Why rigour in dance education is dead and we should take care before replacing it with resilience

I think that rigour is not a helpful metaphor to think about dance education and training. Rigour is what happens to a body when it’s dead. It means stiffness, rigidity, hardness. Not what dancing bodies should be like. Not what dance training should be like, unless it is modelled on military training and disciplining of the body.

I know that, over time, rigour has taken on the connotation of meticulousness and thoroughness. Academic rigour is used frequently as a phrase in higher education. Still, considering the etymology of the word, I don’t think it’s a helpful way of thinking about students’ work. What lecturers probably mean is a critical engagement with ideas and an interrogation of one’s own biases, paying attention to the constructed nature of knowledge. Why don’t we just say that, rather than use rigour as a kind of shorthand?

When we talk about training needing to be rigorous, why don’t we say instead that we need it to be intensive, intelligent, independently motivated, responsive and responsible?

I’m interested in recent developments to coin resilience as an alternative metaphor to characterise dance education and training. There is research emerging in dance psychology about resilience skills. Again, it is useful to pay attention to the Latin roots of this word: it comes from “re-“ (back) and “salire” (jump), so it literally means springing back, bouncing[1]. I like the idea of connecting that kinaesthetic concept to dance. Dancers spring and bounce through space, navigating complex situations and interactions with others with buoyancy, energy and agility.

However, in recent popular usage of the term, resilience has also come to mean the psychological ability to recover from adversity and negative experiences. Cockroaches, for example, are often represented as being resilient. They can survive almost any threat, even a nuclear blast. So what does it mean then for people to say that dancers need to be resilient?

There is a danger that the emphasis on dancers’ resilience normalises the systemic adversity and negative experiences to which dancers are exposed in their professional field. It shifts the accountability of the sector for the wellbeing of its workers onto the shoulders of the individual dancer, who just needs to be more resilient in coping with an unstable career, frequent rejection, low pay and poor working conditions. There is danger of resilience becoming a tool of neoliberal capitalism.

By buying into the resilience metaphor, educators risk neglecting the need for dancers to develop agency and advocacy. Dancers need, as much as anything, to develop critical attitudes that enable them to analyse and challenge the systems and structures around them. It’s not enough for dancers to simply be able to bounce back from setbacks over and over again. Instead, they need the skills and critical voice to blow the whistle. See, for example, the #paythedancers campaign.

I don’t think resilience is dead, but we need to be mindful of how we use the term. I do want dancers to develop useful psychological skills that will enable them to cope better with competitive and challenging environments.

But let’s drop the negative connotations resilience has accrued. This is my call for using resilience in its original sense of buoyancy and bounciness, and for being sensitive to an apparent sector-wide move to co-opt dancers’ resilience as a green light for unfair working conditions.

[1] I first became interested in the word ‘resilience’ and its etymology when reading dance anthropologist Sally Ann Ness’s book Body, Movement, and Culture; Kinesthetic and Visual Symbolism in a Philippine Community about ten years ago. I had to look up the word, as I had little experience reading academic language in English, but at least made me look at and think twice about this word.

Why rigour in dance education is dead and we should take care before replacing it with resilience

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