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Barked shins as the steps change

Reading the new programme of study for dance is like walking into a house you thought you knew and finding someone has moved all the furniture. Some familiar objects can be found, but they are hard to see among the new ones.

We knew the furniture was to be moved; we thought the purpose was to make more space. We did not expect to find new elements or an apparent change in the balance of the requirements. How radical is the shift, or is it just a matter of words?

Since the publication of the interim report from the first working group in 1990, dance education has adopted a three-stranded approach. The balance between making, performing and appreciating dance is central, each strand is inter-related and involves the processes of planning, performing and evaluating.

This guiding principle is well established, the logical result of more than a century of dance education, and is the envy of much of the rest of the world. It has informed the development of dance education both in schools and in the wider dance community. Together, schools and community have created a wide range of dynamic partnerships in this shared understanding. Its influence can be detected in the grown-up world of dance, in the education of professional dancers and in the Arts Council's distribution of more than 25,000 copies of its publication Dance in Schools.

Explicit references to making dances are hard to find in the new programme of study and gone are most of the requirements concerned with structuring dance. This is like playing games without access to the rules. At key stage 2 "making dances with clear beginnings, middles and ends" becomes "to compose and control movements", while at key stage 3 "using methods of composition to communicate meanings and ideas" is perhaps to be found in "supporting compositions with description of intentions and outcomes".

On reflection, the relationship between the old and the new becomes clearer. If compositions are to be described they first have to be made. Sadly, the new words are not any clearer or more specific than the old ones. Progression between the key stages is less easy to detect and in consequence teachers are provided with less support.

The real surprise is in the extras, in particular the new requirement to include "some traditional dances of the British Isles". This would seen to go against the main aim of the Dearing review to slim down the curriculum and make it less prescriptive. Happily, today there is a rich diversity of "traditional dances of the British Isles". They include the classical traditions of ballet and Bharata Natyam, and cultural or social traditions such as African peoples' dances, ballroom dances and hip-hop.

Dance is a great traveller. People take their dances with them as they move around the globe, dances that were once performed in villages later appear in cities, new generation bring new meanings and steps. As it travels through time and distance the dance is enriched and revitalised. There can be no hard and fast rules, tradition in dance is concerned with a living, ever-changing process. This was graphically illustrated by the work created by pupils of two South London schools with Ludus dance company and recently performed at Greenwich Dance Agency. Key stage 2 pupils from Wingfield School performed a dance using movement they had composed drawing on traditions from Spain and South America which became part of a tradition in Britain through popular social and ballroom dances.

At first glance the new programme of study seems to signal a kind of "back to basics" plan, more resonant of the 1909 syllabus than heralding the 21st century. But this is only a matter of words. Flexibility and opportunity may have to be looked for, but they are there. The general requirement opens with the statement that physical education should involve pupils in the continuous process of planning, performing and evaluating. Dances do have to be composed as well as performed. With imagination and understanding, the content of dance education can meet the requirements of the national curriculum and be challenging, relevant and achievable for all pupils. What matters now is that those responsible for administering and inspecting the new curriculum understand this as well as the teachers do.

Jeanette Siddall is dance officer with the Arts Council of England.

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