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Decolonisation Helps Department of Dance Pedagogy with Creating new Bachelor’s Programme

09/12/2021

With the Department of Dance Pedagogy at Stockholm University of the Arts (SKH) reforming their Bachelor’s programme from the ground up, they’ve decided to take on an issue almost all dance education in the West is forced to deal with: The complete focus on European and North American perspectives and knowledge systems. But how would you reform an institution like this from within – decolonise it – not least considering all teachers themselves are of Western background and have been schooled into precisely that system?

Five researchers at the department take on one potential approach in answering such a question, analysing the first step in the process in the journal article ”Future designs of tertiary dance education: Scanning the field for decolonizing potentials in a major change project at the Department for Dance Pedagogy at Stockholm University of the Arts” in the special issue Decolonizing perspectives on arts education of Journal for Research in Arts and Sports Education (JASED)which was published in late November.

Then Dean of the Department of Dance Pedagogy, Beata Alving, initiated the major task of overhauling the Bachelor’s programme, and the project is currently led by Camilla Reppen, who is also an Assistant Professor at the department. One important impetus was students who themselves brought up concerns about what they felt was an ossified and white normative course.

“Dance as an artform has a heritage of elitism and exclusion,” explains Tone Pernille Østern, Guest Professor at SKH and one of the article’s authors. “It contains an idea of ‘perfect bodies’, traditionally defined as pale, white bodies, thin, skinny bodies, normative bodies without disabilities. The dominant aesthetic is still western, and the highest status is afforded to, for example, classical ballet and contemporary dance.”

Scan cards and homogeneity

The project’s first step consisted of gathering knowledge on how the change could be construed, and it is that process which the JASED article describes and analyses. The project group used a system borrowed from the design world, where hundreds of people around the world were given the opportunity to fill out so-called scan cards, where they could contribute ideas and thoughts on the future of dance education through text and images, later collected as an exposition on The Research Catalogue.  Based on these cards, the group then organised a set of opportunities and challenges that the change would present. This preparatory work has now been processed and sent to the Board of Education and Research (NUF) at SKH.

“We’ve been challenged during this work in ways we hadn’t expected,” says Tone Pernille Østern. “For example, we were asked as part of the peer review why we weren’t addressing Sweden’s colonialism in Sápmi and elsewhere. I think the hardest thing is often to examine oneself.”

While certainly many voices from around the world were invited as part of the project, there is an issue inherent in the process and the research, that the project group have been clearly cognisant of: All the authors of the article, and the group organising the reform project, are themselves white, Scandinavian and have a middle-class background. All except one have also received their education within the department.

“It’s clearly a counter-productive situation,” says Tone Pernille Østern, “even if I firmly believe white people are also duty-bound to work for decolonisation. At the same time, the vast majority of the personnel at the department are themselves white. This is something we’ve pointed out in our material sent to NUF: the most important change has to be to recruitment policy.”