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Six-day feast of stimulation

Kay Smith found dancers from far and wide at the Scottish Youth Dance Festival, for whom it was the highlight of their year

The 120 youngsters had come from all over to Irvine in North Ayrshire to take part in the Scottish Youth Dance Festival. One group had braved a 30-hour journey by ferry, buses and taxis from Shetland. Another had crowded on to a minibus from Gwent in South Wales. They all brought different experiences of dance.

Youth Dance Shetland had only fairly recently discovered dance of the creative contemporary kind fostered by the festival. They had enjoyed support and leadership during the six-month stay of a dance artist in residence, but then had had to carry on alone. Persuading an adult leader to accompany them to the festival had been a difficult task. It had been worth it, though, the group members agreed.

The festival was to give them a feast of stimulation with its six-day menu of classes in technique taught by professional dancers; "taster" sessions of styles ranging from Afro-Caribbean to Highland; creative workshops and the opportunity to see the work of other youth dance groups and of the professional company CandoCo. The results were bound to affect their ideas of dance.

But even Ebbw Vale Youth Dance Theatre from Gwent, spawned some years ago as a contemporary group from a dance club at a local comprehensive, had much to learn from the festival. Sue Lewis, the leader, said it was opening up a greater range of styles. "It's going to influence our choreography and make it more eclectic."

Youngsters contemplating a career in dance would also learn the reality of dancing all day and every day. "They'll experience the aching and tiredness. It will give them an opportunity to reflect," Lewis said. But 20-year-old Dave Lloyd, for one, found that the festival confirmed his plans for fulltime study. "I could do this forever," he said.

Each year the festival is hosted by a different local authority. North Ayrshire, in exchange for its input, receives a significant boost to its youth and arts culture and, in the run up to the festival an extensive programme - led by artistic director Winifred Jamieson and assistant director Ethelinda Lashley Johnstone - aimed at introducing dance to youngsters in the community.

The outreach programme has produced a new group, Irvine Youth Dance. But like its Shetland counterpart, its members will have to wait until after the festival for another publicly funded venture coming their way in order to benefit from professional leaders. Hopes are high in Irvine and in the local authority, however, that a substantial three-year lottery-funded project will be approved from the beginning of next year.

Other parts of Scotland have maintained a consistently high profile in youth dance, with groups such as Denny Dance Theatre, Fife's Footnotes and Aberdeen's Ignition Dance sending members to the festival year after year. One year's experiences fuel ideas for pieces to bring to the next year's event.

Every evening groups perform to the enthusiastic and encouraging reception of their peers. For example, Ebbw Vale delivered a thoughtful piece, Twinsville, based on the symbiotic relationship of twins, while Youth Dance Shetland gave a hint of the tensions for waiting fisherwives in The Looking Piece. Tensions of a territorial nature were explored in A Small Plot of Land by Ignition Dance.

A venue for next year's festival has yet to be found, but Winifred Jamieson says: "I can't see the festival ever stopping. There would be a lot of upset young people if it did. It's the highlight of their year."

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