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“I Can’t Dance” as the expected response

The previous blog argued that, despite our best intentions, a multi-sport curriculum is not capable of achieving the aims and aspirations we have for physical education. Likening the multi-sport approach to a chocolate teapot it shows that despite our best intentions and significant efforts the approach cannot stand up against the heat of competition and the weight of expectations – it simply isn’t built the right way. In concluding the blog shows how models like Sport for Peace are better vehicles for learning in and through physical education.

This week’s blog argues that dance is a way of moving that has been looked at through a limited viewfinder. It has been pigeon-holed as ‘being’ for a certain type of person. The blog argues that dance projects a ‘way of being’ on the dancer. If you dance, therefore, you must be a certain type of person. It argues that this ‘way of being’ comes both from the dancer himself (in the case of this paper) and the audience. In other words, the very act of being a dancer positions you (in the eyes of many including the reluctant male dancer) as being effeminate and almost certainly homosexual. In concludes by suggesting that we need to overcome our own sense of ‘who we are’ and imagine ways for all of us to “move in other ways” – ways that don’t predict who we are.


Volume 4: The curriculum and the subject matter of physical education

Paper 79:

Gard, M. (2003/2012). Being Someone Else: using dance in anti-oppressive teaching. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume IV. (pp. 143-158) London: Routledge.



My ‘take home’ message – the implications of the research on practice

“I can’t dance” is not just a song by Genesis (in which they can’t dance) but the watchword for many men – young and old – when it comes to combining music and body movements. For me it used to be a badge of honour and one that I wore proudly as a sportsman and a teacher: in fact, as a man. Dancing was certainly not something that I wanted to be associated with. I was a man’s man and my sexuality was not in question.

Such was my dislike of dancing that, in some ways, it spoilt my wedding day (and probably many other nights out with my wife) because of my steadfast refusal to do anything but my first dance. I was secure in the knowledge that a) I didn’t like dancing, b) men don’t dance (at least not straight ones), c) no one expected me to be able to dance or wanted to see me dance and d) I could get through life quite comfortably (more comfortably in fact) if I didn’t dance.

The fact is I’m simply not comfortable about using my body in that way. I somewhat excel in multiple sports – I always used to say teach me a sport and I can play it in ten minutes (much like many of you I’m sure) – and yet I never wanted to turn my hand (or body) to dance. Why? Was it simply not cool? Not the done thing? Do I really lack rhythm or do I just lack the desire to get some?

One of my regrets in life has always been my inability to speak another language. As a teacher I didn’t have much call for it as I didn’t travel much for my job and even when travelling for a holiday I got by on the fact that everyone could speak a bit of English. “Eine grosse bier bitte” (or the national equivalent) was always enough to see me through and when it didn’t work I could get by with mime. I remember being on holiday once with my brother in Germany and after a few “lemonades” the night before he was a little worse for wear. I found a pharmacy but neither of us (the pharmacist or me) spoke a word of each other’s language. Certainly not enough to say can I have something for a hang over. After I mimed drinking and feeling poorly she smiled and said “ah alka seltzer.”

The fact is the body is a tool for communication. It can show emotion and is an integral part of the way we interact with one other and yet many of us (men stereotypically but I am sure that it’s not only men) simply won’t do it. It reminds me of the episode of Friends with the fake Monica. The real Monica takes a tap-class to meet the fake one and is found saying “do you ever just feel that sometimes you are so unbelievably uncoordinated?” just as Rachel dances into shot in perfect time. Phoebe has already shown her legendary unselfconsciousness and is dancing how she wants to dance and Monica simply just struggles. This is me. As soon as dancing is mentioned or music and rhythm are combined in the same sentence then I freeze. Then I laugh (a little embarrassedly) and bring out my catchphrase “I can’t dance.” In the episode of Friends, Monica changes her name and her attitude by becoming Monana and that frees her to be a little reckless. It’s certainly the only way I’ve ever managed to do it. By acting the fool or taking part in school drama I lost my inhibitions. Well a little anyway. Temporarily. But why does it take – in the words of this week’s paper – “being someone else” to free us up to dance?  


The Paper

Gard introduces his ideas by suggesting that there are “only certain ways of moving and thinking [that] are legitimate within schools.” To fit the expected norms is to prosper and to miss them is to run the risk of ridicule. However, what makes matters more complicated is that schools are not the same, and neither are the subjects within them. Gard argues “schools have their own particular multi-layered geographies in which different ways of moving and thinking are either explicitly or inadvertently produced in different places and at different times.” So to move and think in drama and theatre studies means something different than to move and think in PE or Maths.

PE, as has been reported elsewhere, has a “strong and enduring association with males and male power”. This way of thinking sees maleness and femaleness in very traditional ways. Gard writes that these constructions “show that the ways our bodies ‘feel’ and the ‘natural’ capacities which are assigned to them are …not only a matter for the mover and (in the context of this paper) his sense of himself, but also the viewer/s. That is, embodiment is equally a matter of what looks right as well as what feels right.”

To further explain this idea Gard uses three examples: Ted Shawn, “Alex” and his (Gard’s) PETE students.

Shawn, working in the early 1930s, was a pioneer in challenging the idea that “a dancing male body was considered unquestionably ‘effeminate’ and deviant, and given the prevailing laws against homosexuality, was not far from being a crime.” He did this by forming a dance company “Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers” and developing an “ultra-macho, ultra-athletic style of choreography.” Gard held that Shawn was a controversial figure. He denounced homosexuality and “was particularly preoccupied with portraying his Men Dancers as athletes and connecting dance with the heterosexual respectability enjoyed by competitive sports.” Indeed he “deliberately sought to recruit physical education undergraduates” and “looked favourably on those who have excelled at some form of competitive sport.” In short, while he fought for the right of men to dance and the stereotypes associated with male dancers he didn’t seek to challenge the wider feelings in society about homosexuality.

“Alex” (a pseudonym) represents a secondary school boy between the age of 11 and 14. More specifically Alex is a boy who not only has a low level of enthusiasm towards dance but is also a boy who easily states his hatred of dance. While at first sight Gard suggests that this reaction is not easily explained (at least not rationally) it does seem to represent findings from the physical education literature. At the heart of Alex’s belief seems to be “the ways in which sexism and homophobia amongst male (and some female) students and teachers have contributed to the marginalisation of dance within physical education and disadvantaged those students, predominantly girls and women, who enjoy dancing.”

The final example is drawn from Gard’s own work with his teacher education students; all of whom are assessed on their ability to compose and dance a movement sequence of between three and five minutes. Most specifically Gard talks of one performance that drew screams of laughter from all (including himself) and left the audience feeling good. Gard talks of the quality of the piece when considered against the assessment criteria and yet its limitations when considered against the literature. Drawing on the work of the feminist dance educator Sue Stinson he holds that “this kind of creative dance can make teachers and students feel happy but that it produces ‘docile’ bodies and decontextualized movement.” In other words while Gard agrees that the students are busy, happy and good he also questions what the purpose of the task might actually be

Gard concludes by suggesting that “who we are informs how we move and prefer to move” and yet he challenges us to think about the “extent to which movement experiences might make available new ways of thinking and being.” This is the challenge to the profession (in all levels of education). How can we over come our own sense of ‘who we are’ and imagine ways for all of us to “move in other ways” without always becoming “someone else?”

What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use the comment box below to ask a question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something or are looking for help then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear for her work behind the scene as copy editor and Routledge (part of the Taylor and Francis group) for donating a copy of the Physical Education: Major themes in education series. Their respective help certainly forms a vital part of the production of this blog, and in getting out on time and in a semblance of coherence. However it is important to note that any mistakes that remain are mine.



Andy Vasily
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On Tuesday 05 August at 08:54 Andy Vasily said
Hi Ash, thanks for this blog post and as always, you've got me thinking. In order to explain my current perspective on 'dance' I need to visit past perspectives that I held. Like you I was never a big fan of dance and still wouldn't classify myself as enjoying it all that much. I love to watch my sons and wife dance, but it certainly takes a lot of prodding to get me up there. After a few pints, I've always ripped out a few classic moves, made a bit of an ass of myself, laughed a lot, then shut down my dance shop until the next time around. When I first began to teach PE, a fear of dread and impending doom would creep into my world as the dance unit approached. I knew nothing about dance. My only memories, and bad ones at that, were having to learn square dance and other types of folk dancing in elementary and high school. I was never taught to appreciate the human potential for creative movement. It certainly affected the way that I taught dance early on in my teaching career. However, as time passed and I began to better understand the powerful role that inquiry plays in learning, new ideas began to take root and I truly questioned the effectiveness of the way dance was traditionally taught in PE programs. Dance falls under the umbrella of movement composition. I would question why it is that entire units in PE had to be focused exclusively on dance. As a result, I began to tinker with broadening out my movement composition unit to better engage my students. I wanted to draw in the hesitant and shy students more. I also wanted to help the more athletic boys understand that movement composition is about a hell of a lot more than only dance and requires lots of athleticism, balance, strength, and body control. My current perspective on movement composition is that dance should only be one part of it. I let my students explore multiple avenues of creative movement at the beginning of the unit. We look at big ideas and concepts that apply across all styles and forms of creative movement. Together we identify common criteria for success. We emphasize the concept of 'appreciation' as being critically important in movement composition. As humans, we should appreciate and value the human capacity to move in amazingly creative ways. It's about those big ideas as my students and I move forward in movement composition. Cirque du Soleil, Stomp, yoga, elements of gymnastics, Just Dance, martial arts sequences (the kids love copying Kung Fu panda moves), sword fighting, etc. We visit all of these types of creative movement, so that the students can understand and develop an appreciation for just how creative they can be in movement composition. If we limit our students to learning only dance, we are preventing them from truly understanding the countless, beautiful ways in which they can move their bodies. Since I have opened up my movement composition units in this way, I can say with full certainty that my students are generally more engaged. It's also way more enjoyable for me to teach movement composition in this manner.
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On Thursday 07 August at 04:02 Jo Bailey said
I really appreciate and admire your honesty in this post - and I am sure there are many teachers out there, both male and female, who are terrified of dance - either to dance or to teach dance. I would say I used to fall into the latter camp - I liked to dance but, when it came to teaching dance, I felt unprepared and uncoordinated.. I vividly remember going to a dance class with a friend when at school and I was always several steps behind. I felt incompetent. However, dance has now become something that has transformed my teaching. I became a Zumba instructor several years ago but I never had any plans to teach it. My colleague thankfully pushed me to step outside of my comfort zone and do a couple of songs in her class and I found I was empowered by the experience (after being petrified had worn off). Before long I was teaching my own classes, adding it into our curriculum & sharing it with students in other schools. What I discovered was that dance gave me the confidence to try anything new -I was telling my students there were no right or wrong moves and the only expectation I had was for them to try, no different for anyone faced with uncertainty or a daunting challenge. The same was true for myself - I would make mistakes but so what? Fall down seven times, get up eight. Once my inhibitions about teaching dance had gone, I found I was more expressive, more engaged, and modeled the behaviour and attitudes I wanted my students to adopt more authentically. Our students are not daft - they know in an instant if a teacher buys-in to the content they are teaching. It's no wonder students are turned off or skeptical about dance (or any other activity) if that is the message they are receiving from their teachers. Certainly the first step is to acknowledge if we are not comfortable teaching it (or anything else for that matter) and then take steps towards becoming more comfortable. "The best predictor of lifetime activity is perceived competence" - this was said by Stevie Chepko at the National PE Institute last week. We owe it to our students to help them develop this, be it in dance or any other activity, but it has to start with us.
Ashley Casey
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On Thursday 07 August at 15:19 Ashley Casey said
Hi Andy and Jo and thanks for the comments. I will try and talk generally if I can but will of course talk towards your comments. Firstly, thanks for sharing your experiences so honestly and I will try to repay that faith in kind. My experiences of dance are limited and I have worked hard to keep them that way. The closest I ever got was learning the haka (with the Maori words as well) and teaching it to my form for the inter-form dance competition. I was in my comfort zone and still know it now and occasional remind myself of both the words and the moves. I was proud of that but looking back on it I wonder if I manipulate dance to my ends rather than turning myself over to dance. I think I chickened out but I also wonder now if I would have done it any differently. Possibly not and that is something that I have to live with I suppose. I feel that the haka was a step in the right direction but I wonder how many times it has been used a pseudo-dance? I wonder if that is the best that I can expect or if I should make myself uncomfortable. As Jo says Kids respect that. They like to see that it is not just them who are challenged. I feel that I spent too much time in my comfort zone and out of theirs and perhaps the reverse would have been better? I wonder if that is what Jo did and I wonder also if Andy, you have taken a round about way to develop joint comfort. By positioning dance along side other movements have you found a way to make it acceptable? Is that the right word? I don’t know? I am left a little to wonder (if you will forgive me) if by doing this you are enhancing or diminishing the status of dance? If we make it something that it isn’t is that a good thing or not? I’m not judging (at least I am trying not to) but am instead trying to better understand what the consequences are such an adjustment. Any help on working this out would be great. Thanks again for the replies and for helping em to see things through the eyes of others.
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On Friday 08 August at 01:56 Vicky Retter said
Thanks for the post Ash, I don't have much to add that hasn't already been said already! Dance is really not my forte, whether it be bopping/moving/jumping vaguely in time with other inebriated individuals on a night out, or teaching it. My confidence, coordination and memory seem to go out the window when teaching dance. Until now my teaching of dance has been what my mentor or observer wanted to see (teaching the same routine over and over) which didn't go particularly well, but did provide lots of entertainment for my students. From September I take control of my own classroom and need to find an approach that shows my students whilst 'I can't dance' I do know a bit of theory (Laban etc) and give them confidence in me as a new teacher. Prior to reading this blog (like Andy) I was thinking about using alternative approaches such as just dance, the Hakka, classic routines as building blocks, playing card routines etc. I felt that these approaches combined would provide my students with an understanding of movement, choreography skills and the many forms dance can take, despite my distinct lack of ability. However, since reading your response Ash, I'm not sure I'm taking the right approach (or even if there is a right or wrong approach) and would appreciate your thoughts.... Does/can dance composition using alternative approaches (as suggested above) in joint comfort improve the understanding of movement and enhance the status of dance? Do your students need to already have respect for you before you teach outside of your comfort zone and reveal a chink in your armour? On the PGCE we talked a lot about a multi-sport approach which promoted technical and technical skill transfer for games players, would a multi-approach to dance aid skill transfer among aesthetic performers?
Andy Vasily
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On Friday 08 August at 15:08 Andy Vasily said
As we continue to discuss this topic, I would like to say that I truly appreciate hearing everyone's perspective. I think that it boils down to our personal interpretation of what dance means. I would hope that any student that comes into and out of my program will have had a great experience in my movement composition unit. To me, movement composition means that most of the time, students are creatively moving their bodies to the sound, rhythm, and beat of the music being played. The other times when music is not being played, students are then creating sound and movement on their own, kind of like the performance group 'Stomp'. If we honor the creativity that young people possess and allow their movement to take shape in their own way to the music being played we are honoring what dance truly is. If we look back historically at cultural interpretation of dance, their is no true definition of what it is. It's people coming together in celebration, using whatever resources are available to them, to create movement that defines who they are. Baring this in mind, the concept of dance should be broadened to allow all learners to demonstrate their own personal interpretation of what dance means. If this ends up being one student with a basketball dribbling and creating patterns of sound that correspond to music being played, GREAT! Or perhaps another student, performing a sequence of yoga asanas to a smooth and peaceful piece of music, GREAT! We need to loosen the reigns on the traditional definition of dance as defined by PE curriculums and let young people just explore what movement to music means to them. By doing so, we give them the ownership to tap into creative movement. However, during this journey, it is critical that key assessment criteria is discussed and identified. So regardless of the way that the students choose to express themselves they are required to demonstrate their understanding of timing, balance, flow, and teamwork (etc). I believe that if we do this we are honoring, not diminishing the tremendous value that dance plays in peoples' lives.
Ashley Casey
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On Friday 08 August at 16:16 Ashley Casey said
Hi Vicky and Andy, I agree with Andy that this type of movement is a celebration. I think I'm guilty of having too fixed a notion of what dance is and don't always see alternatives. That said I think that every experience we have as teachers is a journey to something better. You might hope for one thing but achieve something else. That doesn't mean that you were wrong but it is more a case of continually striving for the best. As you get better the idea of best will change as well. I don't think you are wrong Vicky (and sorry to make you doubt your decision) but instead you need to treat teaching as a journey. Do what you think is best but don't be afraid to continually shift your conception of what best is. Outstanding teaching should always be shifting destination and one that we continue to challenge ourselves to obtain. We should, I believe, try and keep it on the horizon and always keep looking to it. I wonder sometimes if we find outstanding, just as we find legends, too easily.
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On Friday 08 August at 17:14 Vicky Retter said
Thanks guys. This conversation has really got me thinking about how I teach my dance units and what dance means to me, so thank you! I'm sure as my career progresses I will become more confident and knowledgeable In this area and as you say my ideas will continue to change. I need to be prepared to take the journey for myself and with my students remembering that what works for one group may not work for another. Cheers again Ash for your continued hard work turning the blog out each week.
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On Thursday 14 August at 23:43 Saul Keyworth said
Comforting the afflicted to afflicting the comfortable (Gough) To offer my two cents worth, I would argue dance is an essential (although somewhat neglected) component of a broad and balanced physical education diet. Although dance has a rich historical association with physical education, recent times have seen this being somewhat diluted or in worst cases, ‘expelled’. As a dance educator within physical education teacher education I am often faced with nervous and anxious students professing their lack of exposure toward and competence in dance. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve heard students voice such discomfort … ‘I’m not a dancer’, ‘I don’t do creativity’ etc. I’m not apologetic for these moments of discomfort/protest. In concert with Gard I believe they can allow a sensitising toward and embracement of ‘others’ feelings. In particular here I’m thinking of those pupils who neither possess a liking for or competence in sports. Despite their particular discomforts they are forced week on week to engage in PE practices where sports dominate, often due to the sport-centric habitus of the teachers. The all too familiar scene whereby PE teachers enter changing rooms to encourage pupils to quicken their changing and to change into something appropriate is salient here. What would it mean to turn this protestation around – to ask ourselves as teachers to hurry up with getting changed for dance and to consider (action) the changes appropriate for all pupils to be enthused by and engaged in such experiences? It perturbs me that many PE teachers cope with their anxieties in dance by removing it from their movement experience/repertoire. What about the pupils who desire to dance, or those who are open to be inspired? This is especially important when dancing opportunities are not available (for whatever reason) beyond the school gates. Many PE teachers cope with their discomfort in dance by aligning their curriculum offerings to their comfort/competence levels. In my experience changing dance to align with self/perceived pupil comfort often sees an over-reliance (read reduction) toward sporting and/or fighting themes. Does stressing the athleticism and physical virtues of dance do the art form justice? What would it mean to embrace the breadth of dance experience as opposed to reducing this to fit the normative sporting habitus of teachers and their practices? Rather than solely comforting the afflicted (read offering boy/girl friendly approaches to dance) we need to examine why and how ‘affliction’ comes to matter. Following Butler, I believe we need to revel in the productive discomfort of flexing and stretching our comfort zones to engage in more ‘capacious’ ways of being, seeing, feeling and moving in the world. False starts and helping hands In tandem with the ‘honesty’ shown in previous posts I confess my journey towards teaching a broad and balanced dance curriculum has been slow to materialise. I should also confess that this has only become conscious to me as I have embraced pro-feminist, post-structural and queer theory. Before my immersion/growth in/through this material I thought merely offering dance was challenging gender! It was beyond my comprehension that ‘what’ and ‘how’ I taught was of equal importance. My initial ‘coping’ strategy was to provide material that didn’t jar my (or the boys?) fragile masculine sensibilities. I had unwittingly assumed ‘all’ boys desired the same experience and I was using my own preferences as a compass. The oft-cited claim that boys have a problematic relationship to dance is seriously flawed. I’ll never forget an interview with Jonzi D (hip-hop protagonist and founder of the breakin convention) and his proclamation that when growing up it was considered an estrangement if you couldn’t dance! Was I unwittingly furnishing the stereotype of resistant male dancers that other approaches may have found mythical? Was I ‘boying up’ my curricular choices to assuage my own comfort zone and what I perceived pupils desired. Reading the autobiography of Edward Villella (former principal dancer for the New York City Ballet) highlighted the limitations of manipulating dance material to align with perceived pupil needs/desires in terms of gender. Villella, like many male ballet dancers, was typecast as a technical spitfire who amazed audiences with his athletic virtuoso prowess and seeming ability to defy gravity. Throughout the seventies he toured physical education teacher education courses across America to ‘prove’ that male dancers were bonafide ‘athletes’. As for me, time would prove the inadequacy of this approach to Villella and he also bemoaned his own dancing accomplishments (despite world-wide acclaim). He desired to add more than a ‘perceived’ and socially prescribed and normative ‘male touch’ to proceedings. He wanted to be given a broader range of dancing material (roles) that required delicacy and finesse as well as strength and power. In short, we need to disturb and re-narrate limited and limiting prescriptions of gendered display rather than reinforce them. As alluded to in the above posts, teachers engaging in such ‘troubling’ can be an immensely productive and freeing experience for pupils and teachers. As a physical educator I desire to show pupils how my thinking and movement have been ‘tied in nots’. One of my favourite choreographers, Lloyd Newson of DV8 Physical Theatre is instructive here: The straightjacket of masculinity defines itself in don’ts: don’t walk like that, don’t talk like that, don’t wear particular clothes or colours and don’t show certain feelings. I’m ‘not’ happy with this confinement! I want to think queerly to move freely. Authentic, proper, intelligible or whatever you desire to term socially prescribed and sanctioned boy/girlhoods need to be troubled. I have grown tired and frustrated by such shackling and I hope my teaching has come to demonstrate both my desire and application toward ‘undoing the nots’. . Education is about opening doors of opportunity and experience ‘not’ closing them! Broad and balanced dance experiences … In my desire to offer dance experiences that are rich in depth and breadth I have found Smith-Autard’s Mid-Way Model and Rudolf Laban’s detailed examination of the moving body in space particularly useful. In our dance offerings we should be exposing students to the wealth of professional dance work available and how these came to be (exploring initial stimuli to final production/re-adaptations). On charting this journey (action, spatial, dynamic, relationship features, motif construction and development, costume, accompaniment etc) we should be enlarging our pupils ‘vocabulary’ in dance and how this can enrich their own engagement with composition, performance and appreciation. I shall conclude this response (albeit longer than I initially intended) with a final assertion/confession. Assertion: although Rudolf Laban has been historically significant within the development of physical education I concur with my esteemed colleague, Maggie Killingbeck, who suggests his teachings are under-utilised within contemporary PE practice. Although I draw upon Laban in my daily practice, working alongside Maggie has shown me my understanding is rudimentary at best. Would it be considered ‘innovative’ to re-engage with the complexities of Laban’s explorations in choreutics and eukinetics? I must confess to knowing little of his teachings here and I wonder why? As I enter my university reception I often pause to view the black and white historical photos that adorn the corridor walls. In each photo we are presented with accomplished former students (1890s – 1950s?) that are clearly in the process of receiving a broad and balanced training. As I look at each photo I can’t help but consider my own corporeality and how this has been stifled in the physical education it received. The discussion and implementation of innovative practice(s) within physical education would be well served considering the richness of yesteryear. As Leibnitz cogently remarked, ‘the present is saturated with the past yet pregnant with the future’. Physical education teachers’ need to embrace rather than negate the art of dance, especially as recent research suggests most of its teaching is located here as opposed to departments of the performance/expressive arts. Although this movement may induce anxieties for sport-centric physical educators’, I would add my voice to the conversation (Killingbeck, Gard, tweeters) which encourages the comfortable to revel in the educative/potentially liberating trouble such ‘capacious’ dancing may afford for oneself and ‘importantly’ our pupils!

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