Balbir Singh is a young Asian dancer who aims to be a role model for primary-age boys. Kevin Berry finds out how
We chose Balbir because he's male and Asian," explains Nick Sykes, a teacher at West End Primary School in Horsforth, Leeds. "Boys are sometimes less willing to take part in dance sessions. But as a fairly white, fairly middle-class school, we can use a male Asian dancer to kill two birds with one stone. Balbir's energy and ability to teach dance have given the children some very active lessons."
His effect is obvious. Balbir is talking to two girls while around him boys and girls are getting on with their compositions, trying out movements just as the grown-up dancers do, and talking with obvious purpose about their choreography. Two or three tall boys, who at first seemed physically awkward, are thoroughly absorbed in their task - and not even thinking of larking around.
Later, a class of Year 1 and 2 children show almost the same level of concentration - making symmetrical patterns, mirror movements, follow-my-leader actions and shaping each other's choreography in pairs.
Balbir Singh is a dance worker with UNNiTi, the development agency for south Asian dance, based in Bradford. Born in India, he is a graduate of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds. He offers workshops in south Asian and contemporary dance and loves to combine the two.
Balbir has the looks, physique and patience of an ideal older brother and is extremely aware of his value as a role model. "We had some European funding for a project with the unemployed. The criterion was that we had to recruit people from certain, mostly Asian areas of Bradford. So we went to youth centres and tried out lots of ideas for publicity. We sent out letters, advertising and press releases. We blitzed the whole of Bradford. We did taster sessions, but we just didn't recruit. Too few people turned up," says Balbir.
"So we brought in a consultant to find out why. One of the conclusions was that for that age group there are no male role models. Dance is something they don't see.We are working on a long-term strategy that will include taking a performance to a school and develoing it."
After performing at Queen's Road Junior and Infant, a predominbantly Asian school in Halifax, Balbir talks of the power of dance to stimulate children who face physical restrictions to their creativity. None of the children had ever seen a live performance, their experience limited to film. But they were bubbling with joy. They knew how complex and bewildering south Asian dance could seem, and appreciated the small, simple movements Balbir gave them to build on. Within a short time the children were showing an astonishing level of control.
"There is no physical creative outlet for these children - you get them in here and they're bursting to get some kind of release, you just step back and see where they take you - and it's brilliant," he says.
Balbir is following a trend inspired by many of the modern south Asian dance companies, such as Imlata and the Annett Leday dancers, which mix contemporary influences from Europe and the Asian club scene with classic techniques. The modern input allows scope for creation, while the ancient styles instil discipline and self-control. "A foreign element makes dance exotic and doubles the appeal," says Balbir.
Jayachandran, the avant-garde choreographer of the Imlata company, uses ancient styles based on martial arts movements, showing their power and beauty rather than their potential for violence. Balbir sometimes uses martial art movements in an appeal to the "macho" perceptions of Asian boys. But he is careful to emphasise the control needed in such movements, and then he introduces other elements.
Some cultural problems can be difficult to overcome. A greeting movement with the hands, an integral element of south Asian dance, is not permitted in the Muslim religion. Parental permission is sometimes needed before children can join in.
Balbir is glad expressive dance is in the national curriculum and he can justify Asian dance in other areas of school life. He is keen to override negative perceptions and give south Asian dance credibility with parents and in the playground. "Sometimes," he says, with a grin, "you have to exploit being Asian - and I do."
UNNiTi and Balbir Singh can be contacted on 01274 770076.
For south Asian dance touring companies' performance details, tel ADiTi: 0171 831 5288.
BBC Education's Dance Workshop is starting a series on Asian folk dance on Radio 3 FM at 3.40 on Thursdays. It is aimed at nine to 12-year-olds and is for pupils and teachers with no knowledge of Asian dance. Tel: 0181 746 1111