What is dance for? A conversation with Sir Ken Robinson and Clare Connor
Author, speaker, international advisor on education and the arts and Patron of The Place, Sir Ken Robinson talks to the Chief Executive of The Place, Clare Connor about the innate value of dance, hierarchies in arts and education and how dance may help us expand our narrow views of intelligence.
Clare: Ken, I’m curious: How did you first find dance or how did dance find you? As a young man you lived in a squat here close to The Place, was that your first experience of contemporary dance or had it crossed your life before?
Sir Ken: My background is in drama and drama teaching and I got very interested in TiE (Theatre in Education),a company set up to take theatre into schools and conduct education programmes that were customised and specifically written for education. I went along to a conference in Cardiff on theatre and education where I recall the program included a company called Ludus Dance, and for people in the theatre field they were an absolute revelation. They were doing what TiE did through dance, using dance to tackle difficult cultural and social issues and they were edgy and beautiful, and I was really captivated by it.
This is where I got to know Peter Brinson, a key figure in the growth of dance education in this county. He was like a one-man arts council at the time, funding a lot of those programmes. It was really through seeing Ludus and then Peter’s commitment that I became exposed to dance and I was very taken by it. It just struck me as perfectly obvious that this was very very important.
I think it was Thomas Peachum, a conductor at the Proms, who made a comment when asked about the popularity of the Proms at the Albert Hall, and he famously said, “The English don’t understand music but they love the noise it makes”. I felt a bit like that about dance, I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I loved the look and the feel and the energy of it. It just spoke to me in a visceral sort of way. People have always danced, and here is the impulse to dance being refined into an arts practice which is making available ideas that can only really be put in that way.
All of that plus the sheer beauty of seeing dance! I remember going to the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden for the first time...
“When I first became exposed to dance, I was very taken by it. It just struck me as perfectly obvious that this was something very very important.”
Clare: How old were you?
SKR: Probably 30. It wasn’t a thing we were exposed to in the part of the country I grew up in. When Nureyev was on television with Margot Fonteyn at the London Palladium, the general reaction was to snigger at it. I certainly felt growing up, whatever this was, it wasn’t for us. But Peter believed strongly that ballet was for everyone and he created this outreach programme that turned a lot of people to ballet for the first time. So I went to my first ballet at Covent Garden and I was just entranced by it.
Clare: I grew up in Cambridge - we were “town not gown” - and in my secondary school my PE teacher introduced dance to us. It was always outside of school because it wasn’t in the curriculum, but she would take us to see things and one of the first companies I saw was Ludus Dance Company.
SKR: When I was at school in Liverpool there was no dancing in the curriculum at all. It was a boys school and there was a girls school across the playground. There were two occasions in the year where we were formally brought together, one of them was for the health lectures in 6thform, one on sex and one on smoking and the message for both was don’t do it its bad for your health. And the other occasion we got together was for the Christmas dance. In anticipation of it for a few weeks there were rehearsals in the school hall for the dances that we would engage in: Squaredances, Waltzes, Gay Gordons, The Dashing White Sergeant. These were conducted by the PE teachers and you had to pick a partner, so we got to hold actual girls we’d only seen across the playground. That was the only time we saw dance.
Clare: I remember seeing Ludus for the first time at the age of about 11 and my mouth was open. My first recollection was of the sweat and the heat of the bodies and the athleticism close up - just seeing young women and seeing strength and power in that way. I remember thinking I want to be able to do that. I want to be able to experience it. It was a very visceral feeling of witnessing an intelligence in the body.
When I encountered your work - I was in teaching by then and as an adult understood much more about different forms of intelligence - I felt that what you had done was to give a recognition and a credit to this kind of intelligence. Most of our education system doesn’t value that and I keenly felt it growing up in Cambridge, full of very smart people who I used to describe to myself as these amorphous floating brains. They didn’t seem to exist in or occupy their bodies in the way people who dance do. When did you understand about different kinds of intelligences?
“When I encountered your work, I felt that you have given a recognition and a credit to the kind of intelligence that is in the body. Most of our education system doesn’t value that.”
SKR: When I left college, I decided to do a PhD for no good reason except that I liked the idea of it. I thought it meant 4 years to hang out in pubs! My supervisor was going to be James Britton who had written a book called “Language and Learning”. I couldn’t believe that I would meet an actual live author who had written a book, I thought they are all dead or kept in a separate room somewhere. When I met Jimmy Britton, he was a thin man with intense eyes, puffing on a pipe in a book-lined study. I told him about all my drama work and how it was deemed eccentric at our school, where plays were read and not performed. So, I wanted to do research into why drama wasn’t as widely valued in school as it should be. And Jimi Britton suggested a book to me, Susan Langer’s“Philosophy in a New Key” … and every sentence was a revelation.
She was tremendously smart and insightful but her main point was that language is only one example of a much broader capacity for representation and that there were some ideas that don’t go into words and for those we have other forms of representation. The way you look at a piece of visual design or a painting is structurally different. In a sentence the words are all laid out, linear, they’re bound together by the laws of grammar and syntax and they only make sense in certain sequences. Whereas in visual arts all information is available there and then, buts it’s all a process of meaning making. We are meaning making creatures, we use every mode of representation at our disposal to make sense of the world around us and to interpret them is an act of creative engagement.
Intelligence is multifaceted and highly dynamic and interactive, it is embodied and affected by our states of being. This is not a new idea, it’s deep in the heart of most ancient philosophies - but it’s revolutionary in contemporary education practise which is based on the premise that all thoughts happen between your ears and anything worthwhile is made sitting down with a pen.
Clare: I went to the Asian Media and Marketing Awards a few years ago, where they wanted to celebrate Asian artists in a culture that really says that you should be a doctor and a dentist. Jatinder Vermawon the award and he said: “I just want to say to all the elders here that I am a doctor. As a theatre director, I am a surgeon of the soul” So I thought if he’s a surgeon of the soul then choreographers are scientists of the body in space and time. But we’ve never been able to get that status.
“Dance, of all the disciplines, is always the least valued. I’m very interested in why it should be, given the evident value of it.”
Sir Ken: Dance, of all the disciplines, is always the least valued. I’m very interested in why it should be, given the evident value of it. The hierarchy I think is because of this dominant idea of intelligence where physical things are seen as ‘unintellectual’. You can only counter that by arguing for a broader conception of intelligence.
A lot of people saw Ludus, but they didn’t all come to The Place and make a life out of it - What was it for you then that was so transformative about dance?
Clare: There was a sense of freedom I was able to correlate with my country dancing in primary school. I remember as a child putting my plimsoles on, running down the corridor with excitement, this sense of exhilaration.
I learned to build my confidence through dance, and I learned at the age of 14, having failed dismally in my secondary education and having to retake exams and struggle through, how to learn and to be successful in dance. Auditioning here at The Place gave me a passport if you like to get out of the place I had grown up in and get to London and experience something that I felt was my tribe. Being amongst other people from all different walks of life who love dance was the most liberating experience of my life. But it was also about recognising my intelligence. I was then able to transfer my intelligence of learning into a written form for my dissertation on the history and development of community dance, because it was community dance that got me here.
It’s been a journey of transferring skills from one thing to another, but it was dance that gave me that springboard. Had I not had that – I really don’t think I wouldn’t have been able to get into higher education. I wouldn’t have been successful. It was just about finding that place to love and learn in equal measure.
“It was dance that gave me that springboard. Had I not had that – I really don’t think I wouldn’t have been able to get into higher education. I wouldn’t have been successful.”
Sir Ken: I had Polio as a child and when I got out of hospital, I went into special ed in Liverpool. One of the problems with special ed then, still now to a degree, is the assumption that if you have some kind of physical difficulty that it’s associated with some intellectual impairment as well. I know that, because I used to get on the bus as a kid and the conductor would suddenly speak up.
I knew when I was at school that a lot of us were very smart, but if you have a view of intelligence which is based on a facility with language and good writing, then if kids are showing difficulty with that, the assumption is they are not very intelligent. If you have a narrow view of ability, you automatically create a large category of disability. Whereas if you start out with a more generous conception of intelligence then you can see that people have all kinds of talents which are being obscured by your preoccupation with their disability. Special needs is an example of how the narrow view of intelligence becomes toxic because it starts to denigrate abilities people have which are largely unrecognised. It does for all of us.
“Dance is in a way the poster child for the importance of the arts because it’s the most dramatic example of how we underestimate something that’s vitally important.”
Clare: I have a question for you. A colleague of mine recently won the German Tanzpreis 2019. She has built a choreographic career in societally engaged and participative dance, the last work she’s done was working in the refugee centres in Berlin, really bringing people together through dance. One of the things she said in her speech that really struck a chord is that’s its really difficult to dismiss somebody once you’ve danced with them. How true that is! Once you’ve been in this collaborative space with people, feeling that body and that warmth, it’s much harder to ignore them. In a culture where our politics are really divisive, maybe we should get the politicians dancing! How could we do more to encourage people to understand that value of embodied intelligence?
Sir Ken: Dance is in a way the poster child for the importance of the arts because it’s the most dramatic example of how we underestimate something that’s vitally important.
Our intelligence and our sensory perception of the world is much more complex than the idea that we have 5 senses. If you ask a room full of people how many senses they’ve got - I’ve asked professional athletes, dancers, professional footballers - they will invariably say five. Maybe six, there’s the spooky sense, intuition. The fact is, that we have at least nine physical senses on which we depend. They include balance, without it you can’t function. Dancers totally depend on it. There’s our orientation in space, dancers depend on it. Pain, temperature, somatic senses, hunger, the visceral sense of fear – the point is people have heard it said so often that we have five senses that it’s a close question. But like most categories of conventional common sense it turns out to be untrue. And so, part of my argument with people is that if we underestimate something that should be so obvious to us as our physical senses, how much more likely is it that we underestimate something more complex like intelligence?
“To me dance is the expression of the richness of our intelligence as embodied creatures, it fulfils every social purpose, from personal communication to ritual to artistic insight and delight and it’s in every culture.”
Dance is like Language. You don’t have to justify it. There is no good reason why we speak, we just do. The writing research unit, looking at the function of written language, came up with a simplified model. Broadly speaking there are three main functions of language:
- Transactional– the language to get the world’s business done, regular conversations, communicating clearly.
- The second is Expressive language–framing ideas and feelings and perceptions, writing a diary or keeping a journal maybe.
- And the third one is Poetic Language– where we refine the use of language, so it itself is a source of aesthetic pleasure, where it is evocative and powerful in itself as language.
And it seems to me that dance does that: we all move all the time, we live in a world of gestures and physical connection. Then you go to a disco or club where you dance, not to convey anything to anybody necessarily, just giving vent to your own physicality. And then we have dance as an art form where you try to refine all of that for aesthetic pleasure. To me dance is the expression of the richness of our intelligence as embodied creatures, it fulfils every social purpose, from personal communication to ritual to artistic insight and delight and it’s in every culture. What we ought to ask people is to explain why it’s not in education rather than why it should be.
Sir Ken Robinson, author, speaker, international advisor on education and the arts and Patron of The Place
Clare Connor, Chief Executive, The Place