It's funny that when dance crazes hit. Schools and parents tend to react with something in a range from resigned exasperation to outrage and a propensity to issues bans. Dabbing, the Floss, Gangnam Style – they keep coming, the kids keep learning them, the parents keep shaking their heads and tutting and the middle-aged geography teachers keep making videos of themselves trying to do them.
Like anything related to dancing, these things have tended to pass me by. But I have recently had something of an epiphany.
I was part of the panel that interviewed for a new member of staff who would contribute to both PE and school sports. Each candidate was asked to give a PE lesson. All of them were great but one threw in a curve ball by starting her lesson with dance.
The class being taught was Year 5, and half were boys. A number of those boys were what you might call reluctant in terms of exercise and equally reluctant in terms of being seen doing things deemed "not cool" by their peers. While we admired her chutzpah, we thought she'd bitten off more than she could chew.
We were wrong. Through some mysterious alchemy involving her enthusiasm, loud music, cool moves and a rush of endorphins, five minutes later they were all with her, the whole class dancing together to the music. It wasn't easy either – they were being challenged, they were working hard, breathing hard and breaking a sweat. And most of all, they were – some despite themselves – smiling.
I hope all you PE teachers out there will excuse my ignorance but when I think of PE, I think of running, jumping, throwing, catching, netball, football, cricket and so on. Dance just didn't occur to me. I wonder how many PE teachers are comfortable with it? Our applicant wasn't just teaching it, she was doing it, too – her enthusiastic example a large part of her success perhaps.
It got me thinking about the value of dance. Well, in PE lessons there are the immediate benefits: cardiovascular exercise, coordination, concentration, novelty, fun, no special equipment needed – but it goes beyond that.
My daughters both dance several hours a week, enjoy their lessons and love being in shows. It occurs to me that dance lessons and performances teach children so many of the qualities we try and instil in them in school; qualities that are best learned by experience and by example rather than didactically.
The joy of dance
Determination, hard work, resilience, the link between practice and improvement, patience, team work, confidence, communication, concentration, the connection between mind and body. These abstract concepts become real, felt, internalised – without having to be explained. Then there's happiness, joy, spirit – the joy my children experience on showing me and the rest of the audience what they have achieved and how it makes them feel never fails to bring a tear to my eye. As the years go by, the movements change from awkward to graceful, simple to complex, gauche to elegant but the fundamental joy of performing (and of watching) remains. No matter what standard they're at, there is something very moving about seeing someone try their absolute best at something, and for that to be publicly and enthusiastically acknowledged.
In the most recent dance school show I watched, one of the performers at a high grade slipped and fell with a crash near the start of a complicated tap routine. It was a bad fall. The audience took an audible breath. No one would have blamed her for limping off stage. She got up and continued, danced beautifully and received an ovation that was full of admiration at both her skill and her spirit. It was an incredibly uplifting moment. With so many motivational quotes all over social media and plastered on posters on school walls, it's easy to forget just how difficult it is to actually get back up again after a fall, and what courage it shows to do so.
It is widely accepted, I think, that dancing, like the rest of PE and the arts, can enhance all education. Importantly, for children who may find verbal expression of their feelings difficult, dancing may just be an alternative avenue to communicate their emotions.
So it seems a no-brainer for PE to be full of dance – for all the immediate benefits, for the potential to reach children in new ways, and maybe even to give them a passion in life that they would never otherwise have known. Most of all, though, to give children an opportunity to be seen and accepted and enjoyed. As a governor in a school determined to educate the whole child, academically and pastorally, I can see that dance fits in perfectly.
Ultimately, the academic enhancement of dance is a welcome by-product. What it's really all about is how it feels for any child who walks on to a stage, expert or novice, step-perfect or dusting themselves off from a fall, knowing the whole audience is on their side. They give it their all and the audience applauds, smiles, weeps and cheers, the child stands, looking out in wonder, beaming, arms outstretched saying, "Here I am. This is me."