Negotiating Diversity:

Learning About Community Dance



Caroline Plummer and Ralph Buck describe some university students' first journeys into community dance. Caroline reflects on what she learnt from three distinct ‘in the field' experiences.


I love to dance. I would like to ‘help people'. That's as far as I had got until I heard of a paper (course) on offer by the dance department at my university called ‘Dance in the Community'. It sounded interesting. I signed up.

My name is Caroline - I am a third year anthropology student, and part-time ‘dabbler' in dance. Despite having been interested in the concept of community dance for some time, and having read about and viewed several community dance initiatives, finally here was an opportunity to experience firsthand various dance activities in community settings. This article describes my forays as a ‘learner' into the intricate field of community dance, and attempts to convey the richness of the experiences afforded to me.

PHSE 364 Dance in the Community is a one-semester paper offered by the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. The course provides us with three distinct ‘dance in the community' experiences. These are: dance with the elderly; dance with students with disabilities; and an ecological dance camp. A different lecturer led each experience: Warwick, Ralph, and Ali each drew on their personal experiences and interest areas as they guided us in these unique educational environments.

Through these very different experiences, the course explores relationships between people, ‘their' dance, and the wider context of their communities. Each community setting provides a unique journey of its own, and yet together the three experiences form a cohesive and powerful whole - united by their common underlying values of equality, diversity and negotiation.

As a group of learners from vastly different backgrounds and academic disciplines, the community dance experiences found a different echo within each of us. In the following descriptions, however, I attempt to convey the feelings and reactions that were common to us all as we were confronted with the joys and demands of our first journeys into community dance.

Capturing Our Experiences

Dance is a meaningful and enriching possibility of human experience. We can all dance, yet it seems in contemporary society that many of us have forgotten how to tap into the simple joy of feeling our bodies move. Or maybe we simply lack the opportunity to do so.

There is huge potential for dance to play an active and stimulating role in the development of ourselves, not only as individuals but also within the dynamic process that is "community". Community Dance initiatives encourage this potential to be realised. There has been considerable literature over recent decades focusing on the multiple benefits for participants and also the challenges presented to practitioners within the sphere of ‘Dance in the Community'. (Fensham, 1996, Ausdance, 2000, Foundation of Community Dance, 1996).

However, the aim of this particular article is to present a view of Dance in the Community that seems to have had little attention; the "learner's" perspective. By learners, I am referring to the viewpoint of a group with little or no previous experience of dance in a community setting before; learners who are discovering, through experience, how to engage in and facilitate dance with and within diverse community settings. In most instances community dance activities and events are organised, led, taught and facilitated by someone with experience, knowledge, enthusiasm and firm belief in the value of the activity. In this study, however, three distinct ‘dance in the community' experiences will be explored from the perspective of the ‘uninitiated'.

PHSE 364 Dance in the Community, allowed for us to experience a breadth of phenomena that dance and communities offer. Implicit in this phenomenological learning approach is the valuing of individual meanings that we as learners form through our experiences, rather than only relying on notions of ‘objective truths' (Eisner, 1993) presented within theory and literature. As one of the ‘learners' I immersed myself in each activity, while at the same time attempting to retain a sense of outside observation of the process and its responses - within both myself, and my fellow students. In this sense this article can be seen as largely based upon the auto-ethnography / personal narrative style (Ellis and Bochner 2001). Further to this, I'm mindful of Connelly and Clandinin (1987), who value practice, the experience, as the beginning point for developing understanding and any consequent theory. I attempt to capture, as Schwandt (1994) describes it, "[the learner's] world of experience as it is lived, felt undergone..." (p.125).

Community Dance Framework:
Art, Education, Politics, Society.

The Foundation for Community Dance U.K. has identified four core areas in community dance; art, education, politics and society (Peppiatt, 1996, p. 2-3). These encompass the defining values that are integral to the processes of community dance. These four areas provide a useful framework within which to analyse our learning experiences, and the endless questions that they raised.


An introduction to community dance strongly challenges our perceptions of what might be considered as ‘art'. Brinson (1981) explores questions surrounding the creation of a community dance aesthetic, in response to the common dismissal of community dance products as "not real art - just social and educational" (p.128). While none of our sessions were primarily performance or product oriented, the aesthetic value of the dance we created was still a key point of contention and a challenge to our existing notions of what ‘dance' looks like.


As Jasper (1996) states, "community dance is education" (p.11). Jasper describes in detail the unique educational aspects of community dance, and refers to the distinctive educational opportunities it affords the participants - particularly with regards social interaction and the emphasis on "doing". The educational value of our activities within PHSE 364 was equally applicable to us, the community dance ‘learners' as it was to those within the groups we worked with. Also, the distinction that Jasper (1996) makes between being ‘facilitator' or ‘leader' as opposed to a ‘teacher' of community dance became particularly apparent to us in our experiences. It became evident that the nature and progression of our activities must be a democratic and active process directed by the group as a whole.


Bartlett (1996) discusses politics within community dance as being about expressing a set of values and how we share these values. "It is also about a set of values which relate outwards into the world, about the kind of world we want to inhabit and the way in which relationships and exchanges are played out between individuals, communities, cultures and the planet itself" (p.15). Our three experiences all taught us about valuing diversity - diversity of dance forms, diversity of contexts in which dance happens, and the diversity of reasons that lead people to be involved in dance activity. We learnt that everyone can dance, and therefore everyone should have access to dance - regardless of age, physical or mental ability or background, and that promoting this equality can be a political statement in itself.


Our emphasis at all times was on process rather than product, and through this we learnt the importance of developing dance content and method that was appropriate to the specific needs of the group. Akroyd (1996) stresses that the concern for "holism" (p.18) within community dance empowers the individual, and furthermore that this empowering nature of community dance activities can be extended to become a significant vehicle for wider social change. In meeting the ‘communities' involved in our sessions we were, in a sense, creating a new wider community. Our own social boundaries were extended, with dance as the catalyst for the creation of new relationships and the destroying of old stereotypes.

Brooklands Retirement Village

We piled into the mini-van and buckled up, ready for the short drive down the highway and over the hill to Brooklands Retirement Village. We were a group of 9 students and 2 teachers studying Dance and the Community at the University of Otago. This was our first meeting with a group of 10 elderly men and women who had formed a weekly social dance group at the village - and our very first foray into the realm of community dance.

The day before the trip, we had spent our class-time discussing personal notions of both community and of dance. We talked in particular about our pre-conceived ideas of the elderly and their dance activities. Warwick, our tutor, had been to Brooklands several times; he sketched for us the vivid personalities of various residents, and a description of what we might expect in the session. All the same, there were plenty of questions from the group, both curious and anxious about the forthcoming experience. "What are we actually going to do with these people?" seemed to sum it up.

Warwick reassured us that all would unfold quite naturally tomorrow, but suggested we may want to take a dance to show them - so as not to turn up "empty-handed" so to speak. On the other hand, he was conscious of not pre-empting what the Brooklands group might want to do. From past visits, Warwick knew the Brooklands group enjoyed a lot of ballroom and line dance, and suggested that we might devise a short adapted samba to take with us. Having created a line-dance style samba, we also began putting together a Cha Cha sequence - just in case!

Arriving at the Brooklands village, we drove through expansive lawns and beds of roses, with a view of the mountains. Brooklands village is a community of approximately one hundred retirees, living in independent brick homes or a nursing home option if needed. In effect, Brooklands was a suburb of its own within a reasonably small rural town. Many residents had made the lifestyle move to this extremely pleasant and safe locale from the nearby city from whence we had come. We congregated in the village social / activity room; a lovely warm room with several large round tables surrounded by luscious dark blue velvet chairs. The bar at one end of the room, the spacious kitchen and the beautiful parquet dance floor immediately indicated to us that the social life of the village was far from being retired!

Gradually a process of mingling began, as several students broke free from their shy clusters and introduced themselves to various residents. The Brooklands crew were buoyant and welcoming, pro-actively encouraging these first interactions. Suddenly Stan - who we soon came to understand was 'the leader', teacher, and keenest dance enthusiast of them all - cut through the prolonged and slightly awkward mixing with a firm announcement that he and the Brooklands group were going to teach us the Cha Cha. "Find a Partner" - and we were off!

I introduced myself to Shirley and we moved onto the floor where Stan was already in full swing with his lesson. The Brooklands group were familiar with Stan's Cha Cha, and even more so with his dry sense of humour. After quickly demonstrating the 1,2 cha-cha-cha step and rhythm, he proceeded to show us 3 different variations and was off to put the music on. He obviously trusted that we would all catch on and, importantly, that we would learn from each other. The hour-long session raced by, as we did the 'Cha Cha' then the 'Stoshe', followed by the samba we had created. The Brooklands residents learnt this quickly and happily.

We finished the session by sitting down and talking. Stan, in his particular 'no nonsense' style, asked students to introduce themselves. He particularly requested we talk about our degrees and what we planned to do with this dance experience. As we went round and introduced ourselves we all learnt a lot - even us students about each other. We came from a diverse range of disciplines including Law, Design, Performing Arts, Physical Education, Psychology, Anthropology and Education majors. For some dance was regarded as a "fun" addition to their degrees; for others "the only subject at uni that challenges my thinking". We heard that dance was "something I plan to teach in schools as part of the new curriculum", as well as "I don't know - my friends said this paper was great so I'm giving it a go"!

The discussion prompted much interest in the fact of young people learning dance within schools. This group of 70-85 year old people were intrigued and happy to hear that dance would be taught in the New Zealand school curriculum from 2003 in all schools. They wondered who was going to teach the dance and what types of dance; they were alert to the issues and interested in our involvements. In talking of themselves, many of the residents recounted dances they had learnt in their own childhood, some in England and others in New Zealand. Stan revealed he'd learnt ballroom dance as a youth in London; he recalled the bombing raids, the sirens and the blackouts as a vivid backdrop to these memories. He most fondly remembered meeting his wife Billy while dancing, and the ensuing years of ballroom dance competition they shared.

As we were leaving, one Brooklands resident suddenly came up to me and said "I learnt dance in school when I was five years old in England. We had to have a partner, and every year after that I learnt to dance with a partner. It was expected". In this very first session, we had gained a small insight into the profound role that dancing had played in the social fabric of these lives. Stan had at one stage made the comment, "Today young people dance at each other. We danced with each other". It was food for thought, especially as many of us went off over later nights to the dance parties that were the dance form most familiar to us.

The mini-van ride home had been abuzz with excitement, with everyone exclaiming what a wonderful time they had had. The next day, in class back at the university, we reflected upon the visit as well as discussing what we might like to do in the following four visits. For most of us the visit had been about 'people', more than about dance. As Marc said, "It was cool just by meeting the people". He went on to say, "I was amazed by their eyes and the way they held me, you know - they were so alive". Catherine exclaimed that she had found it good not having any formal structure: "the session just went along, it was nice." We discussed the development of this comfortable informality where the needs and interests of the participants organically found a sense of partnership.

Angela was most grateful for the sharing of experiences: "...sharing a story with me, its like a gift." The personal stories, the sharing of knowledge, and the creation of a new social experience as we communicated with bodies and words; all provided an introduction for us to issues of community and the role of dance.

We discussed the need for increasing visibility in our communities of older people, and a greater valuing of their contribution to our society. We also found our stereotypes of what it is to be ‘old' were beginning to be challenged. "Ageism is insidiously at work inside almost everyone's thinking. We make assumptions, use stereotypes. We believe our own myths" (Frances, 1999, p.6).

Along these lines, Houston (1999) comments, "Older people are assumed to be slow, stiff, immobile and uncreative. In fact, there is a prevailing stereotype which defines old age as a time of universal and certain infirmity" (p.8). This perception was certainly negated for us by our contact with the Brookland's residents. We encountered lively, energetic older people who were self-motivated to dance on a regular basis. We can assume that the physical and social benefits of the weekly dance sessions were both invaluable to the group.

In later sessions the familiarity between us grew. Stan became more bold in his comments on our dancing; "Warwick, stop pumping water" he proclaimed, referring to Warwick's arm position in the waltz; to us all he constantly remarked on the importance of creating a sense of continuity, a gliding, an elegance. We were learning social graces of old, holding hands, curtseying and bowing and rather enjoying it. At the same time, we were teaching the residents new things. We introduced new steps to their sequences, said "Why don't we try it like this", and injected a certain youthful cheekiness to the routines that amused if not convinced them! They were also highly amused with the 'dance' that Warwick initiated toward the end of one of the sessions. Having got us all into a circle formation, expecting to be introduced to some new steps, he told us to turn to the right and give the person in front of us a massage. There was much exclamation and laughter from the delighted residents, and the comment by Stan "So this is what they teach you at university these days!"

The sun is streaming through the window onto the gleaming wooden dance floor. I am holding the warm, worn, wrinkled hand of Frazer in one hand, while the other rests lightly on his slightly hunched shoulder. We are not sure who is guiding who around the dance floor - at times we stand on each other's feet, and at others we get it right and it feels like we are gliding through the air. Our eyes smile at each other. We are from different eras, different dance styles, we have different bodies and different stories. But here, in the waltz, our stories meet and all the differences melt away.

Sara Cohen School for Children with Disabilities

Disabilities. What does that mean? What can we expect? Will we be out of our depth? It is the day before we are due to have our first dance session with Sara Cohen School, and hesitations abound. As a community dance class we have already spent four sessions with residents of a retirement village, and a certain group cohesiveness and confidence is forming. However the demands of this new assignment seem much greater. All of us had had contact with older people such as grandparents and family friends prior to the sessions at Brooklands. Conversely, the majority of us have little or no previous contact with 'disabled' people...let alone dancing with them. Will we know what to do? Ralph reassures us that numerous caregivers would be present and would participate in the session, and also that he would be doing all the teaching; all we have to do is turn up and join in.

Friday morning in the dance studio at the university, passers-by hear an uncommonly loud noise-level as they meander past. There is a wheelchair parked outside, and many pairs of shoes piled up at the door. They have arrived. It may sound a big build-up, but this really was a very new and nervously awaited event in the minds of our class. The body language says it all - we are clustered around the edges of the room, many holding onto the bar or physically touching the wall in some way. Some of the newly arrived Sara Cohen students produce sudden verbal explosions, while one bounces up and down continuously, clapping his hands. There is a lot to take in. Gradually timid smiles begin to bounce around the room, and a couple of the more confident Otago students approach a young boy from Sara Cohen and his carer; a tentative conversation begins. There is a ripple effect as cautiously, with hands out in front as if feeling in the dark, we approach each other. The hardest part is over.

Ralph is decisively yet fluidly in charge of the session. "Howdy-doody everyone" he exclaims, and is greeted by exclamations of welcome and delight from many of the students who have danced with him before. "We are going to start by walking around the room. Just walking, and when you pass people say hello to them". And so it begins. With the simple act of walking, the room is suddenly alive with movement and greetings. From swinging our arms as we walk, we are invited to hold someone's hand and swing someone else's arm! The transition to physical contact is so easy, and soon we are walking backwards, round in circles, and following someone else like carriages of a train. Fears are slowly melting away with the warmth of the interactions and the swinging, happy music.

Upon sitting down in a large circle, we are already a thoroughly stirred pot of ingredients. Able students sit next to disabled students sit next to carers sit next to...whomever they happen to plonk down beside. A circle, that age old symbol of togetherness. Ralph calls out instructions, and we move together. The movements are generally simple but still dynamic and fun. They are also thoroughly open to interpretation and adaptation, according to the respective abilities present. Many times Ralph will pick up on the way a particular student in the group is moving, and this will provide the next directive. "Let's move our arms the way Julian is", and Julian grins with satisfaction as he realises he is leading the group. There is no onus on us to 'make up moves', when the Sara Cohen students create such authentic, joyous movement themselves.

A wheel chair sits abandoned in the corner of the room. Its owner is otherwise occupied, waving his legs in the air with the help of a carer on one side and a uni student on the other. Partners and clusters such as this have formed around the room, with certain students getting to know one or two people more closely in a process that seems to happen naturally and spontaneously. Over the following two sessions these relationships are frequently resumed and strengthened.

During the three sessions, Ralph introduces a blend of activities; both improvised and set dances, partner and group work, activities with props and without. He is perceptive to the atmosphere in the room, and senses when things are getting too hard, too easy, too boring or too out of control. It is a careful balancing act. The same is true on a micro-scale within our small groups. Members of our class are gradually establishing the same sense of what works and what doesn't, where the boundaries lie, and are learning the flexibility and perseverance required to make some activities successful.

At times working with the set dances seems easier, particularly with the sense of structure and musical direction they provide. One such dance is an adapted samba that Ralph teaches us seated in the circle. All our bodies are doing the same thing at the same time, and we exclaim 'hola', 'hola', 'hola' with the ambling, festive music. In another session we learn the Russian troika. We are horses, running through the snow, and those that make the connection begin to whiney with delight. Ralph quietly suggests to Max's caregiver that he best get back in his chair as "we are really going to move". And move we did. The troika became a moving wheel of semi-organised chaos with plenty of noise and spontaneous choreography. Everyone was totally swept up in the hectic pace of this rousing Russian rampage, leaving them glowing with satisfaction and exhaustion at its conclusion!

However it was the quieter times, those intimate moments of connection during improvised dance, that will perhaps stick in our memories the longest.

Catherine forms a statue, inviting someone to come and complement her. Suddenly, in a beautiful act of synchronicity, tiny shy Jason slots himself between her arms and simply stays there, poised. It is the first time he has participated. It is perfect.

Alys is creating beautiful arcing movements with her arms above and around Kelly, who watches them with delight. She begins moving her body to match and gradually her arms, usually held tightly to her chest in a flexion pattern, begin extending out. They are reaching and arcing, diving and swooping, dancing with Alys' arms and with patterns in the sky. Alys and Kelly continue dancing in this manner long after the exercise is finished.

Angie is dancing with smiley Mary, who holds a long bright scarf. Mary makes Angie dance how she wants her to by moving the scarf in different ways; up and down, twisting, turning, trailing on the ground and leaping through the air. Ang must be getting tired, but she is sustained by the delight that is written all over Mary's face. They dance together for the rest of the session.

Scarves were just one of a number of different props used in the sessions. Most popular of all was the large parachute that Ralph produced in the final session. Surrounding it in a large circle, there seemed to be endless things we could do with this multi-coloured, ‘rustly'-sounding sheet of fun. Knowing each other's names and personalities well by now, we could call out whom we wanted to go scrambling under the parachute, who needed support in doing so, and who was likely to get up to a few cheeky tricks. We just couldn't keep Brian out from under that thing! It was a great source of enjoyment for us all, regardless of ability or age.

In speaking of all the joy, it must also be acknowledged that moments of discomfort did exist when we became acutely aware of our inexperience. When Ricky persistently pushed his face towards a few girls, it was hard for them to know what to do. What were the boundaries? They ineffectively shrugged it off with a giggle, until learning they could gently but firmly hold him at shoulders length, letting him know this was not acceptable. And what to do with Kelly's dribble? Should we ignore it, or was it within our role to help her mop it up? At times the caregivers were explicit about what we could do to help them; such as Max's carer who patiently taught Julia how to safely lift Max into his chair and strap him in. It felt good to be of help.

In fact watching other class members have their minor yet major successes, sensing their ease with a certain student, there can almost be a sense of envy or panic - "I'm not that good with them. Am I doing O.K.?, I don't want people to think I'm scared of or disgusted by them? I want to look like I'm helping." But then the panic abates, and the realisation dawns that just by being there we are helping. Helping to create a new experience for all involved, helping to forge a new kind of multi-dimensional community through the sharing of our two groups. And that's what it seemed to be all about. Sharing.

It was also, on reflection, about challenging our notions of who can dance and what dance can be. Working over several sessions, a new aesthetic appreciation grew in us that allowed us to delight in the beautiful work being created. "Differently abled bodies are essential to comment on and challenge the standards of beauty and such work illuminates the very real fact that our human bodies are diverse in every way and constantly change" (Leask, 1999, p.11).

Key principles of equality and access, as expressed by the Foundation for Community Dance (1996) were lived and dance out on the studio floor. Merely having the Sara Cohen students come on to the university campus can be seen as a political statement of equal opportunity in itself. It certainly opened the eyes of other members of the Physical Education School who wandered past the dance studio.

The sessions with Sara Cohen also broadened our notions of what education can be and can provide. There was a vast amount of ‘social' education occurring - both for the Sara Cohen students, but equally for us university students. We learnt as much about ourselves in that context as we did about anything else. Jasper (1996) comments on the distinctive, experiential approach to education provided by the context of community dance, "Community dance has broader educational aims, concerned with facilitating social interaction and assisting people to be at ease with themselves within a group" (p.11).

Although some of us went away enthused to be involved in similar projects in the future, for others it may have been a welcome relief that the whole 'ordeal' was over. However, we all learnt something in one way or another about ourselves as much as about others. Sara Cohen School was a community dance experience that required us all to foster new sensitivities and a broader definition of what dance can be. It was a true learning experience.

The Catlins: Dance and Ecology

Woolly hats, tramping boots, sleeping bags, chocolate - there is an ever-increasing pile of gear outside the PE School as we prepare for departure. We are about to begin our much anticipated dance camp to the Catlins.

The Catlins is a coastal region in the southeast corner of the South Island, New Zealand - an area high in scenic and natural values and low in population. The country is rugged, forested, moist, running down to dramatic sea cliffs and long arcing beaches. It is simply spectacular, and even by New Zealand standards undiscovered.

Yet discover it we would, over the two days and nights ahead. The goal of our trip was to ‘tune in' - to pay vital attention with all our senses to the eco-systems we were to encounter, and in doing so to acknowledge the rich webs of inter-related processes occurring around us. By tuning in, we ourselves would then bring a participatory consciousness to the environment around us - fostering a notion of community in the broadest sense.

Our first stop after leaving all signs of industry and populace behind us was a spot called ‘Nugget Point' - described as the region's northern boundary and best-known coastal landmark. We donned waterproof coats and scurried along the narrow cliff-top track in an effort to beat the rapidly advancing storm clouds from the South. In fact, heads down and shoulders hunched against the cold, we might very well have missed the whale if Sarah had not shrieked and drawn our attention out to sea.

A magnificent and most gracious whale was slowly making its way down the coast, parallel to the track down which we walked. He accompanied us all the way to the headland, alternately surfacing and diving again into the deep blue waters around him. Intermittently his blowhole would sound a deep, mysterious welcome to us, followed shortly by a wave of his tail. He was a magical and unforgettable omen for the trip ahead.

We had learnt a valuable lesson that was enforced again and again over the next two days. That to accept and adapt to the environment, including the weather (and in the Catlins this is extremely changeable!), would mean that we would be much more open to seeing and experiencing all around us.

Our accommodation at the Pounawea Camp was simple and sparse. As classmates for the previous 10 weeks we knew each other to varying degrees. By the end of the weekend, we would know each other well. Living together, and more importantly eating together, are powerful communal processes. By the end of the weekend our sense of ourselves as a group had evolved into a sense of our own unique community.

An important aspect of this community forming process occurred on the first night.

We sit around the table with full bellies, and the glow of red wine on our cheeks. We wear big ugly jumpers and our make-up is gone. We move around the table and each speaks briefly of our lives - what brings us to this table? It is a powerful thing, this sharing of our own stories, and when we finally disperse to our beds we each know we have been trusted with a treasured gift.

Piling back into the van in the morning, the weather is again looking dubious, but our explorations will not be so easily hindered. Our destination is Purakanui Bay, and we determinedly dodge puddles and cow pats till we reach the beach. Purakanui Bay is a stunning cove, bordered on one side by rugged cliffs, and on the other meeting farmland interspersed with small pockets of native bush. There are complex and beautiful rock formations bordering the sea. The breakers are huge.

This aim of this first journey, in and around Purakanui Bay, is simply to walk; but to walk with a sense of identity and awareness. Ali encourages us to remain silent; to notice and remember as much as possible of the images, objects, textures around us; to be awed by the grandeur of the landscape and simultaneously intrigued by the smallest rock pool. We write and draw our responses, or simply let them subtly weave into the web of our consciousness. Some sit with eyes closed just listening, some move, some touch. We are tuning in.

We take this feeling with us as we move on to the nearby Purakanui Falls, where the river falls about twenty metres is a series of beautiful cascading steps. I think because many of us are dancers, we are naturally drawn to the powerful sense of movement that emanates from the falls. It is continuous passive motion and we are entranced. If I glance over I can see my classmates all standing to face the flow, writing furiously in their journals - all obviously deeply inspired. They are surrounded by a gentle glistening mist of water, and beyond that the dense and intensely green shrouds of fantastic beech forest. Again, while the grand captivated many, one could be equally enraptured with the delicate patterns of deep green moss at our feet, or the ghost-like leaf skeletons that hung near our cheeks.

After sharing our sandwiches with several million sandflies during lunch beside a small estuary, the afternoon held slightly more structured activities.

Ali asks us to choose one square metre in the area beside Lake Wilkie as the site of an individual investigation. We spend a considerable amount of time acutely observing every aspect of the site's ecology, layers, life forms, shapes, textures, sounds - gradually familiarising ourselves with and imprinting this small slice of the environment within ourselves. When asked to describe our piece of earth to others in the class, the responses are diverse and revealing.

Angie describes her area in terms of dance vocabulary, knitting together intimate choreography of linear flax formations and whirling sand bugs.

Peter astounds us with his botanical knowledge, categorising each and every species; familiarised with a name.

For Sarah and Rachael, it is the language of poetry that best captures the delicate moments found within their spaces. Drooping branches lean together and ‘kiss' over the water, while moss ‘like a wet cat' is a tactile friend.

This was tuning in, in its finest sense. By identifying so strongly with this one area, our focus and attention was at its most acute, and possibly the most rewarding.

The afternoon is drawing to a close as we walk with long shadows down to Tautuku Beach. The mood is one of quiet contemplation and gentle play. As we sit on the bank above, watching Ali place toitoi heads in beautiful undulating arcs across the sand, we suddenly notice Ralph drawing the outline of our shadows in the sand below. The idea explodes - soon complex choreographies of our silhouettes dance for metres along the beach. We place maram grass hair and shell necklaces on our shadow shapes, or run back up the bank to see if we can fill someone else's outline. It is a magic occurrence of spontaneous art-making that is both transitory and non-disturbing in the environment.

The second evening holds times for both quiet individual reflection, and for reinforcing the group cohesion of the previous night. In one corner of the communal room is a sizeable table, laden with books on ecology, environmental art, poetry and so forth. While some sit browsing through books that had caught their eye, others are writing or gently strumming the guitar. People come and go from the kitchen, where a great feast is in the making under the hands of many chefs. In observing this scene of dynamic stability, the clusters of conversations and mutual exchanges, I could compare it to the complex inter-relationships and connectedness that is at the heart of ecological philosophy.

On the final morning we head off to Surat Bay, a long sandy beach that is a favourite haul-out place for sea lions. Once again we are accompanied by extreme changes in the weather and this adds to the sense of drama created by the presence of the large and potentially aggressive sea lions dotted along the beach. We are asked to each lead the class in an activity that explores some aspect of the environment around us.

We become a grain of sand, swept and spun along the beach with abandon by the wind.

We sit in the maram grass listening to the soundscape around us then attempt to imitate it.

We are proud sea lions, arching our backs, looking up and beyond the sea to the sky.

We perform a ritualistic sun salute as the sun arrives with its warmth and light.

Our experiences at Surat Bay are generally somatically based, yet at the same time have an external aesthetic that is dynamic and pleasing. This is the last destination of our camp, and our sense of identification with the environment around us has evolved profoundly over the weekend. We are now creating dances through a process that has grown organically from our ecological experiences.

This type of genuine engagement with the environment is what the renowned philosopher Arne Naess is advocating in his ‘Deep Ecology' (1973) and similarly the basis of Theodore Roszak's ‘Ecopsychology" (1995). Key principles of inter-relatedness and co-operation become real as they are lived out in our ecological way of learning and dance making.

Suzi Gablik, author of "The Re-enchantment of art" discusses the processes we have worked through in some detail. For her, environmental art "has the potential to reconfigure our emotional, physical and spiritual orientation in the world" (Gablik, 1991, p.12). By fostering an ecological consciousness, we listen to others and to our environment, thus paying attention, or "Tuning in - establishing a dialogue with the place and tuning in to it's subtle web of inter related processes" (Gablik, 1991, p.91).

The camp enforced for us the notion that there are many different ways of learning and many different learning environments. Our learning experience in the Catlins was almost totally experiential, and in this lay its transformative power - we were learning with body, mind and spirit.


These three community dance experiences, the three journeys - Brooklands, Sara Cohen, the Catlins - were each so different. Each setting provided its own distinct challenges to us as learners, and similarly its own unique rewards. And yet on closer examination, the three experiences can be shown to share fundamental similarities.

Our community dance experiences all taught us that diversity matters, diversity in people, diversity in the environment. Diversity in how we dance and what can be considered as dance.

Our experiences were also about negotiation. They were about finding a meeting point with the groups we interacted with, and subsequently forming a wider community based around our point of commonality - the dance.

Finally, our experiences all instilled in us an attention to the here and now. Community Dance is about dancing with or talking to this person, it is about adapting to this environment and this weather, and about opening our senses and perceptions to find the dance in every interaction.

At Brooklands Retirement village we danced. With Sara Cohen children we danced. Amongst nature in the Catlins we danced. And in all instances there was a dance within the dance, a dance of acceptance, respect, equality, and opportunity. A gift.


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Caroline Plummer

Caroline Plummer is a recent graduate of Social Anthropology from the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. She has also completed a Graduate Diploma in Dance, focusing on Dance in Education and the Community. She is currently running creative dance classes for children, and undertaking further Anthropology research. Yoga plays an important part in her life.

Ralph Buck

Ralph Buck lectures in Dance Studies at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, and is completing his PhD about dance in the primary school classroom. He has developed dance curriculum documents in Australia, and is currently advising the development of teacher resources and in-service support for dance in New Zealand.

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