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Step into the Jitterbug era

Wartime dance for pupils is just the start of 200 free events in Aberdeen's Arts Across Learning Festival

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Wartime dance for pupils is just the start of 200 free events in Aberdeen's Arts Across Learning Festival

The children are hysterical with laughter when the boys get their hair parted and slicked over 1940s-style. Despite their familiarity with a range of hair products their great granddads would never have dreamt of, there's something about putting Brylcreem on that just pushes them over the edge.

This afternoon, the P7s from Sunnybank Primary in Aberdeen have rolled back the years with the help of two professional dancers from the Fly Right Dance Company.

The 11-year-olds have overcome their fear of the dance floor to learn the basics of the Jitterbug and are now getting makeovers with wartime hairdos and cosmetics in the school gym hall.

Dancers Gary and Susan McDonald begin each workshop by helping children to face their dance demons. The P7s acknowledge their worst fears - it's girly, it'll be boring, it could be embarrassing and they might not be able to do it.

Getting it all out in the open seems to do the trick, and without too much fuss the children are soon up on the floor with their chosen partners - boys with boys and girls with girls. It's a fun dance, with enough leaping around and challenging moves to keep lively P7s absorbed. "It does usually change their attitude when they see Susan being flipped through the air," says Gary.

As well as being accomplished dancers, Susan and Gary are practised at developing a quick and easy rapport with children. They've been teaching dances in Scottish schools for more than 10 years, documenting the social history of the last century with a mixture of dance and historical commentary.

"The Jitterbug is a dance that came to this country in the forties and was brought over by American soldiers when they joined the war effort," Susan explains.

The music starts and they're off: "Rock, step, step - step, step, step," Gary calls out in time to the music, as the class Jitterbug their way across the school gym.

Over the next four weeks, thousands of children like these will enjoy more than 200 free creative events during the Arts Across Learning Festival in Aberdeen. The festival has been cited as an example of best practice in the Scottish government's Action Plan for Education and the Arts, Culture and Creativity. The children seem to enjoy it too - "It was so cool I didn't want to blink," one child said in the feedback following last year's festival.

This annual festival is run by Aberdeen City Council's arts education team - headed up by Jacky Hardacre, the acting arts education coordinator. "There are 9,000 free places on offer to pupils at city schools and demand is higher than ever," says Mrs Hardacre, who is also the Creative Learning Network coordinator.

The festival started out as "Aberdeen Storytelling and Theatre Festival" 13 years ago and was relaunched as the Arts Across Learning Festival three years ago to focus on Curriculum for Excellence.

"It's very much about aligning the work we do as an arts education team to connect schools, children and teachers to learn in, through and about the arts, but doing it in a way that supports teachers in the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence," says Mrs Hardacre, as she watches the children get to grips with the Jitterbug.

"Using the arts and creative approaches is absolutely what the curriculum is about. It really helps people learn in different ways, to learn in specific contexts, and for children to guide their own learning as well."

It's encouraging to see successful events like this enriching children's lives, particularly at a time when every pound's a prisoner and most parents are forced to cut back on outings.

This year's festival is supported by a Vibrant Aberdeen cultural grant and the Live Literature Fund, administered through the Scottish Book Trust and funded by Creative Scotland.

"What we try to do is to programme things that have a broader learning context. So it's not just a theatre show to entertain the children - it's always a show that will connect to other themes and ideas," Mrs Hardacre continues. "Or it's a workshop that might use a poet to learn about natural history or it's a dance artist who might help them learn about - today World War II, or it could even be maths.

"So it's about the arts as a tool for learning across the curriculum and therefore we work with artists to say `What else can you draw out of the work that you offer?"

Teachers dive for the festival programme when it arrives in schools, and here at Sunnybank Primary they get on the phone to book places as soon as they can.

Depute head Jenny Cheyne says children in every class from nursery through to P7 will be attending an event this month. "When the catalogue comes in, we are always anxious to book up as quickly as we can, because the quality of the experience is second to none - it's really fantastic," says Ms Cheyne.

"It gives the children first-hand experience of different types of arts, whether it's storytelling, dance or music. This is the second experience our nursery children will have working with Scottish Opera.

"This year it's called `A Little Bit of . Northern Light' and the staff went for a training session last night to make sure they're prepared for the experience and can support the children when Scottish Opera comes for the day."

One of the objectives of the festival is to promote learning partnerships between nursery and primary pupils, and with this in mind the Scottish Opera performances include a mix of ages, with children from nursery through to P3.

The festival also aims to inspire and support teachers, so visiting professionals often provide resource packs to encourage continuing learning after the event. The arts education team also offers a day of continuing professional development for teachers in the run-up to the festival, with workshops showcasing skills that children will experience from professionals.

"Most of the arts companies that come into schools are there as a stimulus and it's up to the teachers to plan before they come and afterwards to develop the learning," says Ms Cheyne.

After last year's festival, 83 per cent of 180 teachers who returned surveys said they would build on their festival experience in future lessons.

Fifteen classes from this school will attend 10 festival events, enabling children to explore a huge range of music, song and dance with professionals, investigating topics across the curriculum such as science and wildlife through the arts.

In this Year of Creative Scotland, children will gain confidence at workshops reading aloud in Scots; they'll attend workshops on the Jacobites, go on tours of the Gordon Highlanders Museum and explore the lives of schoolchildren in the last century, investigating their city's archives.

"It's just wonderful for the children to see things as a first-hand experience and to make it real. It's not on TV, it's not on the radio, it's not through the internet - this is a real first-hand experience they can participate in and learn from," says Ms Cheyne.

"Most of the events are in school, but we have a P4 class going on a Great Expedition in a local park and that teams up storytelling with survival techniques. So, in terms of Curriculum for Excellence, it's certainly going to challenge the children and will be full of enjoyment and give them opportunities to work collaboratively. I am really looking forward to doing that one myself," she laughs.

Festival organisers have also responded to teachers' concerns about spiralling transport costs and are staging as many events as possible in schools or at central locations within walking distance of them.

Glenn Miller's In the Mood is striking up in the school gym, where Mrs Wallace's pupils are undergoing a transformation. Boys have hair slicked back, girls have red lipstick and hair up, suddenly looking much older, like extras in a wartime movie.

These children have already studied topics on War and Peace and the Armed Forces and their teacher Morven Wallace thought this Jitterbug workshop would benefit their learning.

"We will do lots of follow-up activities," says the P7 teacher. "We've done taster sessions already. We've introduced them to music from Dame Vera Lynn and we have been looking at costumes throughout the era up to the present day, just to give them a taste of it.

"Back in class, they will do a bit more on designing costumes and hopefully we are going to relate it to our current topic, where they are going to look at tribal costumes, so we will pull it all together," says Mrs Wallace.

As bell-time approaches, the children are exploring Susan and Gary's collection of Second World War outfits. "It's been so funny - I think the best bit was getting the hair done," says 11-year-old Leon Duncan. "The make-up - everything was interesting," says Lynette Munjoma, 11, who enjoyed the dancing best.

The focus this afternoon is on the social side of the Second World War, but the dark side of wartime hasn't escaped the children: "I think it would have been hard - being scared in case a bomb comes," says Lynette.


Scots series includes Ewan McVicar, Liz Niven and Matthew Fitt

Companies include Horse+Bamboo, M6, Folding Theatre Puppets, Theatre Hullabaloo, Little Music Box, Citymoves Dance, Music Without Bars, and Manran Gaelic band

Venues include the University of Aberdeen's Natural History Centre and New Library, Satrospere, The Tolbooth, Maritime Museum, Gordon Highlanders Museum.


He was a soldier and she was a nurse when they met and married during wartime.

Today, the young couple's photograph is passed around the children after their Jitterbug workshop at Sunnybank Primary in Aberdeen.

Dancer Susan McDonald has been showing the children clothes from the Second World War and demonstrating wartime hair and make-up techniques. But she also shares her personal connection with the children when she shows them her parents' wedding photograph.

Her father Charles Brown and mum Alice Hickey married on 19 May, 1942. "Mum was a nurse in Weymouth, Dad was a PT instructor with the King's Own Scottish Borderers. He was stationed down there doing some training, probably in preparation for D-Day," says Susan.

Looking at Sunnybank Primary's website later, there's a sad reminder of how often young children are casualties of war. It's almost 70 years since five pupils from the school were killed during the worst air raids of the Second World War in Aberdeen.

There were 98 people killed and more than 200 injured on 21 April 1943 - among them the five children who are remembered in a memorial erected in the school.

Photo: Young dancers at Sunnybank School in Aberdeen get to grips with the Jitterbug. Photo by Simon Price

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