Legs kicking and arms waving;Arts

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
Kay Smith reports from a dance workshop which enchanted her as much as it involved the children

Energy fills the room. The pupils from Hunters Tryst and Tollcross primaries have learned dances and songs from Brazil, Cuba and South Africa. And they've learned how rhythm links drumming and movement.

Thoroughly warmed up, now they tackle rock'n'roll. "Don't get hung up on doing everything perfectly. This is about putting in as much energy as possible," Charles McNeal urges. A dancer who runs community programmes for San Francisco Ballet, he is leading five weeks of primary school workshops as part of the Edinburgh International Festival's world dance and musicresidency.

Legs kicking and arms waving to the tune Rockin' Robin, the pupils take his words to heart. Suddenly the music stops, but the children are still high with the excitement. Mr McNeal shifts skillfully to a calmer tempo. He tells the pupils to stand still in front of him: "All that beautiful energy - I need it all here. Now." The children then mirror his carefully controlled arm movements to the smooth strains of classical adagio music.

The workshop was at the Hub, the festival's first permanent home, which opened this summer. Cheek by jowl with administrative offices is a magnificent dance studio space, in the main hall of a dramatically renovated church building at the top of Edinburgh's Royal Mile.

The festival's outreach workshops to build audiences will no longer be held in school halls far removed from the festival atmosphere. Nor will they be taken only by artists rushing on to festival performances.

Charles McNeal explains this is something new: "This place is not just to come alive during the festival. There will be teachers and workshops here all year round."

Mr McNeal has an endless capacity to make people feel special, asking individual pupils to take a turn in leading the class. "I love your focus and concentration," he says to one. The children then use the arm movements to interpret a North American Indian children's song. They sing: "I'm circling around the boundaries of the earth, the planet of my birth. I'm spreading my long tail and feathers as I fly." Every child's face is full of concentration. Their words are soft, their movements a sensitive portrayal of a gem from another culture.

When they finish, Mr McNeal whispers: "The teacher is also the learner. Thank you, we have learned a lot from you - your energy and your commitment."

Mr McNeal is just the kind of workshop leader the festival organisation wants to spread the word about the arts. He brings with him a sense of internationalism and dispels any preconceived notions about elitism in the arts. Just to look at him, as children do - black, tall and well built, he immediately breaks down the stereotype of a dancer.

Working in community arts in the San Francisco area, Mr McNeal is dedicated to bringing dance to children and young people. "I encourage people to trust themselves enough to experience the arts," he explains. During the autumn residency, which runs until November 6, he will spread this encouragement to virtually every primary school in Edinburgh - to a whole new generation of future festival goers.

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