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Age of chivalry dances on still

Learning in context helps to keep pupils on their toes, writes James Allen

The Scottish Traditions of Dance Trust's workshop at Stirling Castle seemed unusual for a dance education event. Half a P5 class had been watching a spinning wheel demonstration by one of Historic Scotland's officers and learning about armour.

After the boys leapt up to put on chain mail and helmets, the door to the gunpowder store where they were burst open and in came almost a dozen children - the other half of the primary class - dressed in 14th-century style attire as gentry and commoners.

They had been learning some historic dances in another part of the castle.

Led by a member of Edinburgh Early Dancers, they invited their classmates on to the floor and taught them the farandole, and were in turn taught by their peers about armour and historical objects.

This was education at its most memorable for the learners. The children were participants, not just observers, and they were taught context as well as content.

This is the sort of collaborative educational initiative that the Scottish Traditions of Dance Trust, under the leadership of its new director, Angela Dreyer-Larsen, is keen to develop.

The trust was formed in 1995 to promote, conserve and preserve Scottish traditional dance styles. It has amassed a collection of archive material - costumes, photographs and recordings - and produced education packs containing lesson plans, CDs and performance instructions for Scottish Border and Angus dances and is working on one for the Perth and Kinross region.

For the trust, traditional does not mean dusty and boring. It has commissioned new works based on old forms and hopes to enliven traditional dance by working with other dance organisations, contemporary musicians and composers and youth groups such as Scottish Youth Theatre and YDance. It would also like to get design students involved in creating costumes for dancers.

Its four-day Dance Your Socks Off festival in Stirling recently was its first big event. Every Scottish traditional dance style was represented: old-time, clog, military, Shetland, Hebridean, Celtic spirit, Orkney and step. As well as workshops for children and adults and taster sessions for teachers, there were professional performances, demonstrations and choreography competitions.

While the trust aims to raise awareness and participation in all traditional styles, it is keen that dance is seen in its social and historical contexts, hence the workshops at Stirling Castle.

"Everything is there to depict what would have happened if you were living in that castle," says Mrs Dreyer-Larsen. "So why not introduce children to the way that people in those times would entertain? They didn't have the telly and gismos, so they danced.

"I think that a lot of the problems with traditional dance have been that people just think country and Highland and so they cannot really see how it can fit in with anything else," she says.

As well as being a novel way into history, exploring traditional dance has other benefits, she explains. "Dance really does give children a lot of self-confidence.

"We're having a children's ceilidh and they're all going to be issued with a dance card. They've got to fill in their card, so we're encouraging them to integrate and to develop their social skills.

"Dance is also a fantastic form of exercise. It's a very good way of introducing boys into the arts because traditional dance doesn't have the same stigma as ballet and contemporary dance.

"My aim would be to get dance properly into the curriculum and treat it as a health measure, not just an introduction to the arts. The more you encourage youngsters to be active, they will carry on being active."

Mrs Dreyer-Larsen has ambitious plans for next year. She would like to extend the living history experience of dance to other historic sites, such as the Wallace Monument and the Rob Roy Centre in Callander, and also include storytelling.

"The trust isn't just about keeping everything the way it always was and making sure that it's still there in a 100 years," she says. "There must be a responsibility for the traditions of the future and what we want to pass on to the next generation."

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