Monday, 21 January 2013

Tradition and Authority

The tradition of respect for authority in classical dance is, in many ways, a great thing. It is a respect for wisdom, experience and the years of dedication in others that has built the art form into what it is today. In children it develops respect for elders, for teachers, for knowledge, it encourages self-discipline and self-control.  However I truly believe respect is something that should always be earned. Whether in your personal or professional life, whether it is your boss, your teacher, your coach, your partner, there is no entitlement in respect.

In any environment where an individual is being educated, there is an expectation that the personal teaching them has a considerable level of knowledge in their specialism. For many people this is an immediate acceptance, how could the person be in a position of authority if they had not worked their way up and earned it? I struggle with automatic respect for the authority of the dance teacher now - not in any way because I believe that teachers or directors or choreographers would have any reason not to have their dancers' best interests at heart - but because too often in dance the reverence for tradition masks the ignorance of any real understanding of safe or healthy practice.

The study of dance science is still in it's infancy, however even in it's early stages it has uncovered an alarming degree of false or damaging information being passed on by dance educators for decades. I don't believe any teacher would want to intentionally put their students at risk, however the lack of education for teachers themselves is of serious concern. If your dance teacher imparts flawed information to you, and you accept it as gospel, and pass it onto your students who pass it onto theirs it is easy for a cycle of misinformation to be misconstrued as fact. During my own years in training I was fed, and instantly accepted, some highly questionable pieces of information. Whether it was the dangers of cross-training with other sports, to the most effective stretching exercises to being taught incorrect form in conditioning classes, I readily accepted that my teacher knew best. In hindsight, I now know I was fed well-intended fallacies.

Ignorance is a dangerous thing. As an adult, people are more likely to question, to asses what is right for their bodies and to do their own research. In children, it is more difficult to question authority. Luckily the image of the tyrannical ballet mistress forcing students into extreme stretches now appears to most of us as archaic, barbaric and ridiculous in equal measure. I hate the image below, and every time I see it I cringe. However several people clearly stood by and watched, again refusing to question the authority of the so called "expert".

Archaic,  dangerous and counter-intuitive
The issue with authority tends to be more subtle today; there are still plenty of teachers out there offering well intended pieces of advice that at best do not hold true, and at worst may contribute to illness or injury in their students. Too many dance teachers are practicing without adequate qualifications, and even the official qualification authorities have only recently started to include any considerable provision for safe practice in their courses. Again, this is where the development and wider expectation of the Certificate in Safe and Effective Dance Practice can only be a good thing.

As a dancer question the wisdom of your instructor, whether they are a director, choreographer or teacher. That doesn't mean dismissing them; there are many wonderful teachers working today who have a sound understanding of both the art form and the way the human body functions, who you can learn a phenomenal amount from and who rightly deserve to be highly respected and esteemed for their knowledge and experience. However it means no longer blindly submitting to assumed expertise. Give respect to those who deserve it,  those who genuinely are experts in their field. If something sounds wrong, ask, follow it up, find out for yourself; do your research, know your body, if it doesn't feel right don't do it. You need to assume responsibility for your own body, and if that means rethinking the instantaneous reverence of an authoritative figure so be it.

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