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High times for budding Billies

The Royal Ballet and Ballet Rambert both bring dance into schools as well as tempting pupils to performances. Hazel Leslie looks at some of their projects

At Pope John primary school in west London a group of seven and eight-year-olds line up in the school hall. On their T-shirts are labels with their first names in large letters, and on their faces expressions ranging from happy expectation to utter disbelief. Soon, after a little explanation, the whole group is following Emma, a dancer working with the Royal Ballet's education department, in the first session of this year's Chance to Dance programme.

Already this term Year 3 have been to an introductory demonstration and have seen a Royal Ballet performance. Now they are taking part in a 20-minute session designed to show how they move and how supple they are, how capable of concentrating, of responding to music and rhythm, and of putting a sequence of movements together. Chance to Dance, like the Rambert Dance Company's Take the Plunge, is one of a number of projects designed by the two companies to bring dance to children of all ages and to take it out of its traditional position as the poor relation of the national curriculum, trailing on the coat tails of PE. The average PE teacher still has to teach dance on the basis of only six hours of dedicated training, and the recent report on Arts Education in Secondary Schools by the RSANational Foundation for Educational Research found that only 3 per cent of 15-year-olds participate in dance at school. Billy Elliot may have been the film hit of the season, but dance, it seems, still has a along way to go.

Chance to Dance, which targets primary schools in four Inner London boroughs, aims to open the world of classical ballet to children and families who might not otherwise have access to it, through demonstrations, local dance clubs, subsidised tickets for performances and by giving creative help and encouragement to teachers. It is also a way of discovering and nurturing talent - a few pupils may be offered the chance to take part in a training programme with the Royal Ballet that may lead some of them to vocational schools and careers in dance. The open-entry dance clubs, run by the Royal Ballet for children in the participating schools, draw on the ballet tradition but use a freer approach.

Pope John school - situated in a bleak cityscape just off the Uxbridge Road - has been taking part in the project since it was first launched nine years ago. It may not be the sort of environment where you would expect to meet two boys who are mad about classical ballet, but Joshua, 8, and Jesse, 9, "can't wait" to go to a proper ballet school. They have been on the programme for one and two years respectively. They say they have never been teased about ballet and just find it fun. One boy from Pope John has just won a funded place at one of the Arts Educational Schools, and two former girl pupils are already there. These are the special cases, but headteacher Pamela Singh has no doubt abot the benefits to the school as a whole. "It's a shared experience," she says. "The children who are chosen are given a discipline and a self-esteem that acts as a model for everyone else. It's not seen as a competitive thing- it's an acknowledgement that they have a talent, to use as ambassadors for this community.

"Going to a one-off performance can be meaningless, but we have the dance clubs, there are subsidised outings to Royal Ballet performances, the families get involved, and the help our teachers get at in-service training days is an enormous boost to their confidence."

At Cranford Community College in Hounslow, 25 Year 10s taking part in the lecture demonstration that opens Take the Plunge, Rambert's London secondary schools' contemporary dance project, sit gripped by an extract from Swansong, danced by members of the Rambert Dance Company. It is a powerful piece dealing with torture, choreographed by the company's artistic director Christopher Bruce. It is followed by extracts from She Was Black - a visually dramatic work about slavery - and The Seven Deadly Sins, which causes some laughter, especially when eight volunteers join the dancers to demonstrate the principles of counterbalance. Although the Rambert group is split equally between men and women, there are few boys among the watching students. At KS4 dance is up against basketball, football and trampolining.

During the autumn term the 25 students will attend five workshops with the company linked to a December performance at Sadler's Wells, for which they will have free tickets. If their work is good enough they may also take part with other participating schools in a production at the theatre. Staff will attend an INSET day run by the company.

PE teacher Rita Berndt, who teaches dance, says she has found Take the Plunge immensely helpful. "Usually you tend to rely on two or three ways of getting the students to work, and it's not until you're shown something different that you feel confident enough to try. Sitting in on the workshops you see how an idea can develop in five weeks and how much and what amazing quality of work these dancers can get out of the students."

Cranford now has a specialist dance teacher for weekly sessions, and is offering GCSE Dance for the first time."It's a really well thought-out programme and the charge, pound;200, is nominal for what you get and for what the company puts into it. Rambert really tailors it to suit the school and the age of the children," says Rita Berndt.

Both Cranford College and Pope John School especially value the broadening effect of contact with professionals. "Chance to Dance connects the children to a wider world and culture," says Pamela Singh. "With Take the Plunge students can see dancers in action and appreciate that dancing can be a discipline and a professional job."

Royal Opera House Education Department, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD. Tel: 020 7212 9410Rambert Education, 4 Chiswick High Road, London W4 1SH. Tel: 020 8995 4246

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