In a desire for multiculturalism, many dance programs have added world and hip-hop classes to their curriculums, but, with few exceptions, ballet and modern still reign supreme. At the University of East London (UEL), however, bharata natyam, breaking and other styles favored by East London’s ethnically diverse residents take center stage.
“We wanted to create a new dance program without replicating what was already on offer elsewhere,” says Mark O’Thomas, director of UEL’s Institute for Performing Arts Development. “We asked the East London Dance agency, a range of practitioners and students at other universities, ‘If you were creating a new program from scratch, what would you wish for?’” The answer, now entering its fourth year, is a new BA in dance: Urban Practice.
Housed at Trinity Buoy Wharf beside a complex of artists’ studios built from recycled shipping containers, Urban Practice not only teaches students how to break, pop and lock, but also to investigate the global origins, history and cultural significance of these popular dance forms. (Students get a dose of ballet and modern technique, too, but these traditional dance degree headliners take a backseat to global and urban forms.) Designed to produce versatile dance practitioners and critical thinkers, the program prepares students for a wide range of academic and professional careers.
“East London is transnational,” says Kate Sicchio, the BA’s program leader. “Everyone is from somewhere else and our curriculum reflects that diversity.” Students take four 90-minute technique classes each week ranging from street, house, breaking, popping and locking to capoeira, Afro-contemporary and kathak, the last of which is unexpectedly popular with students who were originally drawn to UEL from their love of MTV and the show “Britain’s Got Talent.” In addition, students spend nine hours each week in traditional lecture courses that focus on historical developments in urban dance, dance and health, arts management, community dance, arts administration and other subjects. They also take choreography and performance modules during the three-year program and are required to complete an internship and an 8,000-word dissertation.
Since its start in 2007, the program has grown from 12 students to nearly 80. For the upcoming semester, 325 dancers applied for 75 places. Prospective students are not judged on technique alone. In fact many arrive without any formal dance training at all. Applicants are evaluated on their critical-thinking abilities in addition to audition results.
UEL has established partnerships with numerous community arts organizations and currently employs 10 London-based practitioners to teach technique classes, in addition to a full-time faculty of young lecturers whose research interests range from transnational B-girl “battles” to dance and film. Because of the wide range of classes, students are graded not on their technical proficiency but on their understanding of the “core principles” or aesthetics of each form, as demonstrated through a 10-minute practicum performed at the end of each term.
Technique classes reinforce lessons learned in theory classes and vice versa, with teachers from both ends of the spectrum regularly collaborating on assignments and grading. “We’re trying to move students away from the idea of, ‘Okay, first we do theory, then we do practice,’” says O’Thomas. Further more, styles are taught according to traditional modes of transmission. Students studying kathak, for example, learn according to an observational guru model, whereas breaking students work with training partners.
Exposure is key at UEL. Student goals range from postgraduate degrees in dance science to careers in choreography and performance, but all are encouraged to investigate a breadth of options. UEL prides itself on preparing students for sustainable careers in dance, which, especially for performers and choreographers, will likely require more than just stage work. The students who are interested in performance (a good number hope to join contemporary or street dance companies or to become choreographers) tend to echo Sicchio’s assertion that “dance is a portfolio career,” in which performing is just one of many professional possibilities.
But is the exposure good enough? Can students ever master a single technique when they study so many? These are just some of the critiques cited by Sicchio. “Since we’re not based on contemporary dance, there is a snobbery from some members of the dance community. Also, hip-hop purists criticize our inclusion of global styles—they want us to include modules on graffiti—but we’re not a hip-hop conservatory,” she says.
UEL will graduate its first class of Urban Practice students this month and will launch a corresponding, practice-based, student-centered MA program this fall. While skeptics may question the legitimacy of a dance major with more breaking than ballet, O’Thomas says, “An undergraduate program is not about producing an actor or a fully qualified musician, and we’re not trying to produce a prototype dancer.” DT
Kat Richter holds an MA in dance anthropology. As a freelance writer and tap teacher, she divides her time between London and Philadelphia.
Photo by Pete Tweedie, courtesy of UEL