THE playground at Clermiston Primary School in Edinburgh is covered with a light dusting of snow. Inside, in the school’s gym, a class of Primary 7 pupils are pretending to carry giant snowballs.
They hold their arms out in front of them in smooth curves, the tips of their fingers almost meeting. Backs are straight, heels together, toes pointing outwards.
Amy Noble, an education officer at Scottish Ballet, shouts words of encouragement, and the children smile while trying to hold their poses. This class of ten and 11-year-olds have no experience of ballet, but that’s changing thanks to DanceQuest, a new three-year project from The Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts, with the unconventional dance company BalletBoyz as its ambassadors.
DanceQuest is funding four arts venues across the UK – including the Edinburgh Festival Theatre (EFT) – to partner with 16 local schools in deprived areas and introduce 800 pupils to dance in its many forms. The aim is not to uncover the dance stars of the future, but rather to expose children to a world from which they might otherwise feel excluded.
Where this project stands apart from similar schemes, is that in addition to introducing children to the thrill of participation, it immerses them in the joys of watching a live performance, aiming to help them feel comfortable in their local arts venue and inspiring them to return with their families in the future.
“There are a lot of dance education projects out there but they tend to be completely about participation, with a gap in actually getting them seeing high-quality professional dance,” says Jeremy Newton, the CEO of the Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts. “That’s absent from most dance education projects,” he adds. “Particularly the idea of seeing large-scale performances.
“This is about giving children a sense of comfort, welcome and accessibility within arts institutions, giving them a chance to sense that its a place that they can feel at home and go and see things that they’ll enjoy and not feel embarrassed. And that, for us, also means creating the arts audiences of tomorrow.” In addition to attending six dance workshops – in styles including hip-hop, salsa and ballet – each child sees two performances at the EFT and gets to peek behind the scenes, learning about everything from costumes to storylines. They then get to put what they’ve learned into a performance of their own, attended by their teachers, friends and families.
“DanceQuest allows us to offer the chance to people who maybe can’t afford to come to see the ballet or don’t have the opportunity to get a feel for what we are as a company,” says Noble. “Perhaps they won’t use that in the here-and-now but they’ll take it on throughout their life. The very first time I encountered Scottish Ballet was when a dancer came in to teach my class.
“It’s our chance to say that this is accessible for everyone. It’s not just for the elite which is quite often what ballet has been perceived as so we try hard to break down people’s preconceptions and give them a real insight into what ballet is actually like.”
P7 are now ducking and weaving around the gym hall to the beat of a live percussionist, Dave Boyd. They’ve been asked to think about high movements and low movements and how they link them up as they go. Next, they’re told to stand in a circle, and one pupil is chosen to dash across and high-five another one, who in turn picks someone else to do it to.
“He’s really good,” says Noble, watching with me from the sidelines and pointing to 11-year-old Kieran Melrose. “I can see from the way he’s moving and the constant smile on his face that he’s loving it.”
I speak to Kieran after the class. He’s never been in a theatre but he’s looking forward to seeing an upcoming performance of the Nutcracker. “I thought ballet was going to be all pirouettes but it wasn’t,” he says. “The teachers do it in a fun way. They don’t make it boring and they let us interact. I’ve not really done any dance before but I would like to do more of it.” Kieran is not alone. When Noble asks the class if anyone has been to the ballet before, only one hand goes up. “We often find that this is the first time some children have been on a bus or a train, never mind stepped foot in a theatre,” says Newton. “So giving them the opportunity to see another world in a different kind of environment can be a real eye-opener.”
Most of the children, by now, have just been to see their first performance at the EFT – the Israeli contemporary dance group Batsheva – as part of DanceQuest. Melissa Wilson, 11, was particularly impressed with the show. “I thought it was really interesting how they can move and the way their bodies worked,” she says. “I thought it was really good and I thought that they put a lot of effort in. They just looked amazing.”
During the class, teacher Stuart Lithgow observes what’s going on, dishing out stern looks when things get too boisterous and taking notes for future lessons. He believes that his pupils’ involvement in DanceQuest has been a huge success.
“The expectations have been completely different from the reality, which is good,” he says. “I’m glad they’ve had this opportunity, and they were wowed by the performance. They loved it and were really animated about it afterwards. They were amazed at how flexible and fit the dancers were and how they could move their bodies in different ways and they were even trying to interpret the dance, asking me what it meant.”
It’s the end of the workshop and everyone sits cross-legged around Noble as she asks them how they’ve enjoyed it. Was it different to what they’d expected? A resounding yes. What had they imagined ballet would be like? “Girly.” “Tutus.” “Standing on your toes.”
Noble looks pleased. More preconceptions are smashed and more children for whom ballet might otherwise have been alien are developing an understanding of it – and possibly even a passion for it. She sends them on their way and they disperse quickly to head outside and play in the snow, a group of boys jumping to high-five each other as they go.
• Visit www.childrenandarts.org.uk for more information on DanceQuest