Jump over the edge
Every time you can find material acting as a focus for the curriculum, to give students a reason for working, is a bonus." Graham Hicking, deputy head of Hinde House School, Shire Green, Sheffield, an "urban village" with an unemployment rate of 60 to 70 per cent, praises the impact of Phoenix Dance Company's educational residency, On the Edge, exploring decisions facing teenagers today.
Inspired by Christopher Logue's poem "Come to the Edge" ("but we'll fall. ..and they came and he pushed them and they flew"), the project has spanned school life, producing animal pottery of endangered species, newsletters with a prize-winning logo and poster design, art work on pollution and space travel and examinations of peer group pressure, gender rules, drugs, sex and the family.
The central jewel has been the choreographic element, fronted by company dancer Pamela Johnson, encouraged by staff and galvanising a large dance club rehearsing through a bank holiday. This is a mixed bunch of 11 to 16-year-olds with "uncoerced" boys working unselfconsciously with older girls. "If you get them early, there are no inhibitions later on," says science teacher Beverley Nisbett, whose enthusiasm for dance and understanding of each pupil has helped "fill in gaps".
"We've got some very shy children lacking in confidence in written and oral work. One boy who was formerly weepy and upset can now offer an opinion and express himself in other subjects. He's able to communicate and ask for help. The group has able, older children under pressure from exam work. They're helping younger ones with choreography. Benefits are different: relaxation and fun," she says.
Pamela Johnson raps out beats in staccato 58 and 78 time, accompanied by a gigantic "sound-sculpture" made of scrap plastic tubing, car hubs and container drums. This is played with gusto by The Trash Band and the music is composed by head of music Philip Carr.
Dancers mark through a "hanging out" sequence: break dancing, skating, basket ball, running, shopping, disco dancing. A session with Verity Clarke (the Rotherham Arts Centre dance worker co-ordinating workshops) stimulated movement work on drug-hiding (a rolled sock) and pregnancy (a stuffed jumper affecting mobility).
Pamela Johnson's job is to teach body awareness and give people a starting point for their own creativity. "The hardest thing to get students to believe is that the movement they've come up with is dance. I'm getting rid of preconceived ideas of dance as exclusive and elitist, all about positions and being super-supple."
This is virtually the first time the dancers have worked with the (mainly male) musicians. Students are excited to be performing and in the neighbouring gym start fluidly cartwheeling across the floor in a ferment of activity.
Building on the 1994 Urban Exchange project and funded by Yorkshire Water's Community Programme and Sheffield Education Business Partnership, this term-long "drip feed" project linked to three secondary schools parallels intensive, "short sharp shock" programmes in others. Dance and art workshops in 12 primary schools create a batikparachute backdrop for a mammoth schools showcase at the Octagon Theatre today. Students have subsidised tickets for a Phoenix performance at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, featuring Pamela Johnson's choreography.
Feeder primary schools will yield new recruits to Hinde House's burgeoning dance group, echoing Phoenix's rise from dance pupils at Harehills Middle School, Leeds, to a prestigious, international touring company.
Phoenix Dance Company: 0113 242 3486. Schools showcase performance, Octagon Theatre, University of Sheffield, today. Phoenix performs at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, April 22-26.