Primary pupils are being led a merry dance in Fife - and they're enjoying every step, writes Douglas Blane
Outside the pavilion a mild west wind rustles the autumn leaves, while whispers of distant traffic drift across the park from the town. Inside, 400 youngsters in smart white shirts and tartan sashes dance and sing as an accordion player fills the hall with lilting music.
Country dancing tends to peak in popularity in the autumn, as PE teachers rehearse their pupils in the jigs, waltzes, strathspeys and reels they will need for the Christmas dance. But in some places, the upsurge is more sustained, bringing pleasure to pupils and teachers alike.
Today's event in Pittencrief Park, Dunfermline, is part of a festival of country dancing organised by Fife's visiting teacher service. "It began 25 years ago with a hundred kids and a handful of schools," says David Maiden, Fife's PE and youth sports manager. "Now, we have 12,500 kids taking part - half our primary school population - and every primary school in Fife."
An important factor in this surge in popularity has been the close links between the visiting PE teachers and the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS), which has branches around the world from Washington to Wanganui. Another vital factor is that the visiting PE teachers have made the dances - thousands of which are listed on the online database DanceData - more child-friendly by relaxing a traditional emphasis on strict precision. "We've made it more about taking part, having fun, coming along and getting involved," says Mr Maiden.
As a result, children as young as five are on the floor today, dancing with dexterity and enjoyment. But the emphasis on fun is more about good education than falling standards, as demonstrated by the comments of a group of slightly breathless Limekilns primary senior pupils, who have just come off the dance floor. "We've been doing the difficult dances," says Keir, . "From the 'Dashing White Sergeant', the 'Torryburn Lassies', to the 'Duke of Perth'."
"The first one was 'Lady Catherine Bruce'," says Zoe, "which gets easier when you know it. You go up and back and then you do an allemande."
The names of the moves and steps trip lightly off the tongues of the children, who have been learning the terminology and the dancing since they were in infant class. The reason, says Mr Maiden, is that teachers and pupils take a pride in what they can do. There are no prizes at the festival, but there is an element of performance, of wanting to do well, which raises standards.
"By not being overly critical when the kids are starting out, you don't put them off, and you get many more taking part," he says . "That broad base means you end up with more youngsters who are really proficient as well."
For Sue Porter, recently appointed the society's youth director, the educational benefits to children flow partly from activities on the dance floor and partly from those inside their heads. "Country dancing is about sociability and working together, so they have to stay alert and watch what is going on around them," she says.
"It doesn't matter much at first if their timing isn't perfect, and the youngest children don't have the physical ability for some of the difficult dances. But these things come to them in time, as they practise and learn and mature."
The RSCDS website - www.rscds.org - contains a wealth of information, and links to branches around the world, including 42 in Scotland and 46 in England and Wales. There is a very active London branch with its own website at www.rscdslondon.org.uk.The teachers' pack, containing a book of dances graded by difficulty, a CD of music, and a video of teaching methods and dances is available to schools at pound;33 per pack from The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, 12 Coates Crescent, Edinburgh EH3 7AF. Tel: 0131 225 3854; email: email@example.com.