thoughts about teaching screendance

In December I finished teaching a new module/course in screendance at Roehampton Dance. It’s for final (3rd) year students and is in the ‘choreography’ bracket of the undergraduate programme. You can see the module blog at I’d like to discuss three things in relation to the module: technology, problem-based learning, and their interests.

The temptation in teaching screendance (or perhaps any choreography module that has a reasonably tight relationship to video and/or digital technology) is to lean heavily on skill development for the students. It occurs to me, however, that there are only five skills students need to begin to work with and develop ideas:

  • power a camera on and off (although not necessary if they use their phones) and recharge battery
  • record/pause
  • transfer/ingest media from camera to computer with whatever software is available (we used FCPX)
  • cutting
  • export to Vimeo and/or YouTube

Of course we did work with other skills – sound, tripods, handheld cameras etc – but I was inspired by how quickly the students were up and running with cutting short videos and although they certainly ran into software and hardware troubles, mostly they found a way to make it work.

This is how I’d like to imagine technology working – that it simply dissolves into the background so that aspiring screendance makers can deal with their materials and ideas, and not with technological complexity (which they can approach later in their working lives).

Problem-based learning
In the module, the students and I focused on looking at a lot of films (and searching for films they hadn’t seen, and then watching them in ways that they might not be used to), and using problem-based tasks for them to develop short studies. One particularly strong task was led by a guest lecturer – Gemma Donohue – who had them used disposable film-based cameras to shoot a series of stills that they built into films in FCPX. For some students, they had never used a camera with which you couldn’t immediately see the ‘results’ of your photograph. Gemma worked with them on a range of approaches to light and framing, and backed up the mini-project with a feast of visually-oriented books on photography and film.

Student interests
I took a deliberately open approach to the kinds of films the students might make. In other words, although we spent time discussing what screendance might be (or has been historically), they were encouraged to think of choreography as being a very broad range of approaches to thinking about – and working with – things like framing, editing, subject matter, camera movement, physical action and sound. The students ended up making very few conventional screendance films (by this I mean making films that are ‘about’ (or involve) people dancing), and they seemed to be happy to defend their work as being screendance in many different forms.

The ambition and commitment of the students to follow their interests was exciting but part of me worries how the term ‘screendance’ might start to lose value if any or all films can be viewed (or defended!) as screendance. What are the alternatives? To keep teaching screendance within a very harrow definition of the kinds of films that should be made? Or to risk undermining a discipline that is still finding its feet within dance, visual art and cinematic traditions?

Simon Ellis


4 thoughts on “thoughts about teaching screendance

  1. Dear Simon,

    It was great to read your post, as some of the issues you raised have been in my mind for a while. I have actually just presented a paper on videodance and pedagogy at the International Screendance Conference in Burgundy on 5th May.

    I would love to talk more, but perhaps I’ll just pick up on your last topic. When teaching videodance at the London Contemporary Dance School, I too have experienced the lack of what you call ‘conventional screendance films’ in the students interests.

    While it is indeed quite satisfying to see how broad the student’s interpretation of dance on screen is, I share your sentiment about the apparent lack of ‘dancing’ in their final films. From my standpoint, this concern does not spring out of a narrow minded conception of what dance or screendance is from my part, but out of a sense of missing opportunity.

    My students, and I suspect also yours, come from a very strong background in dance. They are practitioners to the core and have that which Barbara Bolt (drawing from Heidegger’s concept of handling) has described as praxical intelligence. They have embodied experience of moving that few others do. By making use of that ‘material thinking’ in association with their new encounter with the camera and the editing software, many fruitful possibilities are born.

    Nevertheless, I do understand that perhaps the possibilities of this new medium are so attractive that students often feel excited about expressing their ideas in a form that does not necessarily involve traditional dance.

    Having said that, I have developed a class exercise on the past two modules I’ve taught that forces students to, at least in one assignment, deal with breaking down the actions of a moving body into shots. (I often feel that this is a little dirty trick, but the results are effective). The assignment is very open, one of the few limitations is that students need to include at least 1 jump, 1 turn and one moment of stillness (I’m referring here to Laban’s units of action).


    • Simon says:

      Hi Gabi

      Thanks for your comment. I wonder if you’d be interested in editing some of your paper to present as a guest post on this blog?

      Although I experienced the ‘lack’ of such conventional screendance films, I didn’t really see this as a problem. It is more a question of split responsibilities between supporting their interests and work, and recognising the relatively nascent nature of screendance as a discipline.

      How did the students respond to your quite strict limits with respect to inserting or adding physical actions?

      Thanks for your interest.

  2. […]  ”The temptation in teaching screendance (or perhaps any choreography module that has a reasonably tig…“ […]

  3. […] The temptation in teaching screendance (or perhaps any choreography module that has a reasonably tig… […]

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