Freedom of movement

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
The theme music from Starsky and Hutch blasts out of the past and the CD player at the end of the studio. Kids who wouldn't know David Soul from Henry Kissinger, stand eagerly poised to leap and twirl through a routine which ends with them down on one knee, imaginary revolver held out double-handed. Pure American cop.

This is Scottish Ballet's newest dance company, Innov8, a group of 25 eight to 12-year-olds, who are being taught dance in its broadest sense, from jazz to ballet and contemporary to street dance. This is only their third weekly lesson, but they know what they are aiming at.

"We're never going to get children enthused about dance unless we break down the stereotype that classical ballet has for people," says Lorna Pickford, acting head of education at Scottish Ballet. Her classes have little of the rigid discipline of a traditional ballet class, and she is keen that her students should use their own initiative and imagination in working towards a performance piece. "In many dance classes, particularly ballet, the children are always being told what to do, but quite often you find something really good emerges out of something unplanned and spontaneous."

Crop tops and T-shirts, cycling shorts and leggings, the occasional multi-coloured leotard: costume maketh the dancer, and these children are clearly here to have a good time. They come to Scottish Ballet's Glasgow headquarters from as far away as Ardrossan and Edinburgh, and all are delighted to have made it through the audition ("not nearly as bad as a ballet audition") and into the class. Ask what other dance classes they go to and a hail of hoofing techniques comes flying back: disco, tap, rock'n'roll, Highland, modern, Irish, acro, majorettes. "You can tell the ones who do a lot of ballet," says Pickford. And sure enough, they are the ones who do Starsky and Hutch a la Sugar Plum Fairy with beautifully pointed toes and graceful carriage of the head. "I'm trying to give them the idea that the same steps can be done in lots of different ways," says Pickford, but clearly the ballet training is difficult to shift.

A different spectre haunts my corner of the studio. It's something to do with those arms reaching energetically skywards, and the full-length roll-overs on the floor. I can't get Pan's People out of my head. But that's my problem. This lot have no such gyrating ghosts to haunt them. What they do have is a great deal of expertise at their disposal.

Pickford plans to bring in specialists from the various dance disciplines, and to call on members of the Scottish Ballet company itself to give the class top quality tuition. Her own background is in contemporary dance, but she says the best time she has ever had was with physical theatre company DV8. "I was covered in bruises from head to foot. It was brilliant."

She also wants to encourage the group to see live dance as much as possible. The classes are as much about creating an informed and enthusiastic audience for dance as they are about creating dancers.

They also aim to develop children's creativity as well as their technique, encouraging them to add their own ideas and variations to the melting-pot of dance methods.

"What do these classes teach you, apart from dance steps?" I ask the group. "Teamwork" is the first response. "It makes you listen and explore other people's ideas"; "It lets you try out things without feeling embarrassed"; "It's good for your imagination"; "It helps you develop a mind of your own"; "You can just let yourself go".

If Pickford wants to create little ambassadors for the broad appeal of dance, she is succeeding. Their enthusiasm comes tumbling out, as spontaneous as the jumps and stretches they have just been weaving into a dance. Gone are the regimented rows of pointed toes and straightened backs; instead there is a delightful melee of bodies, moving easily and naturally. Feet point and flex, shoulders circle, bodies twist and crouch and spring.

The whole vocabulary of the human form is set loose in these relaxed, communicative surroundings. "How do you feel at the end of the class?" I ask, as they finally stretch out on the floor. The answer is immediate. "Happy".

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