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Dance renaissance mirrors change in attitude

An arts project is one tangible sign that things have been getting better in an East Ayrshire secondary. Two years ago Auchinleck Academy had just undergone an HMI inspection which produced a lacklustre report, including criticisms of pupil attainment and relations with parents.

The school serves a population scattered among several villages. Commuters to larger towns outwith the area may do well, but with the legacy of an economy based on farming and coal, it has a catchment area euphemistically described as "mixed." Nearly a third of its pupils qualify for free school meals.

But following the appointment of a new head, Auchinleck has found a renewed sense of purpose. Examination performance is improving, and staff, pupils and parents have worked together to refurbish the school's reception area. At the start of last session all pupils volunteered to wear school uniform.

What some go as far as to call "a revolution" has embraced the performing arts. In just four days last week, dance routines and stage props were created for a production called Dance Through the Ages.

Leading the project, funded by the local authority, was freelance performer and teacher Rosina Bonsu. Day one saw her create a section of "Renaissance" court dance for 39 pupils from the academy and its feeder primaries. By the end of the day they were all moving with disciplined precision through dignified walks and bows. Day two they were allowed to let their hair down. Split into two, one group learned primitive dance and the other rock n' roll.

First, however, the 16 pupils who were making the props were invited down from the school artrooms to the gyms to see the dance work in progress. "Whatever you have for us - whatever you provide - we will use," Bonsu told the young artists.

The art group had already started making masks for the court dance. The plan had been for masks hand-held on sticks instead of fixed by elastic. But the dancers themselves wanted to be able to move as freely as possible. Did they mind having "clammy faces", Bonsu asked. "No," all 39 chorused.

So the art group, led by teacher Alison McVicar, went back to work with fresh instructions. Colin MacLean, the headteacher, had hoped that the week would prove a "bonding" experience. That, it seemed, was what he was getting.

Next the dancers were introduced to rhythm by musician Stephen Thornton. In the role of "primitive" dancers they had to beat sticks on the ground. Thornton set the pace and then let the youngsters make their own mistakes. They found how easy it was to pick up speed. "That's what happens to professional musicians. Try and keep it steady," they were told.

On to the dance. In just an hour Bonsu orchestrated the youngsters into a fast-moving mixture of floor patterns, fight sequences and ritual dance gyrations. The youngsters picked up on her infectious, vibrant rhythms as she showed them the beats to count and swept the lines of bodies hither and thither to give their positions on stage the greatest visual impact. In came the rock 'n' rollers from their session led by dancer Dawn Campbell, to "share information", as Bonsu put it. "Twisting 'n' shouting" they "hounded the dog" and "rocked around the clock".

The obvious question was whether putting on a public dance performance on the fifth day was a shade ambitious. "Yes," Bonsu admitted, though having a good team of staff made it possible. Most importantly, however, "we can do it because the children are committed. They want to work." Lynne McCrone, aged 15, was one pupil eager to make the most of the project. "Particularly during the holidays there's not a lot of opportunities like this round here," she said. She is hoping to take Higher physical education and might even go on to study dance.

Anne Logan, a senior teacher in Auchinleck's PE department, was also keen on the summer week. It would give a real boost to dance taught in the PE curriculum, and would "expand the experience of pupils, motivate them and give them a real focus," she said.

Kay Smith

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