Eeva Anttila works as a professor of dance pedagogy at Theatre Academy of University of the Arts. She has published several articles and book chapters nationally and internationally. We interviewed Eeva about her research and her views on dance pedagogy in general.
Your research seems to lean heavily towards social sciences. What is dance pedagogy and what kind of phenomena are the objects of your academic interests?
It’s true that exclusively art-related viewpoints have taken a backseat. Almost always there’s some kind of wider connection to inequality and questions of accessibility: who is allowed to practice or receive art, who has that access? For some reason I’ve found it important to think from the viewpoint of those who haven’t had those opportunities.
You are the only dance pedagogy professor in Nordic Countries. Why aren’t there more?
Firstly, there’s not a lot of research in the field or it is very young. And the education in the field is also very young in Nordic Countries. It takes a lot of time before researchers and research will grow from those roots.
I do have some colleagues in Nordic Countries but no one with the exact same title. For example in Denmark, the education of art and culture belongs to the ministry of culture and all the other university education belongs to the ministry of education. So with its combination of pedagogy and art, this field is kind of an inbetweener in many countries.
Your doctoral thesis about dialogue in dance education was published in 2003. What does dialogue in dance pedagogy mean and how has dance pedagogy evolved since those days?
It means strongly emphasizing listening and interaction, as well as taking into account student’s viewpoint and experiences.
The pedagogic knowledge has increased and developed a lot since those days. Thus, so has the level of discussion and education. For example, recognizing the diversity of gender and the viewpoints of inequality have significantly increased in the discussion.
Of course this development hasn’t only happened in dance pedagogy, but in general the knowledge about oppressive practices and the exercise of power is constantly increasing. We discuss these issues a lot with my students and colleagues.
What does embodied learning in dance mean?
One might think that obviously dance is embodied learning, because you move and use your body in dance. But it’s not necessarily quite like that, because dance can be trained without listening to the body.
Often the body is worn down by training technical skills in ways that can cause severe injuries in long-term. Excessive focus on the mechanical work can also have detrimental effects on the mental side.
That’s what embodied learning is: listening to the body, recognizing the sentiments of the body and taking into account fatigue, pain and all kinds of emotions. The aim is that the dancers themselves can pay attention to their own physical and mental tolerance.
A teacher or choreographer cannot always be aware of what is going on in dancer’s body, and thus cannot regulate the amount of burden or pushing the limits. But a teacher must encourage the students to listen to their bodies. With the teamwork of the student and the teacher we make sure to prevent any severe damages.
How would you like the art and culture sphere to change in near future?
To a more inclusive direction. Increasing accessibility, diversity and equality.
Those things are currently on the lips of many, but we still have this elitist art world. Almost everywhere - not just in Finland – art is this island, isolated from the rest of the world. Often only gifted individuals have the access to that world and only another gifted individual, another artist, can recognize that gift.
To my mind, this thinking is largely mythical. We should be able to believe that an artist may not recognize the drive or the interest a child has in art. And they don’t have to, because that selection process is not the way to equality.
There is this bubble we must burst. And it happens a lot. These days there are many fine projects, institutions and practices constantly spreading, which is definitely great.
What opportunities and challenges does recognizing individual differences bring into dance education?
It’s hard for the teacher, trying to listen and be aware of all student’s present and past experiences. Everyone in a group has a different background, different experiences and interests they bring with them to the class.
It’s challenging to be present for everyone, aware of everything. It takes a lot of patience, as well as listening and body language reading skills. A teacher should be sensible to notice whether the student finds the content interesting and significant.
In general, dance groups can be very girl-dominated and the aesthetic worlds in the student performances are often very similar. There’s butterflies or fairies. For a long time, I have criticized the lack of diversity in these aesthetics of dance education and them being strongly gendered. We should aim to recognize gender sensitivity better in the education. I find it extremely important that we catch up and start producing more diverse thematics and contents in our teaching.
So recognizing individual differences enables those more diverse contents?
Exactly. We can dismantle the homogenic aesthetic world and fit several different realities, ways of expression and themes.
We can deal with many kinds of themes that don’t necessarily have to be traditionally binary, for example. Cultural diversity is also important: we could start to recognize other conceptions of art, in addition to these western forms of dance theatre.
Mixing different dance styles is another important thing. By that, I don’t mean making a deliberate mess. But we should recognize the heterogenic nature of contemporary dance itself. We shouldn’t necessarily push on with one certain style. Instead we could for example be more open towards the students’ own interests.
Text: Kalle Saarela
Photos: Eeva Anttila (header photo), Petri Laitinen (other photos)