Yet again a British politician opens his mouth in an unguarded moment and the reality of his ignorance and prejudice about dance is revealed.  This time it is David Cameron who opens his mouth and metaphorically puts his foot in it (I am sure he is neither fit nor flexible enough to do this for real), disparaging the benefits of Indian dance classes in schools.  And this on the very day that Akademi, South Asian Dance UK, performs in Westminster Hall as part of the Arts in Parliament programme of events.  And barely 10 days after the Olympics’ opening ceremony seen by countless millions, where the atmospheric dance episode during “Abide with Me” was lead by one of the UK’s most respected dance artists, a practitioner of the Indian classical dance form Kathak, Akram Khan.  Mr. Cameron wins at least a double gold for tactlessness, succeeding at a stroke in insulting both the Asian community and the dance community.  Or should that be a triple gold, given that this particular day has also seen British teams emerging strongly in the finals of the more ‘artistic’ sports disciplines of synchronised swimming (commentators cooing over the beautiful choreography) and rhythmic gymnastics?

Much of the dance world has contributed wholeheartedly to the Olympics and the Cultural Olympiad; in the run-up to the games British dance companies both large and small created and performed dance pieces celebrating sports, while huge numbers of community dancers and professionals contributed as volunteers to spectacular open air events up and down the country as well as the opening ceremony.  Lottery money which might have gone to the arts was siphoned off to the Olympic extravaganza.  So David Cameron’s thoughtless and ill-informed comments seem peculiarly ungrateful to a sector which has done its bit to contribute to the success of London 2012.

Dance in British schools has traditionally been regarded as a minor subset of physical education rather than a major arts practice.  Organisations spearheaded by Dance UK have worked hard within this incomplete frame to inform politicians and public about the educational value of dance. Government funding of dance activities has regularly had to justify itself by emphasising the personal, social and health benefits conferred by participating in it, sometimes arguably at the expense of what it can offer in artistic development and cultural education.  The profession itself has bought into this focus on the physical and personal, projecting the idea of the dancer as athlete, with the practice of elite dancers attracting the research interest of sports scientists and top athletes, and dance teachers looking to sports training for inspiration for training techniques.  The irony is that this dynamic cross-fertilization of dance and sport knowledge seems now to be counting for nothing.

As the country wakes up from Games euphoria to the reality of continuing economic stagnation and stringency, wondering how it can build on the heart-warming successes of team GB to take us forward to Rio, it is now obvious that as far as politicians are concerned dance is likely to remain a very low priority and the legacy of the Games for dance will be a poor one.  Already Cameron has announced a revision of the primary curriculum with an emphasis, even a requirement, that children should take part in competitive sports such as hockey and football.  Yet more politicians have been enthusing about the lessons that they say only participation in competitive team sports can teach.  I unexpectedly had the opportunity to watch a top British football team playing in Innsbruck before the Olympics.  Their underwhelming performance, bad temper on the pitch and much rolling around in supposed agony like toddlers with temper tantrums to be soothed by the “mummy kiss it better” blandishments of scurrying support staff, was hardly an argument for the educational benefits to be had from this bloated, overwheening and financially corrupted sport.  Not much evidence of the “character building” Mr Cameron desires there.

As a mother of two children over years I have supported their continuing interest and enthusiasm for competitive sports.  I have stood on the touch line to cheer on school teams in rugby and hockey; I have ferried swimmers to meets and practices and manned the raffle to support the swimming club gala, and raced up the tow path in the rain egging on the rowers.  And in the last two weeks I have thrilled at the achievements of some of the Olympic athletes in other disciplines; the grace and elegance of David Rudisha’s incomparable running, the plucky persistence of judo heroine Gemma Gibbons, the focus and discipline of multi-talented Jessica Ennis, the measured behaviour and obviously intelligent leadership of the British women’s football team coach, the joyful emergence of British male gymnasts to challenge at the highest level.  But as a dance professional I am angered and disappointed by the politicians’ casual dismissal of dance, and their lack of recognition for its ability to develop these and similar virtues through its myriad forms.

For rigour, discipline and competition, just witness the audition processes and ruthless weeding out of all but the most talented and driven from the UK’s internationally respected vocational schools; or the extraordinary years of single-minded commitment involved in the mastering of classical dance forms such as ballet and Kathak.  Team skills, trust and sense of community are fostered in dance workshops and performance along with the development of creativity, sophisticated awareness and interaction and the ability to make rapid decisions, just as much as in team games.  Dance has proved a hugely successful way to engage teenage girls who shun conventional sports in physical activity, and has provided a creative outlet and source of pride for disaffected urban youth with spectacularly positive results.  To say nothing of the huge numbers of people nationwide who gain fitness and wellbeing at all ages from social dance; let’s raise a particular cheer here for the wonderful patterns, social inclusiveness and aerobic effectiveness of Scottish and English country dances – which used to be part of the primary school curriculum.  Let’s also remember that like running and jumping, dance is the cheapest of physical activities – to participate you don’t even need a ball.

Politicians are happy to say nice things about dance when they want it to do something for them.  All the optimistic spin about the Cultural Olympiad now appears little more than a cynical means to get those nice artists to do something for nothing to give the Olympics a cultural gloss.  It was ever thus.  Dance may not have much money, power and media profile.  But there are surprising numbers of people in this country who are genuinely “all in it together” through their love for and participation in dance.  Mr Cameron should not expect their votes at the next election.

Susie Crow