The ‘Tanssin hyvä’ (Goods of Dance) action research project was carried out in 2017–2020. The approach selected by the researchers was critical participatory action research. Implemented with the coworker pair model, the project involved ethnography, artistic research and development efforts. The researcher in charge, Marja-Liisa Trux, came from outside the dance world, whereas the other researcher, Isto Turpeinen, came from inside. During the project, film director Salla Sorri prepared a documentary film as an independent piece of work. The film presents the object of the action research, the years of major shifts in dance, through the perspective offered by the researchers’ work.
The research topic is professional dance activities – including other professions than actual dancing – and to a lesser extent also dance as a hobby. The geographical scope is roughly the area of Finland. The chronological span covers the years of major shifts in Finnish dance activities at present in a wider sense. This time span (2017–2020) contains events like the physical construction of Tanssin talo (Dance House Helsinki), the first stage in Finland devoted only to dance, and amendments to the funding systems of art. The professionals in dance are interested in and even worried about their audiences, work opportunities, funding and in more general terms, the preconditions for and appreciation of their work in society.
The ultimate goal that the action researchers want to promote is to strengthen the awareness, social appreciation and resourcing of dance in the long term.
The intermediate goals are to make dance better known also among the general public and those who have no experience in dance as a profession or hobby, and to articulate the internal goods, i.e. the goods of excellence in the field of dance. Furthermore, the research seeks to report on the positions and conditions of agency on the field of dance realistically and in concrete terms with special focus on the independent field and to describe the diversity of the field and the efforts of its practitioners as they try to improve the preconditions of their work. The researchers tailored developmental events and tools for the professionals and supported the internal dialogue and solidarity within the sector.
The methods of the project included:
- ethnographic immersion and a total of 41 interviews of individuals
- three focus groups
- appreciative inquiry as an approach that pays attention to the goods of the work
- visits within Finland
- events and workshops
- consulting and wellbeing-at-work days
- website, articles and a report
- as the artistic part, the work ‘Enigma – ja toiset näkökulmat’ (Enigma – and the other points of view)
This report describes the research with multi-voiced dialogue and in an engaging narrative, since it describes the miniature worlds of the field of dance to outside readers, but has also plenty to offer the current practitioners on the field. In a sense, the researchers are holding a mirror up to the professionals to try and help them review and develop their work. The report also documents the years of major shifts for the next generations and contains self-reflective observations on the research process for other action researchers and fields.
The applied theoretical resource is the Frame of Practical Activity which is one of the practice theories. This model has been developed in Finland and serves as an approach that provides structure to the research observations and guides development efforts. One of the merits of the model is its ability to bring to light the basic issues of human action. Therefore, it is more like a philosophical than a sector research approach, which makes it useful in times of major shifts. It provides space for the professionals’ interpretations and explores the diversity of the practices. This is a major advantage in the creative sector and also promotes dialogue. In addition, the starting point of the model is the perspective of the professionals on their own work, as it is reflected in the articulations of the individuals and the various professional cultures. This makes it eminently suitable for autonomous co-development – which is also the context it was originally created in. (See, for example, Räsänen 2015, Räsänen & Trux 2012).
Another theoretical resource in the project was the Raakalauta (Raw-Board) working method developed by Isto Turpeinen (2015), which is approach to pedagogy and research that can be applied in the experiential realm and is well suited for structuring artistic work. This method helped not only to construct the artistic part of the research, but also the work in focus groups and wellbeing-at-work days, since it enabled the participants to work in bodily ways.
The primary observation of the action research on the working conditions in the dance sector was that work is still highly precarious, especially in the independent field. For the most part, the practice is dependent on funding provided by the public sector and private foundations. Since the degree of funding lags behind the number of trained professionals, their position in the dance sector has been precarious and incomes have been low for a long time already. They are the first ones to be hit by any shockwaves in society. The popularity of dance as a hobby has increased in the past few decades, which offers job opportunities for professionals, but this is often separate from artistic activity. Hybrid professionals are common. Hybrid professionals combine dance with some other profession that might be similar to dance, for example in the physical exercise and wellbeing sector, but could also be any other job that provides income to compensate for the uncertainty and austerity of the dance sector. Artistic professions interest young people, but many people also leave them, frustrated with the poor position in the labour market.
The second observation is that art professionals have an uncomfortable relationship with the social security systems, labour market and industrial policy. The art and culture sector is a poor fit for these systems that reflect the requirements of an agrarian and industrial society and the accompanying moral horizon.
When we examined work in the dance sector as practices, our first observation was that there is a lot of dance and its forms are very diverse and dynamic. There is a huge number of dance hobbyists, and for many, the hours spent dancing are the best time of their lives. As a result, the goods of dance are also diverse. However, the fact that there is often minimal communication between dance styles and subcultures is a problem: the dancers do not know each other or each other’s work. It is difficult for them to speak with a collective voice to improve their position in the society. One example of the obstacles they face is that there are few opportunities and places to meet. Discussion often takes place on the easily accessible and affordable or free social media platforms, but their use tends to distort the communication.
In spite of the challenges, the dance sector has achieved much through co-development. A good example of this is the three decades of ideation and design efforts to produce the Tanssin talo concept and the associated development projects. Among the achievements of the dance sector are the annual Kiertoliike conferences, regional dance centres, projects to bring dance to town theatres, several courses and clinics for professionals and many other smaller events. This action research contributed to the efforts of the dance sector through the researchers’ consulting, dance ambassadors, workshops on the theme of working life (including their materials), the artistic work “Enigma”, and this report, which will be published as an open e-book with its appendices, and the documentary film by the director Salla Sorri.
Recommendations for the dance sector
The researchers recommend that the dance professionals continue their social influencing efforts and invest in space and time for meeting. This would help to mitigate the paradox of awareness in the dance sector: in spite of the popularity of dance as a hobby, the subcultures and communities remain unknown to both each other and the general public. Hobbyists and artists should be brought together. An important factor here is education. A cohesive path of education would allow us to provide learners with knowledge of the art sector and practices of art as a profession, as referred to in the Finnish curriculum for basic education. All entry into and learning of dance starts from dance as a hobby. On the other hand, basic education needs contacts with professionals in order to grow future audience and stimulate a civilization where the citizens’ awareness of dance and the body enriches everybody’s life through self-expression.
The construction of the Tanssin talo should be continued persistently, honouring its democratic ethos spanning three decades. The physical location of the Tanssin talo at the Cable Factory (Kaapelitehdas) in Helsinki is likely to lead to many experiments with the local dance communities to find the best ways of collaboration and coordination. The researchers recommend that Tanssin talo be combined with Zodiak, which has a 25-year operational history, to form a single unit that would house the main national dance stage, the Chief Coordinating Secretary for the network of regional centres and the regional operation of the dance centres of Uusimaa and Southeast Finland.
The network of regional centres is a valuable structure which could be strengthened to improve the implementation of the cultural rights of citizens throughout Finland. Some important methods for achieving this goal could be the development of touring and production cooperation and introducing dance to compulsory education schools via special dance intermediaries.
A key factor for the viability of the sector is the number of full-time dancer vacancies. It is the ultimate way of ensuring the efficiency of regional operations, long-term approach in artistic practice (ensembles) and the impact of the art itself. Increasing the number of vacancies requires targeted funding.
The grant system has serious drawbacks associated with the legal protection and mental health of the individual artists. The growing disparity between the resources granted and results expected must be adjusted towards a more realistic level. Transparency must be increased at all levels.
In addition to employment relationships, there is also a need for structure in the form of associations and companies (including cooperatives). To launch these operations, the general business advisory services and start-up grants should be complemented with services that understand the characteristics of cultural practices. The start-up funding in the art sector could also be allocated for launching broker services.
The artists would need intensive support in communications and marketing from larger professional communities and networks beyond immediate collectives. Such communities and networks could also increase supply, improve visibility and ensure continuity from the client’s perspective especially in art that is targeted for the wellbeing, social and health care sector.
It is time to abandon the concept that art is the opposite of work. People are working in the art sector. Artists have material needs and the works have material requirements. Laws must be followed and obligations met as employees or employers, even though the same people often swap positions in a chameleon-like way from one production to another. Working life skills should be studied and taught more systematically than they are at present. The observations made during the research period indicate that there is no shortage of education in entrepreneurial attitude but in everyday practical skills and knowledge on financial matters and agreements. Another important and tangible skillset is the management of group dynamics and related counselling. The constantly changing composition in the staffing of productions poses an extreme challenge to wellbeing and equity at work.
In addition to hints and tips on a tactical level, artists need to be able to control their work in a more comprehensive way. With this we mean mapping the goods of dance. The artists need to consider how they perform their work, what they try to achieve and finally ask: Why is my work important, why am I doing it in the first place? At the core of these questions is who am I as a dance professional – and who am I becoming? Young and experienced artists alike should take an autonomous effort to contemplate their work from several perspectives and gain a better grasp at its direction. Without this effort, tactical hints and tips remain disconnected from reality and material investments fail to bring the desired results. However, even contemplation is a practical activity that requires targeting resources: time, space and meeting of colleagues.
Recommendations for policymakers
The experience of dance professionals as the guinea pigs of society entitles them to express their views and opinions on working life, social security and the economic structure of the society. Work and entrepreneurship are as familiar to the practitioners in the dance sector as anyone else. On the other hand, since the particular, beautiful and important things in dance traditions belong to the experiential realm, the artists should try to articulate these internal goods to people outside their profession (and are in fact obliged to do so).
Even in the art world, working conditions are being developed by applying current trends in working life and economy in general. However, the most surprising observation of this research project reverses this direction of learning. The problems in the dance sector are a part of the problem that challenges the society at large: What is work? How to arrange human life on the fringes of a salaried society? How can everyone be provided with income and access to meaningful work that generates not only individual good but common good? How can society leverage its entire talent reserve? No generally accepted or even satisfactory answers have been found for these questions.
As the content of work moves away from tasks covered by automation towards creative and meaningful jobs, and as the structures of salaried jobs crumble beneath the workers, the people in the art world are the ones that the rest of society should be turning to for advice. The researchers have two suggestions associated with this:
Universal basic income is considered desirable among the dance professionals, but its implementation is lagging and it seems to be difficult to experiment. We propose that the artists’ experiences from their long-running ‘human experiment’ be listened to in any welfare or labour reforms.
Our second suggestion is to develop an electronic invoicing platform, which would be free of charge and maintained by society. Via this platform, micro-operators (individuals or small groups) could start running a business without fear of failure to follow the regulations, excessive debt or loss of unemployment security. The service would be an option intended for the lowest volume micro-operators and serve as an alternative for the platform services offered by large umbrella companies.
Self-reflection of the project and needs for further research
According to Isto, coworker pairing works best when used as a wider approach in spaces of encounter: “The discussions generate a need to question and clarify things on a wider scale, and ultimately provide a golden opportunity to disagree.” The collaboration between researchers, one of whom is from within the field being researched and the other from outside, supported the project both from a research and a development/action perspective.
The idea of filming is not unusual in ethnographic research. However, beyond the traditions of actual anthropological films, the desire is often to introduce ‘more visual elements’ in the depiction, which is a bit naïve. In our experience, it was a good decision to involve a professional working independently, but Salla would have needed more working hours in the form of ethnographic presence.
The ultimate reason for involving a documentary filmmaker was the researchers’ desire to gain the largest audience possible for dance and the work of people in the dance field. No matter how engaging our writing may be, people today are always far more likely to watch something than read something. Since the approach selected by Salla was a ‘keyhole to the research project’, the film might act both as a window to the worlds of dance, and as a narrative of a certain type of action research and ethnography.
In the field, making a film is more conspicuous and has a higher impact than the mere presence of an ethnographer. Opinions are proffered on what should be filmed and what should not. Considering this, the documentarist’s keyhole is an influential publishing channel. People want to control it and restrict it.
Salla worked independently, but treating the subjects being filmed with respect : “I give the subjects power over what gets filmed by always telling them before shooting starts that if anything happens during the filming that they do not want me to use in the documentary, they can come and tell me about it, and I will take their request into account.”
Our three-person team (two researchers and a film director) did not have a shared office or a home organisation. As a result, we had to borrow services, such as account management or meeting spaces for focus groups . This gave the researchers first-hand knowledge about the interplay between inclusion and exclusion that characterises precarious work and its nomadic nature.
Decisions of what to exclude have to be made in all ethnographic projects. The extent of the dance sector surpassed expectations, high as these were. There is still plenty of room for future research on different dance cultures as forms of practical action and a communities of practice.
Research ethics sets limits to the extent that a written report can highlight the contrast of good and important things against the often-harsh backdrop of working conditions. As important as it would be to provide the readers with a deeper understanding, we considered such descriptions to be too sensitive and possibly even harmful for the subjects. We received concerned feedback about this during the research phase. Therefore, Marja-Liisa had to stay at a very general level when describing the difficulties faced by the sector while presenting the great and important things in positive vignettes. However, this barrier is not present in Isto’s section, which he wrote from the perspective of an actor in the field.
Action research can be situated in geographical space, but also relative to social and power relationships. A common occurrence in research projects is that tensions and changes of dynamics in the field call for reorientation. This happened to us too since the Tanssin talo and its support association underwent rapid changes during the research period.
It is reasonable to ask whether research that avoids dealing with painful and controversial matters is of any use. On the other hand, taking a controversial approach might alienate the researchers from practitioners that have a more careful orientation. We felt that the orientation of dance practitioners is exceptionally careful in matters that are associated with the use of power, so we sought a balance between these objectives. This need for a balancing act came to an abrupt halt at the end of the project when we were already writing the report: the dance operators themselves made a radical move and replaced the directors and policy of their association. Since our project was already coming to a close, we did not have the time to observe this new phase or orientate ourselves towards it. Reality contains tensions and changes can occur without warning or consideration of a researcher’s schedules.