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Katie Colombus: Dance gets a manifesto, but it’s white noise in election year

A detail from the cover of Dance: A Great British Success Story A detail from the cover of Dance: A Great British Success Story
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Dance UK last week published its manifesto on dance – a paper put together by a group of MPs who have been lobbying parliament about the importance of dance since 2006.

The paper, entitled Dance: A Great British Success Story, lays out a clear policy regarding the effect that dance can have on health, education and society, and the All Party Parliamentary Dance Group claims to have been working hard to inspire, create action and encourage political leaders that dance has a place at the centre of arts policy.

The manifesto is a fantastic champion piece for the UK dance scene and British culture – after all, we produce some of the most exciting choreographers, companies and performers in the world, from Matthew Bourne to Akram Khan, Candoco to Rambert, as well as our leading educational institutes such as the Royal Ballet School or Laban Conservatoire. But it should also serve as a warning as to what we could lose in the very near future, and begs the question: how much does this government really value dance?

In Scotland, more people dance than play football

There are many grand claims in the manifesto highlighting that dance is at an all time high in terms of popularity: the Big Dance 2012 involved 5.7 million people; a Mothercare survey in 2013 put ‘dancer’ is the 4th most popular career choice for children, more so for boys than girls, and in Scotland more people dance than play football. And yet despite dance never having been so popular in the UK, arts in education is on the decline under our current Tory government.

Michael Gove’s decision to leave arts subjects out of the English baccalaureate in 2012 could see the current creative economy (an industry, which according to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport represents 5% of the UK economy, at £76.9bn in 2013) destroyed in one fell swoop. Ipsos Mori research suggests 27% of schools subsequently withdrew arts subjects such as music, art, drama and design from the curriculum – mostly performing arts at 23% – thus downplaying the fact that the arts are as important as literature, maths, geography and sciences.

Gove’s policy was widely criticised by cultural figureheads such as Grayson Perry, Nicholas Hytner and Jude Law, as well as the general public. And yet there is still no official specification for arts in education at all, and far fewer children are engaging in artistic pursuits at school.

The Dance UK manifesto calls for politicians to champion and support local dance organisations, develop funding and encourage partnerships. It contains enough research to back up claims that dance is undoubtedly an important aspect of our artistic education, creative industries and national cultural identity. But clearly the success of the guidelines will depend upon the General Election in May.

The very same day that Dance UK published its manifesto, Ed Milliband pledged that Labour will put arts at “the heart” of government if elected in May, saying that creative education in schools will be strengthened in the curriculum as well as after-school clubs. Speaking to the Creative Industries Federation he spoke of increased access and provision for young people, a clear pathway into cultural and creative industries and a move away from “backward-looking, narrow educational philosophy”. He commented: “Arts is an area where Britain still leads the world. If you believe in social justice, if you believe in a more equal society, then access to the arts and culture is not an optional extra, it is essential.”

Dance is undoubtedly an important aspect of our artistic education, creative industries and national cultural identity. There are benefits for physical education, tackling obesity, discipline, communication, teamwork, analysis, physiology and confidence. And there are enough ways for people of all ages and abilities to get involved, from classical ballet to ceilidhs.

What we need now is for local healthcare, social service providers, schools and communities to engage with the principles of the research, to really leverage dance to its full potential. This is a real chance to show off about the dance industry in the UK and a call to not sit on our laurels and let the route from dance education in schools to our current creative and cultural industries just fall away. This collective of MPs can be as enthusiastic and as passionate about dance as they like, but without genuine government backing, it seems to me that this is all just white noise in election year.

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