Norma Cohen visits an academic school where dance is taken seriously. At Bedford High School, an independent girls' school where academic disciplines are complemented by a strong emphasis on the arts, dance features prominently within and outside the curriculum. During lunchtime and after school, students are offered cheap-rate ballet, modern, ballroom and tap classes with Royal Academy of Dancing and International Society of Teachers of Dancing examination options from four peripatetic dance teachers.
Head of dance Linda Atkinson, who's built up a 17-year tradition of dance within the school, including termly ballet trips, teaches a GCSE dance course. She imbues her course with relevant aspects of music and history: the idealisation of romantic ballet, the role of women such as Isadora Duncan, Parisian life during the Diaghilev era, its effect on couture and dance costume.
These activities bear fruit at a biennial event featuring more than 150 pupils aged seven to 17. For the tenth concert, the balletic theme was the works of Sir Frederick Ashton studied on the course. Atkinson's intention was "not to reproduce his choreography, but use it as a starting point for teaching Ashton to GCSE candidates," turning his work into a living force with choreography of her own.
A musical exploration of Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations used by Ashton in 1946 featured stately friezes of 15 and 16-year-old "swans" in black practice tutus, recalling Ashton's original Fonteyn, Shearer and May trio. Echoing the natural, free movement of Isadora Duncan, young "nymphs" in silk, tie-dyed tunics floated under a billowing canopy in an evanescent seascape, using music set by Ashton for his Five Brahms Waltzes in the Style of Isadora Duncan. In boaters and blazers, dancers preened through a Charlestonesque version of Facade. A version of The Tales of Beatrix Potter featured droll, mixed-age rabbits, ducks, frogs and hopping moth-like insects.
Year 10s Les Etoiles, a sophisticated hommage to American choreographer Alwin Nikolais, featured invisible dancers inside stretchy, black sacks. A Different Septet developed motifs and concepts used by Merce Cunningham: an impressive, entrechat-and-splits barefoot piece in handprint leggings. To atmospheric sounds, Expressionless, created by post-GCSE students, had a Weimar, expressionist feel with its powerfully leaping ensemble.
For English Airs, eight to 10-year-olds in traditional dirndles and embroidered blouses tripped through "character" pas de basques in a maypole dance evocative of a rural, childhood idyll. Synchronised, tapping prowess was demonstrated in a clatter of intricate clapping rhythms and complex "train tracks" to Brubeck and Bechet.
In a school where 93 per cent go on to university, 10 to 15 per cent with Oxbridge places, dancers combine dance activities with academic and sports pursuits to develop all-round flair. "In terms of poise and confidence from seven years upwards, the spin-offs are enormous," says head of dance and drama Diana Morgan.
Atkinson says that while students may go on to full-time dance training (one former student has just finished work experience with the Royal Ballet), "at GCSE dance level, we look with an eye that trains students for other, artistic and social activities." Encouraging arts activities, rather than squeezing them from the curriculum, can evidently help achieve excellence in the league tables.
* Two young dancers have won the chance to spend a week studying dance full-time. The recipients of this year's National Dance Week's "Footsie" Awards are Tyrone Wade (14) from Essex who is going to the Lane Theatre Arts School in Epsom and Kelly Clarkson (15) from Kent who will go to the London Studio Centre.