Three years ago I embarked on a journey of discovery and decided to completed a masters degree. The reflection and analysis of my dance practice that I’d been doing in the years leading to this were getting too difficult to ignore, and I wanted to explore some of these ideas with real direction and purpose. But much like the dancers that form the centre of my practice and research, I was on a journey for which I did not know the path, direction or destination.

Last week I attended the confirmation ceremony for the completion of my postgraduate degree – MA in Community Dance. But the award is not an ending point, the journey has been ongoing for the last three years, and the thinking, analysis and reflection on my practice as an artist continues now. So long as we are practising, meeting new people, experiencing new environments, we will always be learning. 

I am glad for the opportunity at this point, to look back at where my research first started – with an interrogation of exactly what was happening in the dance studio when I teach, lead, facilitate, guide, (all terminology falls short of the true experience in this research context!) the dancers I work with…


What is happening here…?

My research started with a big question: ‘what is happening here!?’. Based on my practice in community dance, I continue to be intrigued by the role of the artist, power dynamics in the dance studio, self actualisation, and dancers ability to take ownership over their dancing experience. A good place to start seemed to be an analysis of the function of the artist as a leader. Therefore immediately a number of other questions came to be important:

  1. What is at the heart? – what is inspiring the work?
  2. What am I ACTUALLY doing? – what are the practicalities or logistics of the process within the studio?
  3. Do I need to be there? – do these things need a leader to be present?

The starting point of this work is represented in a process diagram which an be found here:

This research delved into the role of the artist, practitioner, facilitator,  (again with the terms!) to consider how the role functions as a ‘touch point’ in the journey of self actualised learning for the dancer. The key focal point being the place of connection between the dancer and the guide and the many forms that the role of the artist can take throughout a learning journey.


Consider the traditional archetypal guides in fairy tale stories:

The Threshold Guardian:
Represented in many ways – a person, an object, the Protagonists own psyche; tests the Protagonists strength, wit and worthiness in some way; sometimes they function as an obstacle which the Protagonist must overcome to move forward. 

The Mentor:
Offers advice and guidance; often by the Protagonists side but can have their own agenda which is not always aligned with the Protagonist 

The Shadow:
The opposite to the hero – a villain or antagonist or more interestingly the Protagonists dark side; the shadow can represent the worst possible outcome

The Shapeshifter:
A character that combines all three of these – The Shadow, Threshold Guardian and Mentor – the role shifts constantly to provide guidance and obstacles; brings out the best in the Protagonist


This could be read as a metaphor representing the role of the dance artist, and a person centred approach. Self actualisation comes from self discovery and this is only possible if the artist can act as a Shapeshifter in the learning process. A combination of the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian and the Shadow, each using a different method for communicating with the Protagonist (or dancer) in order to deliver a message or support the forward trajectory of their learning. However it is not his or her responsibility to lead the learner throughout the journey. It is self determination that will make the most meaningful impact for the learner.

To illuminate this, consider the role of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, on Alice’s quest for find her way to the White Rabbit.

The Cheshire Cat is a shapeshifter in his physical form, and he fits perfectly into this archetypal form as well. He tests or provokes Alice to think for herself – which way does she want to go and why?; he guides her by recommending a course of action which could have consequences outside of her goals – however this will be a journey of discovery for Alice and he is leading her towards this self discovery. In the end, the shapeshifter is supporting the protagonist to make decisions for herself, to take ownership over her quest and eventually to become a self actualised learner.

So looking at this from the point of the dance artist, I refer back to some of those big questions:

  1. What is at the heart? – The person and their individual journey of discovery
  2. What am I ACTUALLY doing? – The dance artist is shifting role constantly in order to provide the best support, whilst remaining only suggestive of the multiple possible routes to learning, not drawing a map from A to B
  3. Do I need to be there? – A question not yet answered…


Next time…

Look into the dark space

Maybe what education’s about is creating a situation people can stand to look into…stand on what they know to look into the dark space of something they don’t know, and that education’s actually supporting people in that place, and that learning is actually about what you don’t know instead of the way I was brought up and educated, which is about what you do know.
— Williams, David (2003)