Dispel those disco demons with a dance display

8th May 2009 at 01:00

If you asked my wife or children whether or not I can dance, the answer would be a resounding: "No!" Every time we go to a party or disco, they remind me that I mustn't embarrass them by attempting to boogie.

Even if they aren't going to be present, they make it clear they will be mortally offended if I venture on to the dance floor. They have a point.

One of my problems is that I was never taught to dance. The only thing approaching a dance lesson that I recall having were a couple of PE lessons where we were shown - sort of - how to do a very basic waltz and foxtrot. These were the only PE lessons in my school when boys and girls were mixed, and we all dreaded them with a vengeance. Who would we end up having to partner? Would she be ugly and sweaty-handed? Worse still, would she be beautiful and very upset when we trod on her toes?

The only discos I attended as a teenager were the occasional school ones. This was the two tone and punk era, so there weren't exactly great dancing role models on television to try to copy. I stared in envy at the few boys who weren't rhythmically challenged and who swayed effortlessly to the music. If I ventured on to the dance floor, I imagined a smirk in every face and assumed that the whispered comments around the room were solely about my feeble, unco-ordinated movements. Instead, I waited for the smooches. At least I could circle slowly during these, clutching a young lady to prevent myself from falling over.

But a couple of weeks ago I attended a fantastic dance-related event at my school. It was the culmination of a project between seven schools and the local tertiary college, organised and run by staff and students in the college's performing arts faculty. Each of our partner primary schools, as well as the one infant and junior school, were given six sessions of dance tuition based around the theme of "The Race". It was sports-focused in order to grab the attention of the boys, who might generally, it was assumed, be more reluctant than the girls to participate. Our school had four after-school sessions for any interested pupils.

A day in March was chosen for the dress rehearsals and final performance. Parents were invited, for a small fee, which paid for the bulk of the project, although it was subsidised by a community-focused schools grant. They came in their droves to support their children, packing out the Penyrheol Theatre at our school.

Each school performed what it had rehearsed, interspersed with some superb dances from the college students. It was interesting to see that the college dance troupe of about 12 17-year-olds had equal numbers of girls and boys. Perhaps this was also why there didn't appear to be any reluctance among the younger boys to be fully involved.

The entire programme lasted only an hour, but it was fabulous entertainment. Inevitably, the five-year-olds from the infant school stole the show, especially when they spotted a parent in the audience and stopped dancing to wave and smile.

However, all the young people at our school acquitted themselves very well, far better than I could ever have done. The evening was about enjoying oneself and having a go, rather than producing a polished performance, yet there was hardly a step out of place or a beat missed. It goes to show just what children and young people can learn and achieve when they are given these opportunities.

It occurred to me, as I was watching, how many skills are involved in the simplest of dances. As well as the obvious physical exercise from which participants benefited, they also had to remember complex and lengthy routines, which must have been extremely good for their brains. They had to count beats in order to keep in time with the music, and they had to move with the rhythm. In developing the dances, they had been required to interpret the lyrics and music into appropriate movements. There was individual responsibility to get it right, but also a dependence on teamwork for the overall effect. Then there was the courage needed to perform in front of a large audience and the confidence that comes from doing this successfully.

Truly, dance is an amazing vehicle for learning.

Do we do enough dance in school? Things have certainly improved since my schooldays, but I think there is plenty of scope to do more. One problem, of course, is having sufficient expertise available. This is why a project such as ours was so useful. College students were able to gain the experience of teaching younger children what they were learning themselves. It was a genuine transition activity, benefiting all. We will definitely be looking to repeat the experience.

Next time, perhaps the staff should have to produce a routine as well. But I don't think my family would allow me!

Alan Tootill, Head of Penyrheol Comprehensive School, Swansea.

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