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Your every step could be a dance

Once you beat children's inhibitions and get them moving, dance follows and then who knows? Karen Shead reports

The hall looked like a scene from the film Billy Elliot. Children were running and leaping through the air, legs and arms outstretched, and turning to face the front with big smiles on their faces.

"When you jump we want to see your face," said dance teacher Peter Christie. "Take off on one foot, jump and turn your face, and smile," he instructed.

The P7 children at Balgreen Primary in Edinburgh happily did as they were asked during the two-hour workshop hosted by the American dance company Ballet West, of Salt Lake City.

It was one of 20 which took place at 14 schools across Edinburgh and the Lothians last month. Four teachers from Ballet West, including Mr Christie, the director of educational programmes and recently appointed director of the Ballet West Academy, came as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. The purpose of the workshops was to give 600 children a first experience of dance. They were introduced to simple movements, taught how dance comes together and shown how a choreographic vocabulary can come from everyday movement.

Sally Hobson, the festival's programme development manager, said: "Ballet West USA has its own education programme which fits in nicely with ours.

"The aim of the workshops is to firstly give children the chance to experience dance work, which can lead to a better understanding of ballet, and secondly to give them an opportunity to see they can do it.

"It's not that they will all become principal dancers with ballet companies; it's just so that they can see how every day movements can be incorporated into dance."

As well as learning different steps, the Balgreen Primary pupils had the chance to ask Mr Christie (who joined the company in 1982 as a dancer before becoming the education director in 1988) anything they liked. "I worked as a dancer for 16 years," he told them. "I would go to work every day and dance and they would pay me. Is that cool or what?" Heads nodded in agreement. Then general questions followed.

After this, the children were up and on their feet again, learning how to jump and turn in the air. "When you are doing ballet you do something called spotting," Mr Christie explained. "You look at one thing straight ahead of you and keep looking at it."

Children volunteered to try it. One boy jumped and turned effortlessly and asked to try to turn twice in the air, he was almost successful. As Mr Christie showed them how it was done, there were gasps of amazement.

"The kids have responded very positively to the workshops," he said later.

"They walk into the gym with a bit of trepidation, but when they realise it's not ballet, it's dance and movement, you can sense the relief. By the end of the sessions they are beaming. It's wonderful.

"If you can break down the perceptions and involve them in movement, the possibilities are endless."

Mr Christie explained that the workshops were based on one of Ballet West's standard education programmes. "We have a programme that goes out to schools for 25 weeks. We go to each P7 class - we call it fifth grade - for one hour a week until the end of the year and we wind up with a final performance that is open to the public," he said. "It is a good introduction to movement and the main aim is to get the children to move, for them to let go of their inhibitions and change their perceptions of dance. We want them to realise dance is based on a lot of movements they do every day."

Judging by the children's opinions, the aims were achieved.

"It's hard work but fun at the same time and I learned lots of dance moves," said Lisa.

"I kept saying to my mum that I didn't want to go because I thought it was traditional ballet," admitted Michael. "But when we were doing it and I realised it wasn't like that it was a relief."

Pranab summed up the feelings of his classmates neatly. "Dancing is nae that bad after all," he said.

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