Dance till you drop

25th July 1997 at 01:00
Kay Smith reports on one of the most important events in the dance calendar

They came from every corner of Scotland. Some had come up from England and from even as far afield as Germany. But the participants of the week-long Scottish Youth Dance Festival, held in Renfrew earlier this month, were united in one aim - to immerse themselves in dance.

The young people - 120 in all - were able to participate in a multitude of technique classes, creative sessions and performances. Most had come as members of youth dance groups, which, often through the energies of just one committed leader, keep the passion for dance alive within local communities. The aim of the festival was to introduce the groups to wider influences through working with an eclectic range of tutors and dance styles.

After a morning warm-up contemporary dance technique class, taken each day with a different teacher, participants were offered a series of "taster" classes in styles as diverse as street dance and step dance.

The class of Jamie Armstrong of the Glasgow-based street dance company Floors Freak Projekt had a high-energy approach. He led them through a demanding routine of robotic-style arm movements, combined with rapid twists of the body and rotation of the legs. "If you hold back on the energy, it'll be harder on your muscles," he warned.

Jamie Armstrong is strong on individualism. "Use the different styles - breakdance, hip-hop, freestyle - as your structure. But mix them to create your own. It's not difficult. The only thing you can do wrong is not put all your energy into it," he emphasised.

Rap music roared and Armstrong sweated and shouted his message across to an eager, if shell-shocked, class. But in the next-door gym, in the festival venue of Renfrew High School, peace and tranquillity reigned. There, Jenny Roche of the Dublin-based company CoisCeim was teaching a short section from her company's repertory.

The piece was smooth and lyrical, the music, the song "Back in Time", by Thin Lizzie. "When you came into my life you changed my world," Jenny Roche echoed the words. "It's happy, relaxed and soft - so enjoy it," she said. Quality of movement was as important as getting the series of steps right. The choreography was, however, no easy option. It was intricate, but the class did well. "That's really good - it took us three years to get right," Jenny Roche told them. "It's very satisfying to know you can do what the professionals do," said Lora Bailey of the Fife-based Footnotes Dance Company.

Each year the festival hosts, alongside individual artists, a resident contemporary dance company that teaches, performs, and allows participants to discover for themselves that professional dancers are not distant icons but ordinary people with whom they share common aspirations.

This year the company was CoisCeim, which - as well as giving taster classes - led one of the festival's courses in creative dance. The theme was street motion, and festival participants were able to experiment with CoisCeim's own subtle style of delicate brushes of feet, ripples through the arms, swift and light turns.

In a creative class given by the solo artist Frank McConnell considerable brainstorming about trust, team work and realising personal potential took place. "I tell people that the first movement they think of is usually the worst. They've got to go much further," he explained.

Sixteen-year-old Jessica Tomchak from Macduff agreed. Before the festival she had done mostly ballet, which she now described as "frigid". In Frank McConnell's session she learned "how to let myself go".

According to Lora Bailey, the festival - celebrating its 10th anniversary - "makes a big difference" to the work of the youth groups. "There's the chance to perform and see others perform, and, in the classes, to push yourself further than you would usually go," she said. Denny Dance Theatre's leader Kaye Finlaye Craw described the festival as "the main event of the year".

So that its benefits can be spread as widely as possible, the festival is hosted by a different Scottish local authority each year. Most are happy to facilitate an event that spreads such constructive bonhomie and vitality among young people, and this year Renfrewshire Council gladly included it within its 600th anniversary celebrations. Next year North Ayrshire Council will be hosting the event in Irvine.

The Scottish Youth Dance Festival has also grown into a popular year-round operation. There are plans to continue with its programme of teaching and networking, which, to date, has included two national conferences on dance and disability, youth leaders' courses and outreach programmes for young people.

But essentially the festival is just as it was when it was pioneered 10 years ago, according to Winifred Jamieson of the festival office. "It has the same energy, the same commitment - and the same reasons for doing it."

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