The politics of dance—policy, process and practice 2nd Dame Peggy van Praagh Memorial Address

In This Article

My first, very pleasant duty is to bring you greetings from Dance UK, the national forum for dance in Britain and its Chair Bob Lockyer, and from the Council for Dance Education and Training (UK). These two organisations hope to combine with others in 1993 to form a National Dance Consortium representing, in the way Ausdance does already, all dance interests in the UK. Our problems and possibilities are very close to yours so we hope to move forward with you in dialogue and exchange around the politics and role of dance in our two countries.

There are other reasons why I am proud to be here. First, I am proud, very proud, to hold honorary membership of Ausdance and therefore to be the colleague of many dancers and dance teachers here. It is one of the distinctions I treasure most—partly for having shared in a very small way in the foundation of AADE—in this city, my lord mayor—16 years ago; partly also because of my close friendship with Peggy van Praagh over much longer than that.

The third anniversary of her death occurs next Saturday. She, in whose memory this address is given, was not only a principal founder of what is now Ausdance. She has become twice a symbol.

By her all-embracing approach to dance, welcoming and recognising all forms of dance in Australia, as she did in Britain, she helped establish by example, and from her position of eminence, the important principles of open access which are manifest in the work of Ausdance. Second, she remains a name of significance in British dance, much mentioned in the media and in speeches during the successful London season of the Australian Ballet last year. Therefore she is a symbol of the close relationship between British dance, Australian dance and their international connections. She it was, for example, who first brought Rudolf Nureyev to Australia.

My third reason for pride in being here is that I have acquired in visits to Australia since 1976, and from media watch in Dance Australia and other sources, an immense and growing respect for what Ausdance is achieving in national organisation. I see it embracing all aspects of dance from performance to teaching; from multicultural, social and recreational dance to the advancement of dancers' health. Above all, Ausdance focusses the cause and value of dance as a matter of concern for state governments and federal government.

This last achievement, still in its infancy, is central to any politics of dance and was a continuing interest of Peggy van Praagh. It is not known generally that as a comparatively young dancers in the 1930s she was prominent in drawing up the first Escher contract for dancers on behalf of the dancers' union, Equity. It was her support for "the Union and for dancers" organisation generally, outside the function of directing Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet, which created a temporary rift between herself and Ninette de Valois in the middle 1950s.

As a result she left the Sadler's Wells organisation and became available in the early 1960s to accept an invitation to serve dancers in Australia, actually on de Valois' recommendation. Therefore it is especially appropriate that an address on the new discipline of the politics of dance should be dedicated to her.

I offer such a subject nervously before an audience which knows its Australian politics far better than I. Therefore I have to draw on my own experience of initiating this new discipline in British higher education at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance in London; of advising dance policies in a number of countries around the world, and of discussions with Peggy herself in Melbourne, then colleagues and students at Armidale in 1976.

I think one should acknowledge the facilitator of Armidale, the late Bernard James in the University of New England. Without him there would have been no choreographic workshops from which Ausdance could develop its Green Mill enterprise.

A politics of dance must be practical. Therefore it must ask and answer three questions. Why should there be a politics of dance? What political case for dance should dancers be advocating in today's circumstances? What kind of political agenda should dancers develop to advance this case through the exercise of dance power? These three questions form the structure of this Peggy van Praagh Memorial Address in 1993.

Why a politics of dance?

For too long dance has been at the bottom of the heap in public subsidy, in winning corporate sponsorship, in the priorities of our education systems, in Arts Councils, even in public regard. Yet dance is the oldest creation of human imagination and is the oldest art form along with music. Dance is part of the history of human communication, human movement and human culture.

Like music, painting and sculpture it expresses those areas of human experience which cannot be expressed in words. It does this with a particular power because uniquely its instrument is the living human body. As such it involves millions of people weekly in its participation. Internationally it is the special expression of national physiques and temperaments, of the mysteries of nature which links us all, male and female, and of nurture which makes us different one people from another.

Notwithstanding the history and significance of dance, I can tell you that in Britain dance receives in public subsidy less than half the monies given each year to drama and to music. British students of drama and dance do not receive the automatic support for vocational study given to students of art and music. That is why we are developing a politics of dance. We have decided enough is enough.

We have learned that if we are to end misunderstanding and discrimination about dance we have to reverse the policies which lie at the root of discrimination, working with other arts, especially drama. I have noticed in the meetings of Ausdance this weekend that you, like us, discuss how dancers can manage better while getting poorer. This is no way to proceed. We must learn from France and other examples how to reorganise cultural power to the benefit of dance. This means political action, political persuasion.

Yet dancers draw back from this thought. "Politics," Margot Fonteyn once said to me, " is not our way. Dancing wins its own support." It does not. We must resolve two problems: political misunderstanding and public prejudice. 'Dancers', politicians have said to me, 'cannot get their act together. Their brains are in their feet. They are always squabbling. They don't know what they want'.

The misunderstanding between all artists and politicians is that artists create alternatives. They do not conform. They disturb the status quo. Their vision of society is different. It is their job to be different. So, yes, dancers do upset politicians both in what they express and what they need like properly equipped studios and decent salaries. We dancers can remove this misunderstanding only by presenting such a thundering good case for dance, so well argued, we win the political support we need. Dance advocacy is a central part of the politics of dance.

How do we remove public prejudice? The instrument of our art is the human body. As such we touch the tenderest sensibilities of custom and irrational belief. For too long Anglo-Saxon tradition, and much religious teaching the world over, has seen the body as sinful, even irrelevant. Thus the French philosopher Descartes, argued that since he had a clear and distinct idea of himself as a thinking non-extended thing, and, on the other hand, a distinct idea, of his body as an extended non-thinking thing, it was certain that he was truly distinct from his body and could exist without it.

This separation of mind and body in Western philosophical tradition has much to do with the separation of dance from other art forms by 'respectable' society. It is contrary to everything for which dance stands. We can remove such prejudice only with the help of allies in public life, the media, other arts, education and the distinction of our own art.

A political case for dance

So to my second question. What political case for dance should dancers be advocating in today's circumstances? The case must be framed to win the maximum allies and be rooted in knowledge which demonstrates the value and values of dance. The old case for dance, arguing its beauty, expression and nobility of movement impresses no one. The dance case today must be such that those with power will be won to support dance because they respect it in the public and national interest. Therefore the definition and presentation of this case is the kernel of a politics of dance.

The case will vary from country to country but I offer six common priorities. First, some acquaintance with political theory. Second, a concern for the content of choreography and therefore the influence of dance upon society. Third, emphasis on the value of dance in blending cultural diversity. Fourth, convincing arguments for the presence of dance in education. Fifth, extending access to dance by all means, especially work in communities to reach those who are disadvantaged and those with disabilities. Sixth, a clear political strategy rooted in dance power and in the development of dance advocacy through appropriate training.

Such are the needs of a politics of dance. They should be presented and argued in a reasoned way supported by information from the sort of strong database possessed already by Ausdance. The source of advocacy needs to be an organisation truly and visibly representative of the whole dance profession, possessed of dance power. In short, Ausdance.

Political theory

Let us consider the detail of these six priorities. First, some knowledge of political theory. In Australia as in Britain, dance advocacy starts with the advantage of democratic traditions. Who are the dance advocates? I hope they might be trained on a course in politics in Australia as in Britain. They might be dancers at the end of performing careers, graduates from higher education, graduates from vocational courses, writers, or even students on self-study.

Whatever their origins they need to make reference to the line of thinkers whose theories guide world liberal democracy. I mean John Locke and Government by consent, Rousseau and the General Will, Tom Paine and the Rights of Man, John Stuart Mill and the Liberty of the Individual, Marx and the challenge to capitalist organisation, Antonio Gramsci and the alliance with artists and intellectuals, Ghandi and the fight against colonialism—and the example of many present-day advocates from liberation theology in South America to the women's movement worldwide, the gays and lesbians, the greens and the defenders of the Daintree Rain Forest.

A common thread runs through these sources making them helpful to dance study. Choreographers and dancers like journalists, politicians and the rest of us need societies which encourage free expression. Therefore dancers need to be aware of this inheritance and the arguments of those who fought for it. It follows that dance training and education, whether for performance of dance teaching or the new range of dance-related careers outside the theatre, should involve some introduction to the democratic process.

Choreography and society

If this first priority of our politics of dance is fulfilled it seems certain that the second priority will be fulfilled in consequence. A broader education for dancers during training, including introduction to social and political concerns, must influence the content of choreography in the direction of these concerns. Already this trend is manifest in the work of some choreographers. I think of the choreography of Kenneth MacMillan, Jerome Robbins, Christopher Bruce, Lloyd Newson and others in Europe and the USA. They have their Australian counterparts.

I am not saying that dance and choreography are vehicles for cosmic statements or political creeds. Plainly they are not, as Doris Humphrey pointed out long ago. I am saying that, like it or not, choreographers respond to the climate of their times. Therefore the post-modernist trend of dancing for dancing's sake, manifest especially in the choreography of Cunningham, Alston and their followers, reflected a period beginning with liberation in the 1960s but ending today with dance turning in on itself.

Since 1989 we have begun to experience a different historical period with different choreographic responses. The Cunningham period, however, has given us the liberation of dance as an art independent of other arts and a clearer recognition that kinesthetic communication is central to dance communication.

Today, in Australia choreographers need to answer the question Shirley McKechnie asked in her memorial address two years ago. "What is Australian choreography?" I am sure Australian choreography is not dancing for dancing's sake, nor does it draw its sources only from Europe and the USA. Rather it looks to Australian daily life, the great Australian landscape which shapes imagination, the ever-present Aboriginal landscape which shapes imagination, the ever-present Aboriginal culture and its implications, the diversity of Australian's many other cultures, and the tradition of Gertrude Bodenwieser.

All this is of consequence in a politics of dance. Whatever the influences, however, the great function of dance in any society remains to explore and reveal through movement, non-verbally and therefore cross-culturally and internationally, those aspects of human experience which cannot be expressed in words.

What communication, then, should the Australian Ballet, Australian Dance Theatre, Queensland Ballet, the West Australian Ballet, the Sydney Dance Company and other companies offer their Australian audiences? What dialogue—whether of fun and recreation or illumination of relationships—should Dancenorth have in common with communities across the spaces and heat of North Queensland, or the Chrissie Parrott Dance Collective evoke in the infinity of Western Australia, areas the size of European nations?

What power—in the end a political power—lies in the network of dance projects, residencies, creative development enterprises, conferences and dance writing funded by arts councils, local authorities, governments and corporate sponsors? Collectively they comprise a network of diverse dance origins, initiatives, sacrifices and cultures to make one Australian dance culture.

From such an evolution, reaching back to Armidale and beyond, what will be the response of choreographers, here at Green Mill in the next two weeks, to shape the future of their art in an Australian and Pacific context? This is a political question because Australian choreography embraces now the Indian traditions of Tara Raj Kumar, the aboriginal inheritance of Australia's first inhabitants and the diverse cultures of new Australians from south-east Asia and the Pacific islands, all warmed by the same Australian sun.

Cultural diversity

The reality of Australian dance culture is as diverse and multicultural today as our dance culture has become in Britain, or as dance cultures are becoming in Europe. Thirteen million people, approaching the population of Australia, live in Europe, with origins which are outside Europe. They will not go away. They bring with them, as new people have brought to Australia, new insights about those areas of human experience which can be expressed through human movement and human nurture.

A part of our advocacy to politicians should be to make them understand that dance can make a significant contribution—no, is essential—to resolve the problems of multiculturalism in political, educational and cultural national life.

What might be the end result of this dance contribution? In what way might an Australian dance culture emerge from Green Mill, from future Green Mills, and from the grand sweep of choreographic ventures in all dance styles across the Australian continent?

Working with artists from allied disciplines I believe the influence which choreographers can exert internationally upon society is far beyond what they anticipate today. It is nothing less than to help redirect the psyche, thinking and fixed assumptions of peoples of the world towards building the new kinds of culturally diverse nationhood which will characterise the next millenium in a new kind of polis.

This is not fanciful thinking. It is practical deduction from the changing structures of all nations and the growth of intercommunication. For success, for the creation of harmony rather than racial or communal confrontation, we need an alliance among artists, politicians and educators. This is the third priority of our case to politicians.

Dance and education

The fourth priority is advocacy for dance in education. Education is a key element of our political strategy alongside the realisation of dance power. Education we must win. Within education lies the aesthetic dimension of curricular in schools and higher education. Within higher education dance is changing traditional notions of the nature of knowledge by extending our understanding of non-verbal knowledge, knowledge transmitted without the help of words and numbers.

Within all education the argument for an aesthetic dimension rests on a view that the uniqueness of human existence consists, above all, in our capacity to appraise and communicate with each other about our various experiences of the world. We do this in many different ways, through many different modes of understanding and communication, not just in words and numbers.

The aesthetic dimension explores the way our ideas of beauty, harmony, grace, balance, harshness, stridency and ugliness are conceive, formulated and expressed. It is the preparation for much of the quality of life. Not to include this dimension in education is to short-change young people for life. Yet it is given cursory attention in many schools. Often the arts are excluded from the regular curriculum or marginalised by those who control educational.

Dance is part of this aesthetic dimension. To exclude dance is to exclude an art which synthesises an important range of experiences for young people. These include a physical dimension through developing awareness of the body's emotional, expressive and physical possibilities. They include a psychological dimension from confidence gained in physical expression and control. They include a community and multi-cultural dimension bringing young people together in joint creative work. They include aesthetic practice requiring decisions concerning music, colour, costume and choreography. Finally there is a careers dimension for those who wish to be dancers. Few subjects are so rich in the gifts they give young people.

More than this. Dance adds also to our knowledge of the world and ourselves. In establishing its place in higher education dance has had to show, and has shown, that choreography includes research and that the inclusion of dance extends the concept of knowledge beyond that associated traditionally with words and numbers.

Alongside music and art, dance, as I have said, conveys knowledge of that area of human experience which cannot be expressed in words; the wide range of emotion, feeling, sensibility, creativity, and values; the nature and nurture of our bodies. With this goes exploration of cultures of the past and present, communication, appreciation of the arts; and development of imagination. No matter how much oil or sheep a nation may possess its wealth lies principally in the imagination of its people. The arts, including dance, are trainers of imagination and therefore creators of wealth. Politicians ignore at their peril this economic, cultural and moral resource.

Education is changing also the nature of dance and its imaginative contribution to society. Throughout the dance world dancers are emerging no longer only from traditional training centres. Especially they are emerging from tertiary education institutions. The presence of such dancers is manifest strongly in the structure and services of Ausdance and in the organisation of Green Mill. This phenomenon can be matched in Britain and elsewhere.

As a result dancers and choreographers from these sources have broader perspectives, wider awareness of the world outside studio and theatre walls, a new sense of responsibility to society, new ideas of what dance might do for communities and of the influence they, as dancers, should be exerting on Arts Councils, arts administrators and politicians locally and nationally.

These new dancers are anxious to assert themselves, do their own thing, are less willing to be buried in large companies. In Britain such attitudes already are shaking the policies of our two largest contemporary dance companies and are affecting the structures and audiences for dance across the country.

In dance education and training teachers and dance companies are forming organisations to exert political pressure to defend and advance the place of dance in British society. Dancers themselves have produced a dancers' charter for health and welfare. I have it here to show you. It is something impossible to conceive five years ago. I find similar development in Australia, through clearer and more dramatic in its affect.

In both countires I perceive a breakdown of the distinction between professionals and amateurs. What is an amateur? Very often a professional who is not paid. What is ethnic? Are American films ethnic because they are from America? Or Russian ballet ethnic because it comes from Russia? In a growing global culture national qualities are essential but ethnic distinctions are a threat. There are strong Australian qualities but ethnic rivalries are overcome in the Latin-American dances of Strictly Ballroom now showing to 4X applause world wide. Britons wouldn't give an XXXX for any other film. To us its attraction lies in its dancing, its Australian setting, its challenge to an over-powerful dance federation—and its central theme of an integrity not for sale.

Access to dance

This raises the crucial issue of access to dance in the community, our fifth priority. The health of dance in society is related intimately to the health of communities. All societies, even capitalist ones, depend on community ties. Community ties are public goods which the competitive free market cannot supply, but can destroy, as indeed Thatcherism in Britain has destroyed much caring and community spirit.

Arising equally out of dance companies, vocational dance training and higher education, a new profession of dance animateurs is emerging to work in communities. They exert in Britain an increasing political affect. Dance animateurs are concerned to make dance available to the widest sections of the population, to liaise with touring dance companies so that the impact of those companies remains and can be developed after the companies have moved on. Their mission is to empower people and communities by developing dance creativity. Therefore they are concerned with dance access in all its implications. At the end of the day all our efforts are wasted if people do not respond to dance language.

The principal answer to this problem lies in dance as a part of education. Some of the answer lies also within dance itself. Choreographers should be more conscious of the audiences for whom they create. Dance animateurs, wherever they work, (we have 150 of them in Britain), should seek out and serve local needs in their dance activity. Dance in communities, after all, is dance plus caring. All these examples of access—in education, in choreographic concern for audiences, in dance animation—are manifestations of the potential power and influence of dance.

Dance power

Dance power, then, our sixth priority, is concerned with moral issues as well as political, economic and cultural issues—the right to a distinctive culture, freedom of expression, links with other arts and generosity to fellow artists working in partnership, the integrity of dance and its artist. Integrity, as I said, is not for sale. It follows that dance power has several images. The first people with whom it should be concerned are dancers themselves. Too often in the hierarchy of power we see ourselves below every one else. This must be changed. We can make the change through the success and competence of the case for dance we present in the five priorities I have outlined. That way we shall realise dance power and understand the nature of that power.

Essentially dance power in its widest conception emerges from the collective voice of the whole dance world, what Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the political theorists I mentioned at the beginning, called the General Will. It is why we need to study political theorists.

The first step towards realising dance power is the creation of a national body such as Ausdance to realise and help formulate the general dance will. Coupled with this needs to be a definition of dance power itself.

For this it is helpful to draw on sociological, philosophical and political identifications of power in general. In doing this Ausdance can be seen to be a demonstration of voluntary activity through what is known in politics as a secondary association. Secondary associations are essential organisations in a democracy, intermediate between individual or firms and the institutions of state and the electoral system. Their function is to help shape the political agenda, determine choices, influence opinion and, above all, conduct an advocacy which persuades the electorate. The great achievement for Australian dance in 1977 was the creation of such a secondary association for dance. Its authority is the general will of dance people.

What kind of power are we discussing? Does not power in the dance world concentrate too much at the top end of schools and companies or in Arts Councils with too little consultation and sharing of power further down? In the exercise of power do we not have to distinguish between the power of persuasion, influence and manipulation as against direct coercion and authority? Who exists to arbitrate between conflicts of power in ways which bring about consensus rather than dictation in the pursuit of interest?

We need to find answers because for too long the dance world has been riven by conflict between dance style against dance style, teacher against teacher, company against company in a competition for inadequate resources, students and public opinion. The result is to weaken the impact of dance power on the outside world. The role of a dancers' organisation, of Ausdance, therefore, is to identify common interests for its whole dance world leading to the possibility of collective action, collective organisation and mobilisation of a collective public opinion in favour of dance. Such a role is implicit in the aims of Ausdance listed in its brochures.

There are wider issues, however, associated with the experience of dance power. Gender bids, for example, involving the interests of women and, in Britain certainly, equal opportunities in schools for boys to dance as well as girls; the interests of immigrants and their dance cultures alongside dance cultures of the host society; the contribution of dance to articulate and enrich the lives of sections of the population such as elderly people, people with disabilities and young people, especially teenagers, through the concept of youth dance; the role of dance in sustaining communities; and the working conditions of dancers themselves.

In Britain one third of professional dancers live at levels below the official poverty line. Is it not much the same in Australia? We can change matters only by winning the support of the electorate.

These issues are part of the politics of dance because dance power includes the power of dance to affect the bodies, minds and emotions of those who see dance and practice dance. Therefore a central element of dance power is dance art itself, that power of emotion, of uplife, insight, sorrow and joy through movement which dancers and dance companies transmit to audiences. It is a power which contributes ultimately to the national quality of life. I justifies every cent of the $400 000 cost of Green Mill to explore and develop choreography appropriate to Australia.

A further element of dance power, then, has to do with the influential power, lobby power, the organised power exerted collectively by the whole dance community of dancers, teachers, students, administrators, academics, writers, researchers, the lot. It is the most controversial element of power, and, in my experience, must involve direct contact with politicians. It is not enough to deal only with Arts Councils and senior officials in Ministries.

The appeal, the impact, the transmission of information and influence must reach politicians and Ministers themselves who rarely understand the structures of the arts. This requires special literature for members of Parliament and local councils, the identification of individual politicians who might be allies, or powerful antagonists, for dance, the constant endless search for other allies and their mobilisation in the media, in business, in academic circles, professional bodies, labour unions—anywhere, everywhere, especially at election time.

Politician need passion and conviction in politics, but wonder too at the creativity and richness which human beings have within them. Part of any lobby of politicians must be to turn this passion, conviction and wonder into action at election time. I have here a document which is part of such action and is unique. It is called Dance, Our Cultural Future. published by the British Labour Party, the only time anywhere in the world a major political party has developed a dance policy as part of its appeal to the electorate. The policy earlier this year was a result of lobbying. It was reflected in the election by more attention than ever before to dance needs on doorsteps and in debates across the whole political spectrum. It can be done!

Let me summarise. Once, when I was leaving Australia I flew over its centre, over the red soil, over Ayers Rock and I imagined myself standing there as night fell. (lights lowered) As I stood I heard the click, click of sticks from the Aboriginal owners of this land as they began to dance, summoning other dancers to join them. I heard it from the north and west and south. Then I heard new sounds of the forces of all Australia's cultures being marshalled on behalf of dance.

Out in front I saw reconnaissance groups and clubs of young people in discos and youth dance companies and schools probing, inventing, exploring—thousands of them with their music. In alliance were other companies of dancers in music shows, films and television, reducing resistance to dance and winning allies. In support were federations of ballroom dancers, massed and raising everywhere the banner of dance. I heard the sound of audience applause.

I looked again in the darkness to see networks of small companies of diverse cultures travelling the wide space s of Australia, visiting communities like flying doctors because dancers are doctors of the heart and soul. I saw bigger companies of dancers in the cities, changing qualities of Australian life through the vision of programs raising the consciousness of audiences.

I heard a sound like rain which was the richness of dance from other lands mingling in Australia to nourish Australia's dance culture and the sound of children's voices from schools where minds and bodies are educated in proper balance.

Through the darkness I saw shafts of light from dance projects and occasional ventures illuminating unsuspected corners of dance life. And a great flow which was Green Mill! Behind it I could see the high centre of this enterprise working with leading dance organisations—Ausdance—coordinating communication, raising money, lobbying support from the media, Parliament, councils, politician.

In the dark the clicks of aboriginal dance faded. The sun shone. (lights up). I saw a different Australia. There! (indicating audience) I heard a new sound—politicians and administrators hurrying with money, resources, support, praise!!

A vision from the Dreamtime, perhaps but possible if only we became conscious of the strength of our subtle, mysterious and too silent art.

So dancers! Walk tall! Exert the power you have! Dame Peggy would approve.


  • This abbreviation of Descartes' view of mind and body is drawn from his Discourse on Method (1673) and Meditations (1642). They comprise his cogitoy ('I think, therefore I am'; (cogito ergo sum)), brilliantly summarised in Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philisophy, Second edition (1961) Unwin, London p 547
  • Doris Humphrey (1959) The Art of Making Dances. New York pp 34 – 41
    Caloust Gulbenkian foundation (1982 – 89): The Arts in Schools. Gulbenkian Foundation, London. This now famous report presents the arguments for aesthetic education as central to the curriculum.
  • Dance UK (1992): A Dancer's Charter for health & welfare. Dance UK, England
  • The role of secondary associations in democratic governance today is discussed Politics and Society, vol. 20, no. 4, December 1992. Sage Publications Inc, USA
  • Labour Party (1992): Dance, Our Cultural Future. Labour Party, England