Could you be the next Billy Elliot?

Classes in drama, dance and singing do wonders for young people's self-confidence, says Tim Walker
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The Independent Online

Any parent knows that children have a tendency to perform, even if their material often leaves something to be desired. "My dog ate it" isn't exactly Oscar-winning material. Nor is the transparent "I love you mummy... can I have a pony?" There is a certain raw emotive power in "I HATE BATHS!"

If these phrases are becoming all too familiar, you may want to give your child a new outlet for his or her dramatic talents. Across the country, there are part-time performing arts courses for all age groups, and they're not just for aspirant board-treaders or budding Billy Elliots - any boy or girl with even the slightest interest in acting, singing and dance can benefit.

Vivienne Parsons, of Stagecoach, Britain's largest part-time theatre school, is clear on this point. "The skills that the children learn here aren't just skills for the stage. They're skills for life. A good grounding in performance skills early in life does wonders for young people and their confidence." While the children learn to act, dance and sing during Stagecoach's three-hour weekend sessions, they are also learning the value of communication, teamwork and self-expression. Since 1988, when it was founded as a Saturday morning performing arts school at three venues in Surrey, Stagecoach has become a behemoth, and now has over 500 schools across the country for children aged between six and 16. Four- to seven-year olds have their own 90-minute "early stages" classes, and popular demand is responsible for the "later stages" classes now running at some Stagecoach schools for 16- to 19-year olds. Class sizes are kept to about 15, and, if a waiting list develops, a new class is born.

Many individual institutions have similar Saturday morning sessions for children. Arts Ed in London, for example, runs a slew of Saturday sessions in drama, singing and dance - including ballet, tap, modern and jazz. If your son or daughter is less interested in Shakespeare than in the hot-shoe shuffle, there are a number of schools that focus specifically on dance. One of them is The Place, the home of the London Contemporary Dance School. Lucy Moelwyn-Hughes, education officer for the Place's learning and access department, says: "We do contemporary dance with the children, but with a broad mix of flavours. We often involve filmmakers, photographers, visual artists or we do site specific performances. It gives them a broader experience of what dance can be."

Once they reach 14, some of The Place's students also join the venue's youth company. "There are children who come back year in, year out, religiously," says Moelwyn-Hughes. "We find that the amount of boys drops off at around age 11, when they start to play football, and dancing becomes less socially acceptable!"

John Trew and his wife, Eve, have been running dance schools for children in the North East for 48 years, and drama schools for a decade. He calls the region artistically barren.

"Gateshead may have the Baltic and the Sage Music Centre now," he says, "but we still don't have a single theatre." Schools often have no drama on their syllabus, either. For children bereft of the theatrical experience, the Trews' Children's Arts and Theatre School (CATS) is an opportunity to try their hand at performance. "Children come from all over the area, and meet other youngsters whom they wouldn't otherwise come into contact with," says John Trew.

Ambitious young thesps may feel more at home auditioning for the National Youth Theatre, which, following a rigorous rehearsal period, produces a season of productions in London, Edinburgh and elsewhere every summer.

There are places on NYT courses and productions for performers and for young people interested in costume, lighting, sound and stage management.

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