Case Study 3: Badger Grove Dance Company

Badger Grove Dance Company

Badger Grove is a rural community school in an impoverished area of south east England. The school has developed a longstanding (5 year) relationship with a contemporary dance company consisting of two early career dancers who perform, tour and teach in higher education. The professional dancers, Ali and Connie, worked with a group of 21 students aged 12-18 in an intensive fashion both in and out of school over 5 months to create a performance. Ali is the daughter of the school’s dance teacher, Jean, who has worked in the community for 30 years.

Ali and Connie devised and led the activities, although teachers were also present at the observed sessions. The dancers (and at times their musician) worked intensively at school for about 10 days, working long sessions and at weekends. Activity typically included an extensive warm-up and then a mixture of student led choreography and group improvisation as the troupe planned and developed sequences for the performance. These were gradually given a story. Sometimes Ali and Connie had prepared sequences for students to learn; at other times the sequences were developed jointly though experimentation. The troupe then rehearsed under the direction of Jean over a 3 month period, meeting once a week to practise and hone the performance, which took place over several evenings at the school. The focus of this case study is on the professional dancer-led sessions.

Norms of behaviour relating to the body were notable. At the beginning and end of each session, the mixed sex dance troupe got changed in each other’s company. During the session there were breaks where some students sprayed themselves with deodorants and fidgeted, rearranging bits of clothing.  There was lots of informal chat between students and adult-led talk about food, when, what’s for lunch, energy food etc. The lunch break occasioned not only eating but much talk about which food is better for this and that, what individual tastes were and so on. We did not observe formal directions about clothing - although as the project progressed, costumes were talked about and specific types of shoes were requested for the following day. Students were not regulated about going off to the toilet and small knocks, cuts and bruises were all dealt with on the side so as not to inconvenience the action and flow of the activity.

The body of the dance teacher was central to the process. She modelled movements and sequences, joined in with small groups and demonstrated her physicality in the warm ups and throughout the days. Her virtuosity, as she performed sequences for others, her flexibility and quality of movement were clearly something for the students to admire and to imitate.

At times, the musical movement lead to a peculiar personal kind of language enactment: as Ali and Connie moved through sequences they sometimes made expressive noises – sounds going higher or lower to express moving up or down, or extending noises to suggest elongating a movement or sequence. These noises were accompanied by the continuous counting out loud that is a feature of dance. Neither of these conventions was explained or made explicit to the students. Counting was clearly a key aide-memoire as students learned extended and complex physical sequences. The students rarely drew attention to the difficulty of memorising; they seemed to have internalised the learning in their bodies rather than in the mind, as in other kinds of rote learning more common in school.

Sometimes teaching was simply the dancer performing actions to be followed; at other times the professionals criticised, encouraged and admonished, drawing attention to arms, necks or spines. They also prodded, poked and pushed, sometimes pulling and moving the students as if they were dolls, sometimes checking that the students could feel and understand the more perfect action, but often operating without words, assuming that the learning would be derived from the act of being moved or pushed.

It was striking how little attention the professional dancers gave to individual students. In contrast to school norms, the professionals rarely drew attention to individuals and there were never interactions where the students were asked for feedback, or where Ali or Connie identified individual responses or used students’ explanations to recap and redefine the activity going on. The sense was that the performance of the whole groups was at stake, so praise was directed at the troupe as an ensemble rather than used to signal individual prowess.

The most frequently used phrases were ‘Can you see?’ or ‘Get it?’ There was a highly developed sense of when ‘it’, the movement sequence, was ‘got’ and this was often was conveyed through nods, smiles and tacitly, by the decision to move on. In this sense the usual language of approval and reinforcement that accompanies progression in the classroom was subsumed into another level of discourse. Several times, students asked Ali or Connie to demonstrate moves more than once, but even then ‘getting it’ and moving on was primarily a tacit process.

More extended talk tended to belong to several types. There was much bio-technical language, ’turn the pelvis out’, ‘feel it through your neck’ ‘lift your shoulders’. Anatomical reference was directed towards making the students aware of how bits of the body connected to others and through this to improve performance. Sometimes this became more self-consciously arty: ‘character is everything’, ‘how many parts of the body can you open to the floor’, ‘which parts of your body are opening, which are contracting’.  At other times the language drew attention to what the student would be feeling or experience as a consequence of the actions: ‘This works I think, try it’. The dancers used a number of film and TV references (24, Black Swan, Grease) which they assumed the troupe knew, but also extensive analogies geared at helping the students imagine their movements as being representative of other real-world experiences: ‘like a tribe’, ‘it’s like we hear something coming’, ‘I think it’s like being caught in a spotlight’, ‘like we are about to run somewhere’, ‘think about playing sports’. This regular use of analogy created a linguistic sense of connection and possibility.

The emphasis in the Badger Grove project was on learning from professionals who applied the implicit and explicit norms and conventions about behaving as dancers to the classroom.  This modality offered learning opportunities different to those usually on offer to students, even for those who took Dance as a specialist subject at school. Specifically, it offered students the chance to experience professional norms of the dancers’ world: the ways of behaving and talking in the work situation, as well as some experience of what is required to do the job. The attention to body-culture (maintenance, diet, etc) was validated by the professionals; normal conventions about teacher-student and student-student boundaries were set aside in this new regime. The low-level sensualising talk that would usually accompany the level of physical intimacy in the project was suspended. The framing of the sessions as professional practice also meant that the conventional school boundaries of touch and distance were set aside. Authority was invested in and underwritten by the professional knowledge, reputation and manifest expertise of the dancers.

The project spanned school-time and leisure-time; it required personal commitment and a degree of initiative from the students beyond simply turning up for lessons. It was closely focussed on developing competence within a team/ troupe. Within the team, practical session-management was achieved collegially and in an adult fashion; sessions were informal and friendly, marked by what Lissa Soep describes as ‘collegial pedagogy’ which created a kind of buy-in from students that was different to their approach to more everyday school activities (Soep & Chavez, 2010). The language of instruction was often elliptical, contingent and exploratory; it was sometimes marked by an unfamiliar ‘artiness’ or unfinished thoughts that moved from the verbal to the non-verbal. The students responded to this positively, seeming to see it as part of adopting the identities and discourse of the ‘real’ dancers they were keen to become. They understood that teaching and learning was different in the context of the ensemble: one student, for example, described the process of ‘being taught by the body’. The professionals’ approach was to initiate students into making judgements about the quality of performance by appealing to an unstated sense of common experience which operated below the level of the explicit.

The Badger Grove project aimed to support the development of a different kind of aesthetic capability though working alongside professionals. Not only was it envisaged that the experience of being with a professional could offer a different kind of adult-expert role model, but that the professionals might be better placed than teachers to enable the student themselves to produce creative work – to learn to do - to a different quality and standard.