Primary Dance Education in Australia

Last week I was fortunate to be able to spend some time talking to Sue Fox who has recently been nominated for an Australian Dance Award for her contributions to Dance Education.  As one of the lead writers of the Australian Curriculum in Dance, Sue is ideally positioned to update us on what has been happening in Australian dance education in Primary schools.

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Sue has worked throughout her career to advocate for dance and to promote dance education in Australian schools from early childhood through to secondary education.  Although her position is currently in secondary education with the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA), Sue Fox, along with Jeff Meiners, is the Australian Dance Council – Ausdance representative for NAAE (National Advocate for Arts Education) and maintains connections with teachers working in the arts throughout Australia.

Here in Australia we are lucky to have a thoughtfully constructed Arts curriculum as part of the P – 10 Australian Curriculum.  It encourages all children and teachers to participate in the Arts in a range of ways to encompass the diverse needs of students and different teaching environments around Australia.

How we use this document and how we learn from different teaching practices is of particular interest to Dance Teaching Ideas, as we aim to support home schooling parents, Early childhood and Primary teachers. 

By teachers sharing information with each other, they are empowered to include dance as an essential part of their implementation of the curriculum.

With this aim in mind I asked Sue Fox about the current state of dance in Primary schools in Australia.

Primary Dance Education

What currently is happening with dance in Australian Primary schools and who is teaching dance?

Writing the curriculum was the first step but the hard part is getting people to take it up and implement it.  One of the things we did as curriculum writers was to put in as much flexibility as possible so that teachers could bring it into their school situation.

The curriculum was written for generalist teachers and sometimes it is being delivered by a dance specialist and sometimes with a generalist teacher.

When you read the curriculum there is a level of terminology, content and processes that need unpacking and needs understanding.  That is not necessarily the function of a curriculum document and what should flow out of that document is really good professional development, resourcing and support. And it’s that support that is varied across the country.

I hear of primary teachers and primary dance specialists in very ad hoc way, there’s no sort of clear networking like there is for Year 11 and 12.   Because they registered with the curriculum authority to say they’re teaching dance in Year 11 and 12, we know who is teaching.  But there isn’t a way to capture who is teaching dance in Primary so that the professional associations can work directly to support them.

My husband was the primary principal, so he did employ a primary dance specialist who was addressing the curriculum across P-6 and  that exists in a number of schools.  But I would say not in every school. Sometimes there are music specialists who are more diverse across the arts, and they implement dance in line with their programs.

Are you finding that there is a place for multi arts teachers in the Primary sector?

I think that’s where the curriculum is going to have its most potential.  I was one of 16 writers and 4 managers in the Curriculum into the Classroom, the Education Queensland resource base. For a year, we wrote units, sourced video samples and gathered resources.

We designed it for discrete Arts units and so they linked to units in other learning areas. We tried to show and support Primary teachers who were not Arts specialists where they might infuse the Arts learning, and also cover other curriculum areas as well.

Have you found that transdisciplinary approach the best for introducing dance in a Primary context?

I think where there is a primary dance specialist, they teach the dance curriculum discretely. But where there is an opportunity for a generalist teacher to gather together learning areas, using that cross/ transdisciplinary approach, they integrate wherever they can. That’s not easy, and certainly a little bit scary for people that don’t have much of an arts background.

Are you seeing external dance teaching artists coming into the Primary schools?

I think the artist in residence program or a person coming into school is still probably happening more in secondary school.  I think people bring in what they can, but, as always, it is budget driven.

What about professional development for generalist teachers?  Do you see that being government driven?

The curriculum was created, each state developed their own resources, and the flow onto that is, to take those resources and do professional development with teachers. But that didn’t happen.  You create a document, you create resources and then you really have to provide support for people to use them.

Years ago, I used to run workshops in dance in Primary for generalist teachers and once you show something in a really practical sense, that’s not about reading a document, they really connect with it.  They would go “Oh I can do that, that’s easy. I don’t have to dance myself and I can get my kids dancing and maybe I’ll dance when I get more comfortable”.

It is breaking down the mystery of being able to create really quality dance experiences and, of course, the more experienced you are, the more you can layer it.

There’s lots of little choreographing and performing activities you can do with students, and then get them talking about it. And it’s not rocket science.

Then you add on to those small activities.  There are people who want to know more, but to provide it, is always tricky. I think that because you’re competing against a large number of learning areas, particularly in a Primary space, there is always that debate about what a ‘crowded curriculum’ is.  What fits into that and what falls off it.

Where does dance sit in this crowded curriculum?

You have a curriculum that you’ve had for a while and it sidelines for a bit because of a Naplan agenda with a focus on literacy and numeracy.  The schools have to work really hard to provide time for the art.

Then you have five arts, and you say “Okay I’ve got a music specialist I’ll cover arts because we’re doing music.”  Then you have to find ways to fit in those other art forms or perhaps not. So, it does become a time issue and it becomes a personnel issue.

If you don’t have someone who feels confident enough to run a dance unit, or the means to provide some sort of support for lessons or units dance may not be viable. It is all those things and every school almost has a unique set of variables.

Is the curriculum adaptable to cope with that?

Absolutely!  This is why we went across bands in the writing process.  Across each band of two or three years you can put the arts where you want to.

If you could any wish for Arts in Australian Primary schools what would it be?

For me it would be that we have dance experiences, all the way through school. That would be not training students to be dancers, but building skills in communication and collaboration, and all those 21st Century skills.

Providing opportunities and access. If we could artists in residence programs, access performances by touring groups, and networking for teachers to build up their confidence and skill set. Yes, that would be lovely.

Do you think it’s become more important for students to have access to the arts, given what’s happened this year with COVID-19, and the Arts being even less accessible?

I think the Arts is a vital space in mental and emotional support for students.  The online nature of this year is really valuable for us to share.  We can access and share and communicate through the online potential.

What being online this year has emphasised is the beautiful thing about our Art form, dance, is when you’re with bodies in the same space. We do not want to lose that.

The ability of teachers to network and how ‘online’ our world is now means that  we can actually connect up teachers so much more.   Websites like yours, that give access to resources at a time and place when you feel comfortable or want to access it, rather than having to go to a class or to a different space or into a different town to do a conference.

I think that’s a real focus for building up communities of practice. Where teachers talking to teachers and sharing ideas and learning from each other.  There isn’t always that font of knowledge that can be an easy access, so there is huge value in those sorts of networks.

Your website is connecting people across the world, that’s what we can do now, it’s no longer just teachers in the same schools or teachers in neighbouring schools but teachers in other countries and across our country.

Now in Australia we are doing the same national curriculum, so we should be able to share ideas that are relevant to all of us. And when you look at the dance curriculum across the world, there’s so much commonality.

A positive future for dance

This is a positive snapshot of dance in Australian Primary schools.  There is a message of a potential to do more and to share our experiences to support other teachers, both specialist and generalist, in implementing dance as a part of an Arts curriculum.

Many thanks to Sue Fox for her time and valuable insights.