Why should you study a dance degree? | Interview with Dance City

As well as being an arts organisation that draws international artists to its theatre and is a focal point for its dance community in the northeast of England, Dance City has offered higher education programmes since the 1990s.

Dance City has been evolving its undergraduate course to create a programme that not only reflects changes within and outside of the dance world but also aims to set students up for more sustainable careers in the arts. 

Dubbed ‘dance in the real world’, we caught up with Head of Higher Education Dr. Gillie Kleiman to discuss whether it was revolution or evolution that fuelled the BA course redesign, as well as reflecting on what can be done to counteract the tremendous threats facing arts education today.    

DAJ: Thanks for chatting to us, Gillie. Let’s perhaps start with looking at why a dance degree is so important? 

Gillie: I think it’s good to do a dance undergraduate course whether or not you plan to work in dance, because being involved in dance education and dancing changes who you are. It fundamentally changes your relationship to embodiment, people and space. It allows you to think about your impact on the world. From dance performance to a dance class, it’s a contribution to what the world can potentially be. 

DAJ: What were the motivations for redesigning Dance City’s BA course?

Gillie: When approaching our periodic review, which started a couple of years ago now, our core focus was to continue to think about how our BA course can prepare students for a real future in dance. When it comes to picturing a dance career, the traditional model is based on the fantasy that students will get a full-time role in a dance company. This is not real. It’s a model I’m no longer interested in prioritising, because then we’re only providing education that meets a need for perhaps 16 people at best across the country each year. 

We wanted to shift the focus to a freelance or ‘gig’ model which is more representative of the way people work in the sector. I am a freelance dance practitioner alongside my work at Dance City, and I have a very fulfilling professional career where I can make and do work that I’m interested in, which is very different to imagining having or being in a company – and I’m in the majority. It was more about shifting to this emphasis. 

DAJ: How has the course evolved?

Gillie: The new course which starts this year has similar essences of the existing course in the sense that we start and end with dancing. Dancing is what we do at Dance City; it’s the way we generate knowledge, and so it is very much front and centre. We have modules on the existing course that we are keeping such as dance technique and performance, and arts management modules. 

Focusing specifically on the course content, we are introducing new elements. Throughout the BA course there will, for instance, be a greater focus on choreography and making dances, and how we can choreograph the world. In the final year students will be able to create and run their own festival as part of their final project which we’re really excited about. In the first year there is also a new module on the arts and social change which feels really current. 

We’ve also changed tack slightly and put the placement year into the student’s second year of study as opposed to the third. This means they can apply their learnings a little earlier, get a taste of what it’s like to have a career and come back to us for a final year. This was very well received by the review panel, as well as the students who were consulted on the changes.

DAJ: Could you tell us more about the reflexive or reflective practice that’s part of this new course? 

Gillie: We’ve embedded reflection into all three years of our BA programme as we want our students to always be thinking and reflecting, as well as dancing. We haven’t been prescriptive about what the content of that is so that the modules can be responsive to what’s happening in the world, but it might be that we’re reflecting on our relationship to the climate crisis, ableism or racism, and what we might do to approach these important things.  

It is our hope that through embedding reflection into this course, we will make our students more curious and our sector more resilient. 

Q: There is another new module in third year called producing and curating dance – I believe this is the first module of this sort for BA students in the country. What is curation to you?

Gillie: Curating comes from ‘to care’ in Latin. When I think about curating, I’m thinking of the different layers of care. Am I taking care of the fields of dance and of its history? Am I holding its history? Can I support the audience in different kinds of spectatorial frameworks to have a rich experience in relation to these elements of care? To me curation is not just picking or choosing things, and it stands very separately to programming. It’s less market-focused and is more specifically about the field of dance itself. 

I would definitely like our field to be more articulate about what curating is. It is our wish that this course will help a generation of graduates to start having important conversations about this topic.

Image of Dance City students in the studio.

DAJ: What other changes have been implemented beyond the modules?

Gillie: One big change that we have made is teaching four days a week. This comes from a strategy from our partners University of Sunderland, who provide the academic infrastructure and funding framework for our BA course. 

This new four-day approach revolves around a ‘student-first’ approach. This means students have one day away from Dance City where they can work, rest or take care, as well as study independently. I am really glad that we’ve adopted this as it’s a crucial access tool that’s not really available in dance education.

I want to add that the University of Sunderland is a wonderful partner. It’s so great for our students to be part of a larger university and have access to its facilities and wellbeing support. University of Sunderland has the capacity to create specific support plans for each student. It also has a brilliant student union where it’s my hope that students will become increasingly politicised and do other things outside of dance that interest them. With this partner, we have all the benefits of a larger university in a boutique, student-focussed institution and that is brilliant. 

DAJ: What measures have you adopted to help make students more independent thinkers?

Gillie: One example of how we’re doing that is through creating a BA course that is less prescriptive.

For instance, on our new course students can do different things according to their own interests, which is fundamentally for me a decolonising and inclusion possibility. It means students with their own interests and abilities can move through the programme according to their needs, knowledge and background. 

So, let’s say a student has come from a background where they’ve been doing tap three times a week. Whilst we don’t offer tap on our course, we do have an excellent range of different tap classes on the public programme which students can attend alongside community dancers.

By being less prescriptive and more flexible, what we’re saying is that we still want students to pursue their interests. We decided to take this approach as we realised that it’s important and valuable. If a student is still very much interested in learning more about tap – a dance style emerging from African American jazz culture – then why can’t that learning infiltrate and influence other spaces and people? Everyone can be positively affected by that student’s embodied knowledge. For me this is a radical possibility.

DAJ: Was the course redesign more about revolution or evolution?

Gillie: The seeds for the new course were already planted in the previous course, so in a lot of ways it was about tweaking the emphases and responding to our environment. So, it’s definitely evolution rather than revolution. From the example that I’ve just mentioned however, there are some kernels of revolution that could grow into things that could be big for students, artists and those in our region… 

DAJ: How do you keep the course less prescriptive whilst still giving students guidance?

Gillie: We are at an advantage in the sense that this is a niche course which only takes around 20 students each year, so students can be very well supported. They have a personal academic tutor who they meet with once a week and see in different sessions and modules. Students also meet one-to-one with module leaders for lots of the modules, so there is a lot of guidance available. 

L: Image of Dance City students. R: Headshot of Dr. Gillie Kleiman.

DAJ: What is it like for Dance City to be a dance organisation and a higher education institution at the same time?

Gillie: Students get to see the dance industry in 3D – in real life! The professionals are here taking class and there are so many artists, producers and other cultural workers passing through our building. At Dance City there is a palpable dynamism and energy between different people encountering dance in different ways. We are all learning from each other, and the students are very much a core part of this. 

As well as being a higher education institution, we also have a responsibility to our local dance ecology. Part of that is thinking about who’s going to graduate from these programmes and how we can encourage them to be part of our vibrant and vivid dance culture in the northeast. 

DAJ: What’s it like being based in Newcastle?

Gillie: Newcastle is my hometown and it’s a brilliant city. There’s something that feels possible about Newcastle that doesn’t in London. Here in Newcastle, you have access to the beautiful countryside; there’s great transport links to major UK and international cities; you’re a metro ride away from the northeast coast which is a thing of documentaries. There’s a huge student population in Newcastle. Honestly, there is such a great energy here and it shouldn’t be that the only way to success is to go to London. What does success even mean if everyone’s competing for the same room in a houseshare, let alone space to dance?

DAJ: There have been so many horrendous cuts to arts institutions and universities over the past year. What will the HE sector look like if cuts continue?

We’re seeing dance departments disappear and I think it’s really worrying. I’m not necessarily worried about there being enough graduates, but I am concerned about the diminishing level of discourse and infrastructure to deliver arts education. 

We have had 12 years of austerity, and if we don’t have autonomous cultural learning spaces, there is no chance of change. We need to develop intellectual and embodied forms of critical thinking and I think dance and higher education is a great place to cultivate awareness of what’s going on in this country.

Applications for Dance City’s undergraduate course are still open. Find out more and apply here.