International Women’s Day with Phaedra Petsilas, Head of Studies

8th March 2024

International Women's Day with Phaedra Petsilas, Head of Studies

As I write this blog to celebrate International Women’s Day, I am reflecting on the multitude of female voices that have inspired me, and the many remarkable women in my own life that have impacted on who I am today. 

At different stages in my life, being a daughter, a student, a friend, a mother, a teacher, a leader – different women have helped me find my voice, know who I am and what I stand for, and, as Audrey Lorde said ‘define myself for myself’. 

From a very young age, strong female role models have influenced me and my trajectory, personally, educationally and professionally. My early training in dance, from the age of three, was dominated by women (including my mother), whose dedication, tenacity and passion about their craft, taught me the importance of commitment and resilience. Some of these women in my life had to fight for their place, even for the ability to train as dancers and be who they wanted to be. Their fight taught me perseverance. Fast-forwarding 40+ years, I sit in a position of leadership, responsible for imparting these values through my educational practice that were instilled in me early on. 

I am a teacher, educator and a curriculum leader – as well as a researcher and currently the Head of Studies at Rambert School where I joined 7 years ago. Since then we have been through an immense amount of change both in the dance world and in wider society, and I feel privileged to have been part of an institution with a vision towards change. A vision that is rooted in Marie Rambert’s original ethos of building a diverse dance community. She famously said she didn’t want the School to be ‘a sausage factory’, which still resonates as ‘excellence comes in all forms’. And this resonance runs deep into my educational beliefs. 

My day-to-day in the School is so varied – from being in the studio with students, to conducting research, running a committee or designing a new course. Within each one of these, the same core values are present for me, which always speak to inclusion and equity. Over the past 7 years at the School, I have worked to embed inclusive practices aligning the academic curriculum to incorporate a variety of perspectives and voices. I have also conducted and facilitated a range of research projects that have supported the development of our curriculum at the School focusing on reflective practice as tool for personal growth, meditation for dancers to promote resilience, neurodiversity support in studio settings, and also embarking on PhD research on dance education.  

What I have been developing over the years as an educator is a way of working that is rooted in openness and in celebrating multiplicity and difference. What I mean by this and what I truly care about is the nurturing aspect of education. What I value is the societal and political power of education to contribute towards change. What inspires me are the radical and feminist voices (past and present). What I wish to nurture in young people/dancers is creativity/criticality and agency. 

For me, different influences, concepts, ideas and priorities contribute in refining possible trajectories for dance education…or maybe it is more apt to say a vision for a dance education that is holistic, as well as agency and care driven. 

What I think about when I ponder how we educate young dancers is nurturing self-belief the same way it was nurtured in me. I also think about change – radical change – in dance history we have had a multitude of radicals, of change-makers who have altered the course of how we create and how we educate and what the priorities are. We stand on the shoulders of our predecessors who have paved the way for the here and now – for us to be able to do what we do and to push the boundaries of what dance can represent and who it represents, both educationally and creatively. 

There are some past voices that drive my ethos, such as feminist scholar and activist, bell hooks, and her vision of engaged pedagogy and holistic education (that also has an emancipatory power). But she also talks about being seen and acknowledged, urging us for the importance of ‘…bringing into the classroom [studio] pedagogical strategies that affirm their [students’] presence, their right to speak [move] in multiple ways on diverse topics’. hooks inspires me as an educator to be constantly changing and evolving depending on who is in the room, to draw from all their experiences and, most importantly, to ensure that the way I hold a space allows for every student to find their voice. And as hook continues: ‘…If experience is already invoked in the classroom [studio] as a way of knowing that coexists in a non-hierarchical way with other ways of knowing, then it lessens the possibility that it can be used to silence’. 

I always think about this point of silencing…in so many cases in dance settings and in the wider world, people are silenced or erased, discriminated against or excluded, and my drive as an educator is to ensure that any space I hold, or any course I design are open and foster a sense of belonging. This is an ongoing endeavour for me, based on openness, listening and dialogue – as a teacher and leader, I am always in a position of learning, and learning from students is a joy. Learning about who they are, what they care about and what they are curious to explore and finding ways to bring that into space, guiding them as they lead the way towards their futures. For me, this requires an experiential approach and in my mind education is experiential, it is felt, it is also emotional, it is embodied, it is situated and placed. Dance scholar, Alex Kolb, talks about breaking down the hierarchies of knowledge…that resonates with me…and Jennifer Roche (another dance practitioner-scholar) says that we all embody multiple identities – or more specifically movement identities. This idea is very interesting to me – in terms of education it feels vital as a way to ground a system that is open rather than fixed, that allows for multiple identities, multiple bodies, multiple ways of being and doing. Maybe that is at the core of belonging.  

As an educator, fostering a genuine sense of belonging and inclusion is a continuous process – an engagement and a dialogue not just with the practice of teaching but also with the experience of learning. The more I evolve my practice, the more I get to know about what matters – and what matters is different from student to student. So, I/we adapt…but also remain strong in our position of what matters most in education. Our rich dance histories show us how different people, in different contexts have used their artistic voices to remind us of the importance of belonging and of being heard. Our students are the artistic voices, but also the teachers and the leaders of the future, so I feel my job is to foster agency, confidence and a sense of self-belief in their own unique story. 

To end, as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche says, ‘Stories matter’. She warns of the danger of a single story and reminds us that ‘Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity’. So…on this International Women’s Day I pledge to teach/lead to empower, to build community, to amplify voices, to respect diversity of personal experiences, to challenge discrimination when I encounter it…to never fall into the trap of a single story. 


Find me on LinkedIn 

Phaedra Petsilas BA(Hons) MA PGCE SFHEA 


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