Ausdance Dame Peggy van Praagh Memorial Addresses have become an important event for the professional Australian dance community, heard or read by scores of colleagues and dance scholars. Previous speakers have included Li Cunxin, Marilyn Rowe, Ross Stretton, Meryl Tankard, Keith Bain, Peter Brinson and Shirley McKechnie, all of whose lectures can be found at on this Ausdance website.

The present paper extends the arguments about the value of contemporary dance to Australia put forward in that address and frames them within the context of an increasingly prevalent creative industries discourse. At one level, the major challenge for contemporary dance is the same as that for all other performing arts sectors. It can be described in a single word: sustainability. The challenge of sustainability for contemporary dance spans education, policy, and cultural attitudes towards dance.

Drawing upon accounts of contemporary dance as they are expressed in policy and academia, I argue that the notion of creativity should be at the centre of future debates about the value of contemporary dance. In this respect, I am arguing that we need to take a broad-based approach to the sustainability of contemporary dance and leverage creative industries discourse to promote the value of contemporary dance for its intrinsic, cultural, and economic benefits.

Dance and the rise and rise of Creative Industries

The recent rise of creative industries as a policy and economic category can scarcely escape the attention of anybody even remotely connected with the performing arts sectors. The UK Department for Culture, Media, and Sport defines the creative industries as

those industries that are based on individual creativity, skill and talent. They are also those that have the potential to create wealth and jobs through developing intellectual property. 1

Henrik van der Pol, Director of UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, confirms the growing importance of the creative industries from an economic perspective:

Organisations and… economic regions that embrace creativity generate significantly higher revenue and provide greater stability into the future.[[Hendrik van der Pol, ‘Key Role of Cultural and Creative Industries in the Economy’ in Statistics, Knowledge and Policy 2007: Measuring and Fostering the Progress of Societies (OECD Publishing
2008), Chapter 23.]]

Van der Pol notes the expansive scope of the benefits that a healthy and growing creative industries sector brings to developed and developing societies alike:

…the creative economy straddles economic, political, social, cultural and technological issues and is at the crossroads of the arts, business and technology. It is unique in that it relies on an unlimited global resource: human creativity. 2

Such definitions of "creative economies" provide a broad base for arguing the benefits of having a sustainable performing arts sector. Rather than having to argue in one-dimensional ways for either economic, cultural, or intrinsic benefits of contemporary dance, we now have a much larger palette from which to draw when framing arguments for contemporary dance in policy, education, and culture more broadly.

By putting creativity at the centre of our disciplinary discourse, we are able to argue across these fields of concern to generate interest and activity in the continuing struggle to achieve sustainability for contemporary dance in Australia.

As an economic powerhouse of the future, the figures for creative industries are impressive. As van der Pol notes, entertainment and media industries are “forecast to grow from $1.3 trillion in 2005 to reach 1.8 trillion by 2010”, the “growth of the cultural and creative sector in the European Union from 1999 – 2003 was 12.3% higher than the growth of the overall economy”, and “employed at least 5.8 million people in Europe in 2004”.

These are compelling figures for those who wish to argue the economic benefits of supporting creative pursuits. But they present contemporary dance with other challenges: what is the place of contemporary dance in Australian economy, education, and culture? What is its standing in the Australian creative industries more generally? What combination of elements might go towards making contemporary dance a sustainable industry sector?

The typically broad (and sometimes confused) definitions of creativity and creative industries are both an opportunity and a challenge for advocates of contemporary dance in Australia. This is compounded by what Katherine Papas identifies as a core paradox in the development of audiences for contemporary dance:

When you look at the participation level in dance as a recreational art form, it’s enormous… And yet contemporary dance often struggles for audiences, particularly in the small to medium sector… It becomes an advocacy exercise for the whole industry to try and open up other avenues of dialogue and seek other avenues for funding and resourcing the arts. 3

Yet at the same time, dance programing in the Australian mass media is clearly on the up, with So You Think You Can Dance (1.3 million weekly viewers) and Dancing with the Stars (1.47 million weekly viewers) consistently topping ratings during their 2008 seasons on Australian television. 4

While this is clearly good news for dance in Australia, the paradoxes that Katherine Papas identifies indicate that, even while mass participation and mass audiences are realities for dance, small and medium sized contemporary dance companies continue to struggle in the sustainability stakes. Moreover, the place of dance in creative industries discourse is clearly marginal. It tends to get lumped together in policy with puppetry, music, theatre, and performing arts, 5 all of which have vastly differing demands for sustainability. As Kadva Mitchell notes, “Dance is always at the bottom of funding figures” for creative industries. 6

However, as the policy emphasis on creativity as an economic and cultural force continues to grow, and while dance continues its popular renaissance in mass media, we have ample opportunity to carve out a sustainable future for dance based on the various ways in which dance contributes to our creative life. Rather than bemoan the currently lowly place of dance in creative industries discourse (or indeed the rise of creative industries’ discourse more generally), we have the opportunity to leverage the movement to reinforce the very fundamental place of dance in promoting and sustaining creativity more generally.

Contemporary dance: last legs or art form for the 21st century?

Significant among the challenges for contemporary dance in Australia is the dangerous perception that it is fast becoming irrelevant; that small to medium size companies are disappearing, that we are nurturing fewer emerging choreographers, that less work is being produced, and that audience numbers are therefore declining.

These challenges are also expressed in a narrow policy environment that is investing in Australian contemporary dance, which current interdisciplinary research is assisting to broaden in scope by looking at dance audiences. 7

There appears to have been a myth created around the significant restructuring of the dance profession in the 1990s, when small companies lost funding, a flood of dance graduates could not find jobs, funding was entirely inadequate, and policy mechanisms were not responsive to the new reality. Contemporary dance was portrayed by the media to be drab and uninspiring, and those choreographers who chose to stay in the business had a decade of struggle for recognition in a severely competitive and unsupportive environment.

The hardship of the 1990s was met by a flood of reports, summits, and recommendations. 8 While such papers gave a clear picture of what was occurring, they received little response from our political leaders in terms of support, recognition, or policy action.

In the meantime, the profession was getting on with it, and there is now much to celebrate artistically–a group of talented, switched-on younger choreographers has emerged who are relating to audiences, building a fan base, and are encouraged by new Federal Government investment. There are now approximately 50 companies and groups active in Australia, and over 200 choreographers contributing to innovative Australian dance. 9 In 2006, 10% of the population aged 15 years and over attended dance performances, with 26% of these attending twice, and 1.3 million viewers regularly watched So You Think You Can Dance. 10

There is still a long way to go, but the Australia Council has responded with new opportunities for contemporary dance, its funding structures are more sympathetic, and there have been favourable policy adjustments which provide better and more transparent access to funding.

David McAllister, Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet, Dominique Fisher, Chair of the Australia Council’s Dance Fund, and Sue Street on the stage of Brisbane’s Cremorne Theatre preparing for Sue’s Peggy van Praagh Memorial Address, 14 July 2008. Photo: Julie Dyson

The outstanding work done by Robin Grove, Catherine Stevens and Shirley McKechnie into the relationship between choreographer and audience requires ongoing exploration. 11 They show that audiences often feel ill-equipped to observe and translate abstract or non-linear narrative dance works. Too much dance continues to be made without the audience in mind. The sad reality is that work that is made as a vehicle dedicated to displaying dance rather than as a vehicle of artistic expression leaves audiences feeling that choreographers have little to say.

The great Australian choreographer Lloyd Newson, whose work To Be Straight With You premiered in Australia at the Adelaide Festival in 2008, took 18 months to create the work and his research for the idea started well before that. Sadly the level of support and funding required for such careful and sustained preparation is not often made available to artists in Australia. Fresh, passionate and transformative artists need room to breathe, experiment, and grow. Good art takes time.

To Be Straight With You, Lloyd Newson’s vigorously confronting work on bigotry and intolerance for his company DV8 (2008). Photo: Matt Nettheim

Our two most prominent contemporary dance companies, Sydney Dance Company and Australian Dance Theatre based in Adelaide, have for years been financially unstable despite their local and international successes. One response might be a merger between the two. Pooling resources might allow dancers to be employed year round and give choreographers larger casts of dancers to work with.

Or we could diversify the funding pool and decentralise. To address the challenges of sustainability, the French government set up over 20 well-funded choreographic centres across the country as incubators for new work, and to drive interest and interaction with the local community. 12 It is a highly successful model of decentralisation, and one that keeps French dance at the cutting edge of contemporary practice.

Cathy Hunt and Phyllida Shaw suggest that a Future Fund for the Arts be established:

As well as injecting significant new investment into the sector every year, a Future Fund for the Arts would free up the existing agencies to concentrate on supporting artistic production and promoting the value of the arts to all Australians. 13

Such a fund could be used not only to fund new work, but to expand research into the factors that contribute to the sustainability of the arts on an ongoing basis. Dance is in a great position to benefit from such innovative investment, with the newly released Dance 2012 action plan stating that by 2012 we will have:

  • more excellent and innovative Australian dance
  • more opportunities to see and participate in Australian dance
  • dance as an integral part of every young person’s education
  • a range of sustainable careers for dance artists. 14

If we can make these things happen, dance will be well positioned as a creative art form for the 21st century. As the critic Deborah Jones says “we have been thinking too small about dance – this is something we’re really good at”. 15 What is required is bigger thinking: an extension of creative industries approaches into policy, practice, and education where contemporary dance is concerned.

By bringing interdisciplinary approaches from education, business, marketing, and psychology into synthesis with best practice and thinking in dance, we stand a good chance at ensuring the relevance, sustainability, and success of contemporary dance in Australia over the long term. Of course, all of this requires success in establishing dance as an important part of the curriculum—the long term sustainability of dance demands that our children experience dance as participants, which brings us to the issue of education.


Art… cannot become a language, and hence an experience, unless it is practised. To the man [sic] who plays, a mechanical reproduction of music may mean much, since he already has the experience to assimilate. But where reproduction becomes the norm, the few music makers will grow more isolated and sterile, and the ability to experience music will disappear. The same is true with cinema, dance, and even sport. 16

The above comments by Waldo Frank are made at the historical point during which a mass mediated cultural sphere was emerging on the back of radio, film, and the phonograph. His point is no less valid today, especially in the context of the arts in Australia. Education is a critical area where broader thinking and new arguments about the value of contemporary dance would advance the sector as a whole, especially in terms of widespread participation.

Our traditional ways of educating and training dancers need to change. We have for too long structured learning environments for elite performance outcomes knowing that only a miniscule percentage of students are likely to continue training to elite levels, or indeed be good enough to succeed at elite levels.

Less than one percent of all children—mostly girls—who study dance, will ever derive their primary living from it. Dance in contemporary life, however, is a much more encompassing and popular artform, and harnessing this activity, and the corollary identification with dance through the education system, is vital. To paraphrase Waldo Frank: personal participation in an art form is essential for its appreciation. Therefore if we want bigger and better audiences for contemporary dance, we need to maximise participation.

Our teaching effort over past decades represents a huge lost opportunity for all those (the vast majority) who did not make it to the top. And many among that vast majority feel a sense of failure, failure that their dream of becoming a dancer was not realised. Rarely does dance classroom learning link with learning and knowledge outside the studio, and therefore the rich opportunity for young people to learn about the world through dance is extinguished.

Compounding this is the lost opportunity to engage many more people in dance: adult learners and people of all ages who want to dance as a form of exercise or self-expression. We need to find ways to build the community of dance practice and to dispel the myth that dance is only suitable for a select few. As one teenager said, ‘I dance all weekend but would never consider taking dance as a subject at school’. 17

Most people dance, but the dance they do is outside the academy and usually to music outside the academy. Implicit in this youngster’s wisdom is a recognition that dance is primarily cultural and has only relatively recently begun its confinement to the rarefied realms of elite physical and intellectual pursuits.

Thankfully there has been a growth of dance activity in schools arising from curriculum developments, thereby extending arts practice from the once dominant forms of music and visual arts. However, the uptake and quality of the dance experience in our schools is patchy in terms of coverage, quality, and content. This is not surprising given the very small numbers of teachers who leave university with specialised dance teaching skills.

For those in middle or old age, there are very few ways to participate. There are pockets of activity where folk dance forms are practised, or where teenagers gather to practise popular culture dance forms like hip-hop. Social dance is gaining popularity especially since the rise of mass media dance programmes. But opportunities for novice dancers to learn and practise in large numbers, or in interesting and creative learning environments, remain few and far between. This represents a considerable lost opportunity for the dance sector.

On-line social networks like Facebook and YouTube are gathering and connecting largely amateur dance enthusiast of all ages. The dance clip titled Evolution of Dance on YouTube has been downloaded over 112 million times. 18 Swing dance is enjoying an online led resurgence with clubs across the world gathering for workshops and friendly competitions.

Many old dance forms and, importantly, old footage of these forms are surfacing through on-line networks. These are aspects of popular and media culture that we must, as a discipline, capitalise upon.

Within a broader dance education framework, Australia will of course continue to produce extraordinarily talented elite dancers. Dance teachers around the country have been nurturing talent to feed into our national school and intensive tertiary-level dance courses. For decades these courses have fed talent into our professional companies and to those based internationally. Australian-trained dancers are frequently credited and favoured for their physical strength, passion and ability to move through space.

Research into professional training methods in Australia, both old and new, could cement and give credibility to these achievements. Australia is well positioned to take a leadership role in research into teaching and learning for elite dance performers. And, clearly, elite dance would benefit from a broader, more robust, dance culture that identifies itself as such. It has long been demonstrated that amateur practices of the arts feed, support, and sustain professional artistic cultures.

With skills shortages predicted across most arts sectors in the coming years, the dance industry should also prepare for an almost inevitable lack of skilled professionals. Old claims that too many dancers were being produced across the country will be replaced with active and vocal support from the profession toward the tertiary sector to ensure that these relatively expensive courses survive and, indeed, that more are established.

This is only possible if a) demand is established through continued curriculum reform that promotes widespread participation in dance and b) there are clear career paths for dance professionals, whether in the elite realms of professional dance or in the education, health, and recreation sectors, all of which are gaining in importance as the general rubric of creativity continues its rise in political, economic, and cultural discourse.

As a community, we need to develop a sense of self-confidence about our achievements as educators. Why, for example, do some studio teachers continue to send their students overseas for dance training? There is a perception that overseas training centres are better than Australia’s. We need to promote the extraordinary and often international impact of Australian trained dancers—it’s an export success story. 19

Given Australia’s long and successful history in dance training, it is time for an Australian-based examination body to take over from the dominant Royal Academy of Dance (RAD). We do have the Australian Institute of Classical Dance and the Australian Dance Assessment Program but neither can compete with the RAD. Annually, hundreds of thousands of dollars are sent to the United Kingdom for the administration of exams. This is wasteful and unnecessary. There is no barrier to employing internationally respected Australians to establish, design, and maintain a robust examination syllabus located in Australia.

All of this speaks to the future role of Australian dance education, dance in Australian education, and the many and varied pathways that we might make participation in dance available as an everyday experience for Australians of any age. The rubric of creativity has, however, given new value to dance as its role in cognitive, social, cultural, and personal development has come to be better understood and appreciated on the back of creative industries discourse.

Creativity: a new paradigm

There has never been such a focus on innovation and creativity as there is today. Education has traditionally placed importance on left-brain functions, which are logical, sequential, and linear, as opposed to right brain synthesising, empathetic, big picture approach to thinking. This is the age of creativity. Creating meaning and significance is what artists do. As academics Hillary Glow and Stella Minahan so cleverly caution:

Business has inappropriately used the concept of creativity as a metaphor for efficiency and profit. However, creativity is as much a process of failure as of success; of imagination as of procedure. Business leaders and management gurus need to look more closely at their disciplines and artists and policymakers need to guard those aspects of creativity that are at once non-commercial and priceless, to identify its absolute essence. 20

Policy and economics has come to realise that the basis of future prosperity and sustainability is creativity, in all its forms. People want personal experiences, not mass marketed commodities. Dreams and narratives have therefore become increasingly more important in marketing. There is a growing—some describe it as exploding—recognition that those who illuminate significance and bring meaning to the world will flourish as we move from the information age to the age of creativity.

These are the claims made throughout business, policy, and academia in the name of creative industries. They are based on a radical rethinking of the role of cultural production, which has brought art, culture, and entertainment from the obscure margins of the economy to its very core as a major potential for sustainable growth.

If Daniel Pink is correct in his prediction, the creative industries will be worth $6.1 trillion dollars in 15 years time. 21 He says:

The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of mind-programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBA’s who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind-creators and empathizers, pattern recognisers and meaning makers. These people-artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys. 2

This begs the question of how creative Australians are in teaching dance. How infused with creative challenges are dance classes and teaching approaches? The dominant class structure of rote learning exercises in preparation for exams does not engage people’s creativity. Dance classes have to do more to help people to learn and be less about preparation for examinations. There must be room and time to create something new and unique rather than just repetition and imitation. Creativity is the wellspring of innovation. Sophisticated novelty is the engine of progress.

Fascinating research is emerging about the environments and techniques that help to develop creativity. Robert Knight points out that there are two critical periods of brain development that occur in children during the ages of 4 – 6 and 11 – 14. The biggest drive to activate the brain is the process of creating something new or discovering something new.

On the question of whether creativity could be taught, Knight says that the key to developing a creative mind is to allow learning to occur in unstructured environments where experimentation can take place and children are allowed to fail and try again. “There is a beautiful window when children are young to expose them to learning modes (choice and variety) which helps them to be creative throughout their life”. 23

Interestingly Knight believes that a child who has never been exposed to flexible mental processing experiences is very unlikely to be creative later in life. In explaining his theories, Knight helps us to understand the complex and eclectic nature of the brain, which is made up of multiple systems, each with specific tasks, working together.

Different sides of the brain control this global and local processing. Children are generally global thinkers until language comes along and they become more local processors. Knight says that people should all think less and be more aware, that spatial skills are important and that the increasing use of the Internet will stifle creativity because it is too structured. He advocates giving young people more sensory stimulations by getting them out to experience nature.

Susan Greenfield reassures us that there is no single gene responsible for creativity, 24 which suggests it must be taught and learned, or at the very least, cultivated. It is also clear that the search for a scientific explanation for the link between the individual brain and creativity is still a long way off. Greenfield says that “[c]reativity is surely the ultimate expression of individuality, and a characteristically human activity: it is deeply fulfilling for those who achieve it, and usually of some kind of incidental benefit to wider society”. 25

Reframing arguments about the value of the arts

How do we navigate the world of opportunity we are faced with as a result of the high value being ascribed to creativity? Clearly we need to sharpen our arguments and take the opportunity to leverage the full potential of this encouraging discourse.

There is a worrying trend among some artists and arts workers who are dismissive of, and in some cases hostile to, arguments that seek to support the arts based on economic or public benefit grounds. The personal or intrinsic benefit of arts participation is and will remain the primary reason that people continue to engage in the arts. Many artists will tell you that they are driven, in fact compelled to engage.

This is unlikely to change. Dance is likened to a calling by many and, for such folk, any suggestion of financial motivation is offensive. But the personal and intrinsic arguments, such as self-expression, self-actualisation, and aesthetic excellence, are only a few of the potential arguments that can be made for contemporary dance.

As John H. Howard says:

…the emergence of the Creative Industries has assisted in establishing the link between creative output and commercial opportunity. However, the challenge for many is to see creative output as both artistic and valuable in its own right, as well as a commercially oriented activity that is valued by others. One does not necessarily compromise the other. 26

This suggests that the discursive framework of ‘creativity’ and ‘creative industries’ can support and help articulate all arguments in favour of the arts, as well as provide coherence for them in relation to one another. However valid and profound, older arguments that foreground the transformative, life-enhancing, life-affirming aspects of the arts can seem tired and clichéd.

More importantly, they often fail to convince people who have not engaged in the arts. Promoting the value of the arts for its intrinsic, cultural, and economic benefits using the rubric of creativity is far more likely to gain us broad based support and provide our arguments with coherence.

Contemporary dance is, and will continue to be, a staple of human creativity, whether as expression, training method, or elite artistic practice. Positioning our arguments and advocations within the framework of creativity can help communicate our various positions in terms of relevance, accuracy, clarity, and coherence.

The rise of creativity as an economic and policy paradigm is an historic opportunity for contemporary dance, just as it is for the arts more generally. In education, training, policy, and practice, understanding creativity as a paradigm for advocacy, debate, and artistic communication is essential to realising the fullest potential of contemporary dance in Australia.