As the Government looks to spend more on specialist schools, the Dance School of Scotland already combines training for the talented with academic studies to give its pupils the best chances of getting work. Neil Munro and John Cairney talk to the staff and students.
Earnest faces, intense concentration, legs at right angles resting on the wall bars, splayed positions on the studio floor, bodies bent to extreme angles. It is not just physical contortions which are expected of the 11-year-olds entering the Dance School of Scotland, at Glasgow's Knightswood Secondary, but also resoluteness.
Jim Nelson, the depute headteacher, well remembers one lad's audition. When asked why he wanted a place he declared: "Because I want to be the best dancer in the world!" Such determination at so early an age is either impressive or frightening depending on one's point of view. But commitment and motivation are essential qualities the school is looking for. "If they haven't got those, they won't be able to hack it," says Sybil Simpson, Knightswood's head.
"We also look for musicality, artistry, co-ordination and physicality, which means build, not just looks," says Josephine Holling, the Dance School's new director. She knows full well that these attributes make for an unusual group of young people.
The boys, who form around half of this session's first year intake of 12 (entry is also possible in the fifth year), have already shown considerable determination by admitting to their friends that they want to become dancers. But the great difficulty dance and ballet companies have in finding talented male dancers means that boys who make the grade can virtually walk into a job, Mrs Simpson says. A third of the present Scottish Ballet company are former pupils of the Dance School.
One of the striking features of the pupils is their diverse range of backgrounds. Youngsters on clothing grants are as likely to predominate as the middle and upper classes, which are associated with the private dance schools in London. One boy from Govan earned the tabloid soubriquet of "Rab C Nureyev".
The dancers follow 75 per cent of the normal curriculum, missing out social education and physical education. They take five or six Standard exams, instead of the usual eight, and then three Highers. In addition, they have daily classes in singing and drama as well as dance.
Despite the combination of talents, Ms Holling's first impression of the school was "the normality of it all". Knightswood is the only dance school in the UK run by a local authority.
"Of course there is fierce concentration and focused commitment when they're in the dance studio," Ms Holling says. "But when they're pursuing their school work, they are just normal young people with the normal ranges of behaviour."
The Dance School, like its musical counterpart at Douglas Academy in Bearsden, was set up to give its 70 or so pupils as "normal" an education as possible, without the hothouse elitism generally associated with specialist or private schools. If the students are struggling, homework classes with a qualified teacher are available to first, second and third year pupils at the Dance School's residence halls in Bearsden. Older students are expected to study in their rooms.
Their commitment makes them naturally high achievers, which has a beneficial effect on their academic results. Of the 10 dance school pupils sitting Standard grade exams last term, three achieved five or more passes at Credit level one.
The dancers associate naturally with the rest of the school's pupils and there is little bullying or animosity, Mrs Simpson says. However, some young dancers said they were "hassled" by pupils in the mainstream school, especially in first year. This usually takes the form of name-calling and, says Ms Holling, is partly due to new pupils in the rest of the school having never come across dancers, especially boys, before.
Mrs Simpson believes one reason for the generally harmonious relationships is that dance is also strongly developed in the mainstream school. "One of the most crucial early decisions was to appoint an assistant principal teacher for dance in the PE department," says Mrs Simpson. "This meant that everybody had the opportunity to be exposed to dance and it wasn't seen as any big deal." As a result, the uptake of National Certificate modules in dance at Knightswood is very high.
Most students from the Dance School of Scotland go on to the dance schools of major companies in England, such as the Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet. But other Knightswood pupils can move from National Certificate modules in dance to higher national certificate and diploma courses run with Anniesland College in Glasgow. Mrs Simpson hopes one day to help develop a BA in dance, taught by Scottish Ballet and validated by one of the universities.
Her main preoccupation is to build up a qualifications framework so that the dance students, who "work their socks off", have something to show for their efforts. "If you surround any discipline with the rigour of qualifications, Scots will buy into it," she says.
She adds: "You've got to be careful about developing specialisms. There has to be a need for it and young people have to be in with the same chance of a job as everyone else." Employability is now a key selling point for attracting students to the Dance School and marketing is a priority.
Last session saw the piloting of a musical theatre course for fifth and sixth year pupils. From more than 100 applications, a dozen students have been picked. Graham Dickie, the school's musical director, says the intention is to train youngsters so that they have combined strengths in dance, drama and singing, making them more attractive to employers. "Television, live theatre and the mass entertainment business are now making demands for performers who have skills in more than one artistic discipline," he says.
Those who are not likely to make it in the top flight of classical ballet could also switch to the new course.
About 240 youngsters have passed through the Dance School since it was opened in 1983 by the former Strathclyde Region. After the creation of smaller councils in 1996, a number of cash-strapped authorities said they could not afford the fees for either residential or non-residential pupils, but Knightswood's future is looking brighter. The Government has allocated pound;4 million over the next three years to help authorities send pupils to specialist schools such as Knightswood. A council placing a pupil in a specialist school would pay only the costs of conventional education. And this money is in addition to pound;10 million over that period for expanding the range of specialist schools beyond dance, music and sport.
* DANCING TO AN AMBITIOUS TUNE
The opportunity to specialise in dance and continue academic studies appealed to Catherine Harley, 15, from Kirkcaldy, though she admits to finding it hard as the demands of both have increased as she has progressed through school. She is now studying Higher maths, English and French. Her ambition is to move on to the Conservatoire in Paris after Knightswood, though she won't quibble if she ends up with the New York City Ballet or the National Ballet School of Canada.
Nicola Green, from Uddingston, is 15 and has just achieved level one passes in all six of her Standard grades and is now studying Higher physics, maths and English. She admits to having had some difficulty initially coping with the requirements of the specialist course and the classroom. "After a while I adapted well and eventually found no tension or strain in dealing with the two demands," she says. Like most of the Dance School students, Nicola intends to apply for a place in the dance school of one of the major English ballet companies.
Kyle Boath, 16, from Montrose, has found it difficult combining the dance course with the demands of the academic curriculum. He is now studying maths and English at Higher level but was disappointed in his Standard grade results. "I found first and second year OK," he says, "but I experienced more stress in both aspects of my work due to the extra demands and the amount of homework required." He would like to go on to the dance school of a major English company, though says he would consider taking a BA in dance if a course was up and running.
Name calling has been a problem for Robin Livesey, 17, who has just finished at the Dance School and is going on to the Royal Ballet school for two years. In a Glasgow accent which belies his Geordie origins in Newcastle upon Tyne, he says: "It's not so bad now, but it does occasionally still happen." He says he found it "strange" at first mixing the dance demands with his academic work, but "adapted OK, though I sometimes had problems preparing for exams after school". This year he passed Higher art and music.