Time to go beyond finger-wiggles
In the first new programme in BBC Education's Playtime, the presenter exhorts: "Wiggle your hands, wiggle your fingers." Playtime is the nursery for the on-going series of STEPS (Steps Towards Evaluation Performance Success) a radio-based dance course. It follows the national curriculum, which is both a strength and a weakness. Each stage - Let's Move for 5 to 6-year-olds, Time to Move for 6 to 8-year-olds and Dance Workshop for 9 to 12-year-olds - progresses through the academic year and builds up a vocabulary of movements. Each uses a mix of individual, small and large group work and is focused towards performance. However, each also shows the influence of a dance curriculum which is heavily weighted toward the PE end of the spectrum.
What this means in practice is that musicality and interpretation are largely overlooked in favour of callisthenics. The "wiggle your fingers" approach, which certainly has its place in introductory warm-ups for dance, is coupled with a kind of jolly-hockeysticks patter, which pretty much negates any artistic element.
Thus in Playtime the dance is an extension of everyday movements, framed within activities like sorting buttons or discussing teeth, fleshed out by well-known poems and a short story. As a means of enlivening teaching on the body, the series works well but it is not specifically dance.
In Time To Move (there are no new programmes in Let's Move) the emphasis in the first unit is on identifying and using muscle groups and on cross-curricular links, though in the second two units, when versions of two traditional tales are developed, expressivity and talking about dance and effective performance is stressed. Even here, however, work is language based.
In the Dance Workshop programmes, which attempt to collar their pre-adolescent audience with drum and bass music and the excitement of sporting events, the theory seems to be that dance will be acceptable to boys the closer it comes to either Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan (the basketball player). While this may well be true, the weakness of work on counting and responding to beats, the lack of precision in describing fairly complex movements and the odd ratio of chat to music continue the inherently non-expressive kind of movement which is being promoted.
Essentially STEPS is old-fashioned "music and movement" revamped for the national curriculum. It is not movement in music, as dance really is. Although many of the basic ideas, such as dressing the body for very young children, or enlisting the Olympics for those who are a little older are good stimuli, it is quite hard to see how, with the limited amount of music transmitted, any meaningful development of sequences could be achieved in class. This is in addition to the obvious disadvantage of using radio for dance: pupils really need to see and copy a dance teacher.
The two performance packs, for key stage 1, do provide a whole side of the tape which is just music. The Christmas Story is less successful, relying as it does on an almost wholly secular version of the Nativity, in which bulging shopping bags and weary kings are more prominent than the Annunciation. "Who is this baby anyway?" asked one listening child. We're Going on a Bear Hunt is a better rounded concept, based on Michael Rosen's version of the familiar rhyme. Both of these packs include a 48-page teacher's guide with hints for performance.