Report to the dance floor
Biddy Passmore swings in on the action
The neat, straight-backed girls in their red leotards are learning to let go. "Throw your arms. Loosen up your arms. Don't control them - throw them - and finish up," bellows Lungelo Ngamlana in the tones of a friendly sergeant-major.
Turning and whirling, the girls end up in a giggling heap. Lungelo (pictured above) is not the usual teacher of these south London primary pupils, who are attending a workshop under the Royal Ballet's Chance to Dance scheme. He is a guest from South Africa on an Arts Council fellowship and his style is a long way from classical ballet ("There was no ballet in the townships in the early 90s," he points out).
A fusion of African and contemporary, his dancing technique has a vigour and discipline of its own.
The boys in the group, wearing red T-shirts and skin-tight black shorts, take more easily to his energetic style than the girls. But they need to be a bit more daring too. "You guys need to use the space. Yep, ha, move,"
cries Lungelo. Galvanised, they move.
It makes a change from the plies and pirouettes they were rehearsing minutes earlier for a performance of the ballet Checkmate at the Royal Opera House in a few weeks' time. Prokofiev on the piano has given way to the urgent beat of Lungelo on the drum. "I use it as another voice to hint at the movement," he says.
The children seem to relish the change. One girl, Caprice, beams with delight afterwards. "She likes something more active," says her mum.
Concentration is one of many qualities children develop through Chance to Dance, one of a number of outreach programmes offered by ballet companies in Britain. Run by Royal Opera House Education, it offers free ballet classes to primary pupils in the London boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark and Hammersmith and Fulham. Selected by audition to check their physical suitability, 265 children aged eight to 11 attend weekly classes under the scheme.
But, as Paul Reeve, the Royal Opera House's head of education, points out, Chance to Dance goes far beyond selecting a few lucky children for training. "It reaches about 1,800 children in the 47 primary schools in the participating boroughs," he says. "Every seven-year-old pupil is introduced to ballet by seeing a demonstration by Royal Ballet dancers in their school hall. That's followed within two weeks by a dance workshop, which gives every child a chance to have a go.
"For many, it's their first chance to see ballet and we hope for some it will light a spark. Unless you introduce children to a wide range of art forms, they will never know what there is or have the chance to discover their potential. And reaching their potential doesn't mean becoming Darcey Bussell. Some stop at 11 but keep a sense of connection with ballet and develop important life skills: physical awareness, fitness, team-working skills, discipline and self-confidence."
The scheme is not meant to replace the dance curriculum in primary schools, adds Martha MingWhitfield, manager of the ballet education programme. "It's meant to enrich and complement the work being done and to support the school."
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A similar scheme, called Primary Steps, is run by the Royal Ballet School (www.royal-ballet-school.org.uk) in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, and by Scottish Ballet in Glasgow (www.scottishballet.co.uk).
Birmingham Royal Ballet (www.brb.org.uk) runs a programme called Dance Track, and Northern Ballet Theatre in Leeds (www.northernballettheatre,co.uk) offers school workshops in many parts of the UK.