Alyssa Gersony in conversation with Simon Dove, former Director of the School of Dance at ASU

I was a sophomore at ASU in 2009 when Arizona State University’s School of Dance began its curriculum overhaul. I witnessed the silence and skepticism both in the classroom and at the National Dance Educators Organization National Conference as former Director Simon Dove and Assistant Professor Karen Schupp asserted the importance of "personal movement practices" and "transitional projects" for students. Before conducting this interview with Simon, he mentioned that in June of 2013 he and Karen were the keynote speakers at “Dance 2050”, a symposia about leadership in dance in higher education, initiated and hosted by the NDEO, Temple University and SUNY Brockport. 

Delighted by the prospect that members of NDEO and many others would discuss the jagged disparity between higher ed dance curricula and the professional dance field, I jumped on this opportunity to interview both Simon and Karen as a contribution to CC's University Project (read my conversation with Karen Schupp here). This interview explicates Simon's keynote speech about the evolution of contemporary art practice, creativity in the classroom, and the importance of including socially engaged practice in curricula. Simon Dove spoke with Levi Gonzalez in 2009.  Their interview can be read here.

Download a PDF of this conversation

Alyssa Gersony: Dance 2050 in 2013 was a follow up symposium held at the end of May at SUNY Brockport to continue the conversations that started at the first Dance 2050 which was held in May of last year at Temple University in Philadelphia. The title of this meeting was Projecting Forward: Cultivating Leadership in Dance. Can you tell us about the topics of conversation that were taking place at the conference, why you were there and what you were asked to speak about?

Simon Dove: This whole initiative was set up by the National Dance Education Organization’s (NDEO) sponsored research unit which is at Temple. NDEO is overseeing it on an administrative level, but it seems to be the initiative now of a number of independent higher education dance people who really want to engage, not only in conversation, but in action that can seed change and development in dance curricular thinking across the country.

There were about 50 people who are ‘blind selected’ based on a vision statement they send in, so there was a wide range of people there -- from those who had just been appointed to positions in an academic institution to people who had been leading a school or department for years, and everything in between. It wasn’t that this symposium was targeted at specific people in specific positions of power, it was really a national trawl for those interested in thinking about and articulating how they saw the future of dance education.

I knew of the 2012 conference at Temple because two Arizona State University faculty attended, Karen Schupp and Cynthia Roses-Thema. Their report on the conference suggested that the thinking that ASU had undertaken and the curricular changes we had put in place by then were years ahead of where anyone else seemed to be. As an initiative I had spent five years deeply involved in, I thought I could help move the thinking forward within this national group around the kind of leadership that I thought was necessary. What are the questions we need to ask ourselves in leadership positions? This question isn’t directed solely at school directors, but to anyone who is in a teaching position where they can influence curricular thinking..

AG: Can we go into the details of the first day? What did you talk about?

SD: I began by framing the changing cultural dynamics of the U.S. especially in relationship to the data available on audiences for dance. The National Endowment for the Arts published in 2008 The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, which is a misleading title because it’s actually about audiences attending the arts, and ‘participation’ as we know, is much more than just being an audience member.

The NEA reported that in 2008 the total dance audience in the U.S. was 18.3 million people -- only 8.1% of the adult population of the U.S. So, whatever you are doing in dance you are potentially drawing on 8.1% of the population around you. There has been a significant and continuous decline since 1992, when they did their first survey assessing that the dance audience was 11.8%. In 2002, it dropped to 10.2%. While this is a small number, it means that people who don’t go to dance, which is what I’m also interested in, has gone up from 88.2% of the population, to 91.9% of the population. In other words dance was always marginal, but it’s becoming increasingly marginalized in terms of American cultural attendance.

But, we also have to account for the way artists are changing their practice. In a sense, this may be reflected in these figures because what a lot of artists are doing now is work in socially engaged contexts, or working on developing new platforms for the work (the internet, IPad apps, interactive programs). In other words, artists are working with current technologies as different media for disseminating their work and also to engage people in a different way. They are working in all kinds of spaces, not just theaters, which is what the NEA figures are really counting -- attendance in theaters. Artists are also working in a more transdisciplinary way, so a dance artist may be involved in a project that somebody might call a film or call theater, so they also get somewhat lost in the data. Artists are also working in completely non-arts settings, health care settings or judicial settings or educational settings. In other words, dance is out there, and dance artists are working, but they are increasingly missed by those NEA figures with their narrow definitions of practice and participation.

Dance Annual Press Release Photo
ASU School of Dance, photo - ASU School of Dance

Dance ‘as we know it’ is in decline, and dance ‘as we don’t know it’ -- in other words, new forms, new practices, new ways of thinking about what dance might be -- is on the rise. Yet the NEA figures don’t in any way recognize that, but it is critical that we do. We need to look at the way artists are working because they are increasingly working independently, not in companies. They employ this huge range of skills that is not just about virtuosic dancing anymore, it’s about creative thinking and practice, it’s about having a very evolved sense of pedagogy, and an individual approach to teaching. It’s about strategic thinking and planning. There are also all the leadership issues that are involved in self-determined art projects where you are not only making you own work and leading a process, but you are also advocating for it, and engaging all different kinds of people and motivating them throughout.

Leadership is an important practice for today’s artists, interpersonal communication, managing your own admin -- as an artist you need to be competent in writing grants, running budgets, keeping the books, and all the processes that are about showing that you can account for the money and funding you have received, then you have evaluation and reflection. There is a broad range of skills that artists now need.

There is also the cultural context of the population in the U.S to consider. Looking just beyond this magic 2050 date -- 2051 according to the U.S. Census Bureau is when the population of the U.S. goes over 400 million. By 2051 it’s 401 million. At the moment, in 2012 it is 298 million. So that is a huge growth in just thirty-three years. And in those thirty-three years the cultural frameworks are going to change enormously. By 2024 they project the peak of the non-Hispanic white population after which the numbers will continue to increase, but as a percentage in the population, the non-Hispanic whites will diminish and by 2060 1 in 3 people will be of Hispanic origin. At the moment it is only 1 in 6 people. By 2060 the notion of minority completely shifts, because what are currently termed as ‘cultural minorities’ make up 37% of the U.S. population, yet by 2060 it will be 57%. So then the only minority will be the white, non-Hispanic population. In other words, cultural diversity isn’t something that we need to be working towards achieving, it’s a reality in the world in which we exist. If we don’t actively address it, in all we do, we are actually denying the reality of the diversity in which we live. It is the reality in which artists will be functioning and our educational programs need to engage with that reality. This is actually an extraordinary opportunity for dance because the art form has the most potential to develop a really integrated curriculum that could really engage with that broad range of skills I talked about earlier, but also engage with the real cultural diversity of the country. This is not a U.S.-specific bubble, the U.S. is becoming increasingly diverse, more truly reflecting the actual diversity of the world - a context for which educational programs also need to prepare their students. In education we need to recognise the latent potential of each individual’s dance - that emerges from a deep sense of who and what they are in the world, with the power to profoundly engage and interact with others. This would foster a true multiplicity of practice that not only reflects the individuals dancing but the diversity of the world in which we live. The challenge to the educational institution is to truly nurture this individual creative practice, and not impose narrow forms and structures that have become the established norms of dance.

Dance can lead the way for how the arts should evolve in higher education by demonstrating the impact of an inclusive curriculum; a curriculum that is centered on creativity as opposed to a virtuosic training -- it should be interdisciplinary by design. The program really needs to engage with the world around it. It needs to be socially aware and connect not only with it’s local community, but with the broader U.S. and global community too. Institutions should not think of themselves as defining the vocational trajectory of each student, but rather empowering students to evolve their own movement forms and their own practice. In other words, become their own advocates for what they are best at doing, which is being their own artists, and not seeking to impose a format upon them. Fostering reflection, the ability to evolve thinking about what you’ve done and to apply that experience to new situations, creating new knowledge, is one of the most important skills students need. And, that experience could really foster new thinking and new practices and new art forms -- the dance that ‘we don’t yet know.’

Many people at the conference were asking, “So how do we do that?” I talked about ASU’s model, which we called the ‘learning lens’. It is not a recipe for a curriculum, but rather a set of principles and it had been our way of visualizing the new curriculum with creativity at the center, informing and being informed by four key principles: context, humanity, reflection and leadership. This offers a framework through which to examine all curricular models. Each curriculum and institution ideally should be different, informed by their context. Not only are they different when they are formed, but they continue to evolve, and we shouldn’t all feel like we are creating the same kind of curriculum. If every school offers a slightly different approach, then you start to produce a diversity of practice and a wide range of artistic practices.

We need to develop questions rather than just give answers; knowing why, not just how; understanding the reasons and the context for things, not just how something is done because someone once said it should be; mindfulness, not just reflex; a very conscious understanding of why you are making the kind of choices you are making, not just because that’s what you think it should be, or that’s how it has been done in the past. Programs should encourage each student to evolve their own personal journey rather than the path well trod. In a way it’s a very anti-conventional, anti-orthodox notion to propose that programs encourage each student to evolve their own practice as opposed to producing hundreds of students who all move or dance in the same way. Yet nurturing individual responsibility, giving each student not only the tools to develop themselves, but to understand that they are self-reliant and that they can make choices that have consequences and can have an incredibly powerful impact on their career and their work.

Our approach at ASU also needed us to question much of the language of dance education. We needed terminology that was much more open and wasn’t rooted in one specific practice, culture or aesthetic. For instance, the whole notion of movement as a ‘technique’ as opposed to movement as a practice, and the idea of creative practice as opposed to choreography or composition. They are all elements that you deal with, but the approach needs to be broadened, so we needed new terminology that enabled students to make their own meaning and bring their own sensibility to these terms. I advocated strongly for the need to broaden the range of movement practices that schools are offering and to get away from the idea that certain forms need to be mandatory. Classical ballet does not need to be mandatory. For some people it’s absolutely the right thing to do, and for others it is completely wrong. We should enable students to make informed choices about what it is they are exploring without imposing a specific way of moving or a specific way of articulating the body.

I also said that we have to discontinue this idea of specialisms especially in the undergrad level where in the second year you decide if you are going to be a dancer, maker, teacher, or write about it. All that does is diminish each student’s possibility for what they want to do, what they want to be and what they could offer the field. At ASU, we needed to bring all the humanities and movement classes together because they had different catalogue numbers. I don’t know if it was like that when you were there, but they had different prefixes and numbers. The idea apparently was that if you were in a classroom you were doing something that was humanities and if you were in a studio then you were doing something that was more physical education. I said movement is about developing knowledge, just as is studying humanities subjects. We needed to as a dance school to advocate the value of knowledge that is also developed in a kinetic way, with and through the body.

At ASU we had to completely invent what a creative practice course was, and get away from old notions of choreography and composition, and be much more inclusive. We worked on cultivating personal reflection and group experiences, where there could be shared senses of personal journeys that everyone else could benefit from. Also, pedagogy was critical for everyone, not just those who wanted to become teachers. Teaching, or leading a group process, is something all artists are involved in increasingly given the evolving social practice.

Socially engaged practice was important for everyone. It was critical to decentralize the theatre as a venue, so that it was not seen as the only site for which artists are making work. The students needed to critically engage the idea of making work in the theater just as much as they did any other location. The specificity of it needed to be thoroughly interrogated.

So, after talking about the ideas of the learning lens, I talked about how we built the curriculum at ASU and then proposed ways for attendees of the symposium to move forward if they want to take on a leadership role in evolving their curriculums. My first suggestion was to engage artists and communities and not just talk amongst themselves -- to get a sense of how the art form is evolving and how artists can work with communities. In other words, understand the evolving professional context, before you start turning out students to enter it. There were alot of principles that could easily be applied to their own program, but they could each come up with different answers. What surprised me was the range of people there and that very few program directors or school directors were in attendance --the very people who are, in a sense, in control really need to be properly and appropriately engaged with all this thinking.

Each Institutional context needs a different approach because of its history, the people, what they want to do and what the skill base is. I talked about valuing the faculty resources that you have, and building on it, as opposed to thinking that everyone is going to be a problem and they won’t want to change. It simply wasn’t the case at ASU.

Then I said, “Choose your battles”. Changing all of this within the framework of all higher education institutions is just too enormous. Let us identify those who really want to lead and focus support on those that do. If ten programs change across the country that would be a fabulous catalyst - we do not need to try to get every program to change at the same time.

AG: So then came day two. Karen Schupp [Associate Professor at ASU] was also there. She was there to give more of a practical, day to day, operations based, what-happened-at-ASU, and how did you actually apply that curriculum?

simon (1)
Simon Dove, photo - Jacqueline Chambord

SD: Exactly. The main questions were essentially practical ones. The first was, “How do you go about doing this when you already have an overloaded faculty trying to just deliver the curriculum as it is”? So I made it clear how we went about it: setting up a two-hour slot once a week with a cross section of faculty dreaming about what the ideal students who left the institution would be like. What skills would they have, what experiences would they have? We didn’t think about practicalities at all at first. Then we started to feed that thinking into the faculty retreats that were extended, but they are in the calendar (we have one at the end of each semester). We used them as full day retreats to then explore these ideas with the full faculty team. We also brought a former dancer who was in the college of education as a curriculum specialist into our curriculum development group, which was helpful in terms of being able to project the implications of certain decisions. He was a great sounding board for what we were thinking.

Karen was very clear that not only were we thinking about changing the curriculum while teaching it; once we starting rolling it out, we started actually teaching three different curriculums. There were already two different catalogues running simultaneously, and then we were introducing a third. The one we introduced of course was also built around modules. We split the semester -- why does a semester need to be fifteen weeks? It just happens to become established like that. We initially taught five-week modules, with three modules per semester. After year one though we changed that to seven-and-a-half week modules because it was just too fast of a turnaround for students to deal with. Then the whole of ASU took on 7.5 week modules the following year. They never thanked us, but they stole our idea!

Curriculum change was not a simple process because we had to change all the catalogue numbers for every course, and that had to be taken through all the admin layers of the university and had an impact too on the community colleges that were running parallel programs that were supposed to be able to feed into our program. Of course, our program was changing so much it didn’t look anything like the programs they were doing, so we had to find equivalencies of what they were offering that could fulfill some of our criteria and look at core competencies and the expected outcomes of those courses for each module.

It was a huge administrative process, but one that I felt personally we couldn’t skip because we had a principle that dance was an equivalent body of learning, a way of exploring the world, a form of knowledge that we needed to give equal weight to. We couldn’t diminish it with this sort of physical education idea, which is where it came from.

Attendees were curious about how students and parents understand what it is that they are getting into. We had to completely change the ‘audition’ process into an interview, which enabled students to bring their own personal movement practice as opposed to being taken through a specific form-based class process. They also had a creative practice experience, and so they could get a sense of how we were teaching and what we were looking at. I’ve had hundreds of conversations with parents. They understand that the passion their son or daughter has for dance may actually be realizable within this new model, where they also perhaps had a fear that the old model would only support a small percentage of those who graduate to really live the life that they were imagining with that art form. Parents really understood that this approach offered a greater range of possibilities and options. I think the students also changed. I don’t know if it was your experience while you were there, but as the program began to be better known, the students who were coming were also much more engaged with the world. We felt that as the program evolved year after year, the students who were applying to the program were not just physically skilled in a diverse range of movement practices, from Ballet to Urban forms, we had people with different kinds of skills, and they were more of socially and culturally aware of the world around them.

Karen also talked about the range of movement practices that are now available. At ASU we went from two that were obligatory to five that were options. She then talked about the research that she’s done in regards to interviewing third and fourth year students about the choices they’ve made, and what motivated the choice, and what happened after they had been exploring these two forms. They talked much more about being able to understand principals better because they could apply them to the different forms. They talked about feeling more empowered because it valued who and what they were, as opposed to imposing something on them. The other big finding was that they felt that they were able to evolve a much more personal approach and that it was being encouraged. We were not trying to impose a specific way of moving. This developed their idea of self responsibility and self development of their own personal practice.

I think that there is a growing body of people across the country and certainly from this conference who feel that it’s not only necessary to change, but it’s time to change now. Both the curriculum and the way we think about dance in higher education needs to change.

The difficulties facing change are perceived to be that there will be resistance to change from senior faculty, or that in some places there is just one or two people running an entire program. They really don’t have the headspace to be thinking big structures and practicalities. Having some kind of national body that can both bring experience together, share approaches, and share thinking would be really valuable, and provide a critical momentum for change. The conference planned to change their agenda on day two into developing practical approaches. We are waiting to see what was distilled from day two, and what they are proposing.

Karen and I also feel we need to look at how we can help advocate for change on a national level rather than just looking at each school individually. How can we help assemble principles or questions that each institution can apply to their own program, and by doing so evolve and develop their own new curricular thinking.

AG: As a kind of standardization? Or…

SD: No, quite the opposite actually; there is a whole set of assumptions built into most dance programs that are now running around the country - about ways of moving, about why people are moving, about what they are moving for, about what they going to do. All of those need to be interrogated and to just have a set of questions is often quite helpful; “Why is this semester fifteen weeks long”? Proposing questions, ensuring everything is examined - and I guess offering some alternative models - could well be helpful in catalyzing change more quickly. It is essential that change happens, not just for the next generation of students, but for the vibrant and healthy evolution of the art form too. The very future existence of dance depends on it.

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Academia, ASU, Simon Dove, University Project


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Simon Dove

is an independent curator and educator, and currently a co-curator of Crossing the Line, the annual trans-disciplinary fall festival in New York City. He was Professor of Practice and Director of the ...
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Alyssa Gersony

Alyssa Gersony is a Queens-based artist making contemporary dance in New York City since 2013. Her choreographic work has been recently commissioned by Triskelion Arts and Gibney Dance. Her solo perfo...
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