30 Years ago this month, Dance Notes was born – in a small room in North London that was studio, office and living quarters rolled into one.
Small But Efficient
The tiny bedroom space (not the one picture) needed to be used efficiently to facilitate the needs of a fledgling enterprise. Music was composed using a digital piano, a borrowed synthesizer, flute, voice and percussion (whatever household objects came to hand). All of which had to then be stowed away to make space for the ‘office’. This comprised an electric typewriter, various ledgers, folders, writing pads and a telephone.
So, there was literally only space to perform one task at a time. Which was no bad thing. Whereas, today, digital technology allows us to flit from one thing to another, back then the progression was linear. Consequently, time had to be planned and apportioned. And the job got done.
As a student in a multi-discipline performing arts environment, I had become fascinated with contemporary dance. For me, as a composer, this provided amazing opportunities for experimentation. It also delivered some very useful lessons in collaboration. Getting inside the head of other artists and sharing their creative vision is something I learned to appreciate early on. And this has stood me in good stead ever since.
After graduating, I was engaged as a dance accompanist for classes, both at Middlesex Polytechnic (as it was then known) and Westminster College. This was a great way to see, first-hand, how different rhythms, textures and timbres work together with movement. At the same time, I co-founded ‘Hot Savoury Soufflés’ dance-theatre company, with whom I both performed and conducted workshops.
During this period, Dance was introduced as a compulsory element of the National Curriculum for primary schools in England and Wales. I had already begun creating music for individual teachers. So, it was a natural progression to offer this to schools more generally.
The name ‘Dance Notes’ was settled on and seemed nicely to reflect the aim of providing music for dance. A collection of tracks was copied to cassette tape (yes, indeed!) and an artist commissioned to create the inlay. Now all I had to do was let people know what was available.
The response was instant and overwhelming. So, I quickly began work on a second collection (‘Dance Notes Volume 2’) and invested in some new studio equipment. But it soon became clear that something was missing.
Teachers started calling to ask where the ‘notes’ were. I had naïvely assumed that schools tasked with delivering a new curriculum area would be provided with the necessary information and skills to do so. But apparently not. Fortunately, in naming the business ‘Dance Notes’, I had accidentally stumbled upon the answer.
I teamed up with a dance specialists who understood how teachers work and plan their lessons. We created a series of 12 lessons (6 at Key Stage 1 and 6 at Key Stage 2), which were published as the book ‘First Steps in Dance’. But this was rather proscriptive and limited in its scope.
Luckily, by now, the internet was taking hold as a viable way to share information. It therefore became possible to create new lessons on a rolling basis and develop the format as we went along. Eventually, this evolved into the downloadable plans you see from Dance Notes today.
Back to The Curriculum
Originally, lessons were offered as an add-on for teachers that had bought music and needed help with their planning. However, over time, the focus switched. Now, each scheme reflects a classroom topic and is structured to take classes through a term’s progression. A range of supplementary materials is also provided, to guide teachers through learning pathways, pupil assessment, etc.
So, the music is now an embedded element, rather than the main feature. In a sense, Dance Notes has come full circle. It began as a response to teachers needing music in order to fulfil their dance teaching requirements. But it has become a fully-integrated set of teaching resources, the themes and structures of which are driven by the curriculum.
Listen & Respond
So, what does this all have to teach us, from the point of view of creative education? There are a number of lessons to be learned. One has to do with resilience. When the 30-year history of Dance Notes is condensed into a few short sentences, it all sounds pretty simple. However, it has actually been a long and bumpy road. But I have never lost sight of what Dance Notes is for and the belief that it can genuinely help improve young lives.
Perhaps more importantly, I have listened throughout to the teachers who use these resources. You are the people whose needs I aim to fulfil. You have helped me adapt to the shifting demands of the schools curriculum. And you have shown me how to use the language of education.
Adaptation is Key
If it’s possible to build a business from a borrowed synthesizer and a typewriter, it’s equally possible to overcome creative challenges in the classroom. As a teacher, you may need to adapt a classroom for a dance space. You may need to spend two sessions on part of a plan that was written for one week. You may find yourself using a music track from one section to accompany a different one. All of this is OK.
Similarly, pupils are tasked with physically representing ideas they may have only previously put down on paper. They may have to overcome shyness and inhibition to interact with other children. They are challenged to think of new ideas on the spot. And they do.
A Little Bit Easier
I admire every single teacher that is faced with multiple demands on a daily basis. And I hope that my small contribution may have made at least one part of that process a little bit easier.
Thank you to all who have used and contributed to Dance Notes over the past 30 years. Long may it continue.