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Pulse: Response to the ACE South Asian Dance and Music Mapping Study

Arts Council England ACE commissioned Courtney Consultancy in October 2019 to undertake a mapping exercise within the South Asian dance and music sector in England. The research would…’identify gaps, highlight opportunities and make actionable recommendations to the Arts Council’.

The report was circulated to all the respondents in January 2021 and is available freely to anyone  with an interest.

On behalf of Pulse, we would first like to thank the Arts Council for commissioning this report, signalling their commitment to supporting and developing the South Asian dance and music sectors. We would also like to thank Courtney Consulting for going beyond their brief and taking the time to listen to the views of so many of the artists in the sector, talking to 84 artists and gathering survey responses from 219. We really appreciate the time and effort taken to attend to and record so many voices.


We welcome the recommendation that the ACE develops a programme of regular ‘open days’ targeting South Asian artists. Overall, however, we are disappointed at the lack of ambition evinced in the recommendations proposed as a result of the report’s findings, which we feel present a mandate for more radical change. In particular we are disappointed that a key recommendation is that we ‘convene a sector symposium’, especially as the report rightly identifies that there has already been a lot of talking in the sector over the years and that it is time to ‘stop talking and start making change happen’ (7). 


In our response we highlight a number of points about the report that we find problematic. We then turn specifically to the report’s comments on Pulse. Finally, we make some suggestions that we feel point the way to a more systemic change than a further symposium or a ‘strategic digital network’, including ways in which Pulse, in the way that it has evolved, could offer a means towards effecting such change.


I. Our questions about the report


1. Question: South Asian artist or South Asian arts?


The report shows some confusion about whether it is driven chiefly by the ‘low number of ACE applications from South Asian applicants’ or by the need to investigate the challenges into the ‘leadership development and progression opportunities within the sectors of South Asian dance and music’. In other words, there are points at which it conflates ethnicity with artistic practice. These issues are interrelated yet distinct. We feel that ACE would be better able to engage with these important problems by engaging with each question independently and by taking a clearer view of where these problems overlap and where they diverge.


a) Issue: The lack of ACE applications from applicants of South Asian ethnicity


This is clearly a significant problem. Here the data gained about South Asian population figures is of value, highlighting the low level of engagement with the Arts Council by artists of South Asian ethnicity. The aim in relation to this problem must be to encourage applications from South Asia applicants across all art forms, as the report suggests, whether that applicant wishes to pursue a South Asian art form, or to pursue ‘western classical and/or contemporary forms, whether that is ballet or hip hop or jazz or reggae’ (84).


As is well evidenced, the challenges for black and Asian artists to make their way in the fields of ballet or classical music are significant. They are also quite distinct from the challenges they face in making their way within the fields of South Asian dance and music. In the former case there is the struggle to enter a field traditionally dominated by white artists, where there are well documented instances of, for example, not meeting the right ‘look’ for a corps de ballet. To increase the participation of South Asian artists in these traditionally ‘white’ spheres will need, we believe, a three-fold approach involving

- Recognition of institutional racism and unconscious bias within key Western dance and music establishments

- Support and development of companies such as Ballet Black

- A large-scale and sustained effort to emphasise these art forms as open to all, regardless of race. This clearly links to the following 2 aims within ACE’s Let’s Create strategy: 


o We want to help children and young people from every part of the country to understand what a career in the cultural sector or the wider creative industries could look like, and to support everyone who embarks on such a career to remain in the sector and fulfil their potential, regardless of their background. The future success of the cultural sector depends on being able to draw on a talent pool that reflects society as a whole and is much wider and deeper than it is now. 


o We will create clearer, more accessible pathways for children and young people who are interested in pursuing careers in the creative industries. 


b) Issue: The lack of applications for projects involving South Asian dance and music (South Asian arts), and the lack of progression within these sectors


This is a separate problem. To address this requires addressing the barriers that existing South Asian dance and music practitioners experience in approaching the Arts Council. It also requires addressing the barriers that South Asian dance and music art forms face in terms of being recognised as relevant beyond a specific minority community.


In terms of barriers to approaching the Arts Council, there are significant issues the report highlights such as language barriers and having English as a second language (52, 100). There is also a sense that the Arts Council is not really interested in their work, or is not intended for the kind of work they do ‘I didn’t feel like it applied to me’ (100). We suggest some possible approaches to these problems in our concluding section below. 


The conflation itself of these two separate and distinct issues reveals and contributes to the challenges South Asian dance and music face in being recognised as relevant beyond a specific minority community.


While the report recognises that ‘practitioners of South Asian music or dance do not always self-identify as being from a South Asian ethnic group’ (9), the report’s analysis of ‘the potential talent pool, in relation to the South Asian dance and music sector in the UK’ starts with 3 pages of data relating to the South Asian population in this country. As is repeated several times by contributors to the report, Indian arts are often viewed as ‘a minority art form so there’s a perception that it belongs to a minority’, while in fact ‘Indian arts are for everyone’ (101). Relating the ‘potential pool’ of artists to South Asian demographics represents an unhelpful circumscription of these art forms’ potential and compounds the marginalisation of these art forms to specific ethnic minorities.This association of South Asian arts with South Asian people likewise has very limiting implications for audience development.  


This is echoed in a lack of ambition in the desired outcomes; one of the four is listed as ‘more young people from more diverse South Asian backgrounds pursuing a career as a South Asian dancer/ and or musician’. It is certainly true that at present the majority of practitioners of South Asian dance and music forms are from South Asian backgrounds. To make significant progress in the sector, however, this has to change. The outcomes we recommend therefore include not only a ‘bigger and more diverse audience for South Asian arts’ but also a ‘bigger and more diverse pool of artists (not only of South Asian ethnicity) practising South Asian art forms’. 


As long as South Asian music and dance forms are viewed as minority art forms for a minority people we do not believe there can be substantive change. In our view the juxtaposition of figures for the South Asian population in Britain next to the ‘potential pool’ for these art forms unhelpfully reinforces the impression of these art forms as most relevant only to a particular demographic (imagine, if you will, if the ‘potential pool’ for ballet artists and audiences coupled with information about the Italian and French populations of Britain).


2. Question: ‘World’ or ‘contemporary’ sub-categorisations?


The report details that 


‘64% of eligible applications from South Asian applicants were sub-classified as World, compared to 10% of eligible applications from all applicants. 

 Contemporary was the next most popular sub-classifiers amongst South Asian applicants, accounting for 29% of all eligible applications from these applicants, compared to 75% for all applicants. 

 55% of awards made to South Asian applicants included the sub-classifier World, compared to 9% amongst all applicants’ (19)


Pulse, on behalf of the South Asian dance community would like to understand more about where and why these sub-categorisations are used. We have not come across them in our experience of G4A/ACPG applications. Is this a metric ACE uses when assessing applications? If so, we suggest that these sub-categorisations are in urgent need of review and could in themselves be contributing to the obstacles in developing South Asian art forms by impacting on how they are perceived. 


The report itself draws attention to the problems with the term ‘contemporary’ (see esp 6.2, pp 84 – 87), which in its frequent use as a shorthand for Western contemporary dance imposes upon other dance forms the burden of proving their contemporaneity. 


The label ‘world’ for dance and music has long been questioned by artists and scholars including Nitin Sawhney who contends that 'World music' is a crazy term; it's another way to marginalise and generalise music from other cultures that people don't want to give an equal platform to …If it's a fair term, why isn't all music called 'world music'?’. Reading the report we were surprised and disappointed to learn that a term that has so long been recognised as problematic is still in use by the Arts Council, despite the Council’s longstanding commitment to cultural diversity. 


3. Question: A ‘tribal’ sector?


The report highlights as a problem ‘the tribal nature of the sector’ (59). In doing so, we appreciate that the report is repeating a term used by one of the respondents (96). Given the associations with this term however, we are disappointed to see it picked up within the main body of the report and not only as a way of noting a respondent’s words. The term in our view serves to reinforce a perception (also encouraged by terms such as ‘world’ dance) that the South Asian dance and music sector are somehow something ‘other’, operating on their own terms and according to their own rules. 


We note the prominent place accorded to the dissatisfaction with NPO leadership and want to highlight that such dissatisfaction with leadership is not confined to the South Asian arts sector, but is prevalent among the charity sector more broadly. A recent charity sector blogpost asks ‘Are the umbrella bodies of the charity sector – failing to advocate effectively for the charity sector?’  Andrew Purkiss, writing from his experience as ‘a senior staff member of NCVO in the 1980s, as a Chief Executive and Chair of sundry charities and latterly as a Trustee of The Directory of Social Change’ acknowledges that there are undoubtedly occasions where organisation and leadership could do better, but points out that fundamentally, ‘Some political and ideological roadblocks can be just too big to shift... Blame the umbrella bodies? You might as well blame the sea for “failing” to break down granite cliffs’ (Purkiss 2021: np). The problems with terminology and with demographic assumptions that we have highlighted above demonstrate just how deep seated these ideological roadblocks are. 


NPO leaders have frequently been in the invidious position whereby they have felt acutely aware of the challenges of, as one respondent puts it, ‘Trying to perform a dance for a general public who doesn’t understand the code that dance is written in’ (88), while at the same time attempting to represent artists, many of whom would rather continue their practice without Arts Council support if the alternative is to shoehorn their work into a format which leaves them feeling untrue to their artform or that ‘forces artists to come up with random ways that compromise their practice’ (85). In the words of another respondent, 


That word contemporary threw a generation of dancers out. It was saying that we have no interest in Indian dance culture unless you see it through a white lens. So those skills became irrelevant overnight. That was heart breaking. (85)


The NPOs have therefore had to balance a demand from ACE for ‘innovation’ to secure their own funding, while finding a way to work with artists who are not interested in adapting ‘the code’ in which they perform for a ‘white lens’. After all, at what point does the adaptation of a different artistic code lead to a different art form altogether? 


Although the attention afforded to the issue of NPO leadership is undeniably important, it cannot be at the expense of acknowledging the structural racism that these NPOs have been navigating. By failing to acknowledge the deeper causes of NPO behaviour, we risk putting the next generation of South Asian NPO leaders under the same inequitable pressure, with the added expectation that they will carry through huge changes for south asian arts. Again, the report falls short on nuance in its diagnosis of the issues and we believe that its findings can direct more ambitious recommendations for change. 


4. Question: Training?


We would like to flag this question from a respondent cited in the report and ask for ACE’s response to this question


I don’t understand why the Northern School of Contemporary Dance and London School of Contemporary Dance get NPO funding when ACE say they don’t fund training? (106)


In considering the obstacles to progression for practitioners of South Asian arts, the report highlights the Guru-led system of training, and the pros and cons of this tradition. However, the report makes no mention of one of the most significant idiosyncrasies of this education framework, which is cost. While the provision of contemporary dance education is subsidised - through UCAS-inclusive degree programmes, or through low-cost professional classes (typically £4-5 per class) offered by institutions like The Place, Siobhan Davies Dance, Northern School of Contemporary Dance etc, practitioners of South Asian dance forms pay much higher class fees. Group classes cater to the community; professional artists sign up for 1:1 tuition with their Guru, which usually costs between £15 - 35 per hour. This is a major barrier to entry for any practitioner of South Asian arts considering a full-time freelance career and can help explain the tendency to juggle professional careers alongside artistic education. 


The report mentions that 43% of practitioners felt dissatisfied with the balance of time spent on artistic practice compared with the time they needed to spend on other activities supporting their practice, citing one of the main reasons as ‘money’, but we believe this statistic becomes much richer when considering the unique costs of education in professional South Asian arts training and progression.


II. Our response to the view on Pulse


1. History and Background of Pulse: The consultants have correctly noted (page 31 Executive Summary) that that the website was launched in 2018, forgetting to mention that Pulse magazine has been in existence from 2002 to 2017 and, in fact is the continuation of a ‘voice for the sector’ from 1987. It has a long history and heritage and the 56 back issues are being put online currently with a Heritage Lottery Grant.  Pulse has been a source of information, of reportage and critical debate for over two decades. We are pleased that it has been referred to ‘as an important platform’.


2. The Financial Position of Pulse: ‘Relying on passionate volunteers is correct up to a point’ but does not adequately describe the financial situation. While we indeed don’t run as a business, we do have an organisational strategy, staff, funding sources, board and purpose – making us more than a group of volunteers trying to achieve something organic.


3. The Mission of Pulse: Pulse and RagaLondon (page 31 Executive Summary) are referred to on the same page as if being digital platforms they serve a similar function. The only similarities between RagaLondon and Pulse is that both are digital platforms but that is where the similarity ends. RagaLondon creates and distributes dance and music using on-line methods. Their products are more commercially based. Pulse’s mission is to inform, connect, critique the work of the whole South Asian dance and music sector. Our primary concern is to track art form development and to highlight cutting-edge practice. We see ourselves as supporting the whole South Asian dance sector, through our newsletter, artist’s profiles, reviews and Dance Club discussions. 

4.  The report highlights the fact that many artists approach Pulse for reviews (111). However, it does not highlight the context for these requests, which is that reviews of South Asian performances elsewhere are few, and where they exist are often more damaging than constructive. 


Gorringe notes of a couple of UK based reviews featuring Indian classical dance forms for example: 


In one, which featured in a prominent national newspaper, a review of the major Indian dance and musical festival Darbar held at Sadler’s Wells, opened with a declaration that ‘The eight Indian classical dance forms have been around for a couple of thousand years’, going on to observe that ‘for the uninitiated, classical art forms can feel impenetrable’. The damaging Orientalist tropes of stasis and obscurity are thereby invoked within the review’s first 150 words. In another, in this case a review written for The Place, the reviewer’s level of understanding of classical Indian dance forms was so negligible that they were unable to make the fundamental distinction between the (markedly distinct) dance forms of bharatanatyam and kathak.


(Gorringe, Unpublished PhD thesis, 2021)


The report highlights the concern that ‘There was the perception that assessors had a lack of understanding about South Asian dance and music, which inhibits their ability to fairly assess applications (applications are assessed through a ‘white lens’)’ (85). Pulse has consistently, over the last 30 years provided artists with reviews informed by an understanding of the codes, conventions and aesthetics of South Asian music and dance. It has also offered training both to writers to enable them to give a more informed response to South Asian dance, and to dancers enabling them to articulate their response to performance in writing.


PART III: Our recommendations


A detailed reading of the report leads us to a rather different set of recommendations.


1. We are interested by the suggestion by one respondent in the report that ‘maybe ACE and artists need to rethink tour venues, why not the temples or museums or community halls – not just traditional venues’ (73). There may be scope in establishing an alternative touring circuit like the Rural Touring Network – possibly a ‘Temple Touring Network’. Such an approach would go some way to meeting communities ‘on their own turf’, thereby increasing interest in ACE’s role and activities.

2. We are interested in the possibility of ACE funding surgeries to be run through Pulse to help artists with their funding applications. This would enable Pulse to pay members of their writing pool for work several of them already undertake in their own time and on a voluntary basis

3. We recommend that where possible the grants application forms are simplified and that as respondents suggest in the report, applications are encouraged to ‘include video and audio submissions in order that the work can speak for itself’ (52)

4. We would recommend that NPOs fund ‘schools champions’ to lead regular classes in South Asian dance forms as an after school activity (rather than as a one-off enrichment exercise) so that South Asian art forms become embedded in the wider fabric of our society reaching a more diverse pool of potential artists (and audience members)

5. We urge ACE to reconsider the way that it categorises (and thereby thinks about) artists and art forms. The conflation of South Asian arts with South Asian ethnicity is restrictive both of South Asia arts and of artists of South Asian ethnicity. Finding a more appropriate categorisation than ‘world’ dance and music would be a step in the right direction

6. In the event that a symposium is organised to discuss this report we recommend that it be framed to result in a series of SMART goals to be implemented. 

7. The task of widening both the artist and audience pool for South Asian dance forms in Britain cannot be left only to those NPOs specialising in South Asian dance. The recommendation of Graham Devlin in 1989 was that ‘the National dance agencies (NDAs) specialise in non-Western dance forms’ (Devlin 1989: 39). There are clearly some NDAs like Dance Xchange that take their responsibility in this regard very seriously. The experience of some of the Pulse artists however is that other NDAs see the South Asian arts specific organisations as relieving them of their responsibilities to South Asian dance forms. We recommend that a further mapping exercise is carried out to assess how far the different NDAs engage with a diverse range of dance styles and artists.

8. The report states that ‘A common thread across all the conversations surrounding audiences was a lack of data and insights directly from audiences themselves and a reluctance from venues to share audience insights’ (87). We recommend that research be carried out into audience response to South Asian dance forms. The view of Pulse is that there is a greater appetite and interest among the wider public for South Asian dance work than venue managers commonly recognise.

9. The suggestion of a one-stop shop (website) for South Asian dance is very reductive. For a healthy and lively sector, we need players with a variety of interests, talents and perspectives.


Shivaangee Agrawal (dance artist, writer), Sanjeevini Dutta (odissi practitioner and Pulse editor) and Magdalen Gorringe (bharatanatyam practitioner, researcher and scholar, currently pursuing a PhD at Roehampton University).


3 March 2021