Do the Funky Chicken

4th January 2008 at 00:00
Yes really! Or you could try some war-like Zulu dancing. Shannon Pepin discovers how the African beat gives learning rhythm.

I was born in Durban, South Africa, and have had first-hand experience of the energy and rhythm in African dance and an appreciation for its place within traditional African society. The challenge was how best to relay this to a class of Year 4 pupils halfway across the world and from different backgrounds.

It is important to avoid stereotyping and to explain that we are only going to be looking at a section of African society. Some places in Africa are not so very different from European cities. I start by placing the subject in context - explaining that many movements in street dance and hip-hop have their origins in the traditional African beat.

In the first pair of lessons we explore movements found in dances celebrating the harvest or showing scenes from ordinary rural life. I introduce a set dance I learnt years ago from a workshop with the Adzido Dance Company and this breaks the ice. The children find it strange to move their hips and to isolate their rib cages. We start with the "Funky Chicken" and place our hands on our hips, ready to move our ribcages. At first, most simply flap their elbows (hence the name) and thrust their chins forwards and backwards. Others simply shake everything a la Beyonce. It is a humorous experience and as long as you are happy to join in the hilarity, the children are happy to continue with the movements.

We then look at pictures to explore the types of movements associated with farming and rural life. We use our arms to imitate scattering seeds, pulling up crops and grinding corn. All these need to be with the knees bent and a low centre of gravity. Some of the more able children can use "furious feet", a sharp contrast to the slow tempo of the upper body. Others may find it easier to remain static and simply focus on the upper body movements.

The second set of lessons focuses on the use of body percussion and rhythm, illustrated by a clip from the Gumboot section of the BBC Sportsbank series (an oldie but goodie). The children learn the two set rhythmic sequences enthusiastically - even the most uncoordinated child can cope with the simple rhythms. I ask the children to come up with their own sequences in small groups, which must be performed in unison. We talk about how facing away from or towards each other affects the performance, and how different groupings affect the overall look.

This section can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. Less able groups tend to change directions and to work in straight lines. More able groups can incorporate mirroring, diagonal lines and split groupings. They can also have different people performing the same steps in opposite directions as long as it is done in unison.

In the last couple of input lessons we look at the more dynamic, war-like dancing of the Zulus. This part especially appeals to the boys and may be the best starting point with more difficult groups. I tend to use a clip from YouTube that shows a group of male dancers in traditional costume.

We focus on the athleticism and psychological aspects of the dance. I explain that the dances served different purposes, to inspire the men before a battle, to scare an enemy with their prowess or to celebrate and retell events after a victory. I usually compare it with the Haka performed by the New Zealand rugby team and how they share some of the same characteristics.

We look at how the arms are used to show off the weapons and the strength and quickness of the movements. The legs involve a lot of stomping and kicks and the groups advance and retreat at various points in the dance. The children try some of the movements we have seen and discuss what they think the movements might show. We explore the children's ideas and combine spear throwing, shield beating and high jumps. The children also use this opportunity to show off some of their break-dancing skills.

The finale is to place each pupil with a partner to whom they demonstrate the individual sequence they have created combining all these ideas.

Then they must learn each other's sequences and perform those, before finally performing the extended routine together.

Shannon Pepin has taught in UK primary schools and is now at the Lady Elizabeth School in Alicante, Spain.

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