Stepping out

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Start at the very beginning and everyone will join in the dance. Carolyn O'Grady finds out how to keep it spinning

In Manchester, boys and girls start dance in Nursery

"Find yourselves an interesting starting position, symmetrical or asymmetrical," says teacher Jeff Reynolds to the Year 6 dance class. All the children confidently move into positions that range from squatting on the floor to reaching for the ceiling. The theme is waves and the only instrument a cymbal, played by Jeff: the pupils are asked to respond to the "sound waves" which crash and then die away.

They express the crashing and dying of the waves, with sudden and then slower movements, rising and falling. The last reverberation is often just a movement of the fingers.

I am at Rolls Crescent school, an inner city Manchester primary in an area of high social deprivation. Children here have been doing dance since nursery school, and the school has won a reputation for developing the subject, while achieving high standards across the curriculum.

Part of this success is undoubtedly because headteacher, Wendy Zaidi, is a PE specialist. She has worked as a peripatetic teacher in Manchester's inspection and advisory service developing gym, dance and games, and even now is PE co-ordinator at her school. "But you don't have to be a dance specialist to teach dance well," she says.

She feels strongly that dance helps raise attainment across the curriculum. "It fosters confidence, poise and self-esteem at all levels; it is an area in which all children, even the least academic, can succeed. And, of course, as cross curricular links are made all the time, it reinforces ideas and concepts."

"Moreover, so much of children's time these days is spent sitting down, that it is very beneficial to break up academic activities with something entirely different, and it enhances team work and gives children an opportunity to express feelings."

Recently Year 4 children had discussed emotions evoked by pop and classical music, including "Song for Guy" by Elton John and "Personages with Long Ears" (from Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Sa ns) and then expressed fear, anger, happiness and sadness through movement.

Every class in the school has a weekly dance lesson lasting about half an hour, which she says is necessary for progress and continuity. To help NQTs - "who are coming to teaching with less training in dance than ever" - and teachers coming from other schools, Wendy will work alongside them for several lessons.

The school has built up a collection oftaped music, including classical, pop and ethnic music and uses percussion instruments to encourage rhythm work. Poetry and visual stimuli are also important.

Children may emulate the movement of a piece of silk, which the teacher drifts around in the air. "Or we might use pictures to evoke an atmosphere," says Wendy.

In another lesson Jeff Reynolds introduces a poem called "Moon and Sea". It begins: Move, move, Moving like waves that rush, Rush to the shore, Swirling and Swooshing.

"What words suggest sudden movement?" he asks. Each pupil finds movements that suggest these words, and then move on to dancing to the whole poem.

Nothing is choreographed. Jeff offers comments, picks movements which he thinks are particularly evocative, encourages them to use all of their body from their toes to their fingers, but he doesn't tell them how to do it.

Later the pupils will be encouraged to make up a "wave dance" to instrumental music from the film, Titanic. After a talk about the pace of the music and the emotions it evokes, the children move into groups of three or four and work out movements together. They then watch and discuss each others' performances and finally come together in two large groups to build an even better dance based on what they have done.

Lessons, says Wendy Zaidi, must have a structure. At Rolls Crescent they include a warm-up activity and a teaching component in which children focus on rhythm; the quality of their movements; use of different body parts; travelling in space or working on the spot. Learning objectives are made clear, so for example, pupils may be told that they were going to develop a dance with a lot of twisting and turning.

The lesson ends with younger children working on a free dance and older children on a dance they are currently developing or on a finished dance. From infants children evaluate their own and others' work.

"How do you get your boys to dance?" This is one of the questions which Wendy Zaidi is most used to hearing, and the simplest answer is that dance is introduced so early and so naturally that boys never question their participation.

"But when boys come to the school late it can be a struggle. You have to be inventive. Try and latch on to their interests," she says. "There's great potential for movement in football, for example - heading, swerving, goal scoring and slow motion."

Football, waves, the film Titanic, poetry, it's all part of a philosophy which sees dance opportunities everywhere and dance as a subject which can reach every pupil.

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