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Rallying the troupes;Arts

Julie Morrice on a festival that brings dance alive for up to 2,000 pupils

There's threesome reels, there's foursome reels, and then there's a festival involving 2,000 dancers from nursery to secondary school age. The Scottish Borders School Dance Festival started life as a Scottish country dance showcase, but for the past 10 years it has been all-encompassing.

"We've had break dancing, Irish dancing, street dance," says Sheila Whiteford, Scottish Borders assistant adviser in physical education. "We can accommodate anything."

This morning, in the enormous sports hall in the Gytes Leisure Centre in Peebles, local primary schools are involved in a creative dance session. Putting together a dance for 30 performers would tax most professional choreogra-phers, but class teachers, PE teachers and the children themselves are all chipping in with a wealth of bright ideas.

Dance is part of PE from the start for children in the Borders. In 1995 PE advisers drew up guidelines and backed them up with in-service work for teachers.

"Much of the dance in primary schools is based around class topics, so we showed teachers how to take a stimulus, a class topic, a poem, a piece of music, or whatever, and create a dance around it," says Scottish Borders assistant adviser in PE Eleanor Pearson. "We're lucky here, because advisers can go and work with classes."

The result is a culture of dance that encourages everyone to use the medium as a teaching and learning tool. As the Primary 4 class from Kingsland Primary in Peebles are put through their paces, their class teacher stands nervously beside the tape player. First-year probationer Gary Scott clearly never expected to find himself in charge of a troupe of budding Martha Grahams.

"This is scary stuff for us all," he laughs, looking over my shoulder to see how his 32 proteges are managing their twists and twirls. Performing to a soundtrack of South African songs segued with Grieg's Hall of the Mountain King and the theme music from BBC2's Ski Sunday, the P4s are exploring their class topic, Forces and Machines. Winding, lifting, spinning, and thoroughly enjoying themselves, they are not only learning about expressive movement, but understanding physics. "We've been doing pushing and pulling experiments in class," says Scott, "and the dance makes it much clearer."

Themes at the Peebles show range from an evocation of the beauty and savagery of the sea to a surprisingly effective physical exploration of capitalism in The Madness of Money, performed by Priorsford Primary's P6 class. Dancing in front of ranks of their peers, and hoping for an invitation to the evening showcase, the children revel in the event. "As soon as they came off, they were asking 'Can we do it again?'," says Jane Lambley, a Priorsford teacher.

Dance continues into several secondary schools in the Borders, and the Youth Dance Group and Dance Festival offer further opportunities. Lottery funding has just been secured for a dance artist-in-residence, which Sheila Whiteford hopes will allow the Borders to offer a basic qualification in dance. But the whole dance business is hand-to-mouth here, and the School Dance Festival, the seed-bed of talent, is run on little more than goodwill.

"We're operating on a shoestring," says Ms Whiteford. "We ask people to come and adjudicate, and we can't even offer them travelling expenses. Mind you, the enthusiasm and enjoyment of these kids is worth travelling for."

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