Joe Gonzales, Dean of Faculty of Dance at ASWARA, shares his personal thoughts on local arts and dance education.
The quality of education that we are able to give at the moment is still not up to par.
We don’t have enough people who are properly trained to deliver these subjects. And that is what we are suffering right now. So what’s happening is that, generally, everybody wants to open these programs, but without really having a good teacher, you’re not going to achieve those standards.
For example, Malaysia opened three performing arts schools, high schools, in Johor, in Kuching, Sarawak, and now in Kuala Lumpur. And I’m brave to say that none of them have really well-qualified dance teachers.
They have teachers who might possess a degree: a piece of paper that says they have a dance degree. But they’re unable to deliver the goods. They’re unable to teach, because they can’t do. And this is a big problem.
I was on the board of the Ministry of Education when they were starting this. And we did tell them this; that you have to look at both the curriculum that you have to offer as well as think of how you are going to find people to deliver these subjects. But you know, Malaysia. They always want to put the horse before the cart, so I think we are suffering from that.
Now, our universities have also opened performing arts programs, but I don’t think there are enough well-qualified people. Universities have a lot of constraints, such as the necessity for a Masters degree if you’re going to teach dance.
However somebody who has a Masters or a PhD may not necessarily be able to teach dance as dance is a practical subject. So if you can’t do it, how on earth are you going to teach it?
Unless you’re my age then you don’t need to do it anymore. You can get somebody to help you. But you must have that knowledge, and this is a problem at every level in Malaysia. You have brilliant teachers, but not enough. Like in the UK there are maybe 30 professional schools and universities. I think 30 is underestimating it actually, and each school has hundreds of students doing performing arts.
So look at the difference, we really need to address this issue. I think the problem in Malaysia is that people don’t talk to each other. When the Ministry of Education wanted to start this program at the Sekolah Seni, they never talked to ASWARA properly. When I told them the best people to teach there would be ASWARA graduates, we faced a stumbling block: “but they don’t have a degree, they don’t have a teacher’s qualification”, so on and so forth.
Yes, if you realize that these are the problems then surely you have to find a way to address them but we never do. We just keep talking about the problem. And this is what I feel is holding Malaysia back too. It needs to be addressed.
I believe that the education that I give to my students at ASWARA is really the best education.
Right now I’m so privileged because we have about 80 dance majors, 10 full time lecturers and 10 part time lecturers. So I think in terms of the student-teacher ratio, we have the best in the country for performing arts and dance. And we have a balance between the phenomenally gifted young people who still can do all these dance things to a senior artist like myself. You have the balance between youth and experience between practice and theory.
So right now, I am very brave to say that the best dance training is obtained here at ASWARA.
Whether it’s going to remain the best for the next 10 years I don’t know because we have to always make sure we’re front of the game. And you have to know the current trends, the changes in performing arts, the introduction of new techniques, the technology, for example. All these things are important.
You see, the problem is all these people in power. I really wonder if they are aware of the importance of an arts education. And I think the answer is no, they’re not really aware and they’re not really interested. Because we are a developing nation the emphasis is always on developing science and maths and technology.
The truth is, we are so rich and wealthy where our culture and performing arts are concerned, but we are not tapping into it enough, we are not nurturing it enough and I think that’s a big problem.
It’s a problem right from the top: why do they think it’s so important to invest in badminton, sports, squash, swimming, and so on? Why? Because sports is something that everybody relates to, and I’m so thrilled we have Nicol David, and that wonderful Bryan Nickson Lomas and the Sarawakian Pandelela and all that. I love it; it’s great.
I’m asking why don’t they think that the same investment is necessary for the performing arts?
I think that one day when we have somebody who does [care, we will no longer] attend an event where there’s some traditional dance only because the prime minister is coming and we need to show off our traditions.
Not that kind of performing arts, I’m not talking about that.
So I think we have a long way to go.