Education: Take your partners for a GCSE in dance

Click to follow
The Independent Online
EARLY afternoon in a bright, airy gym: the soft music of the warm-up session, coupled with sunlight, create a cathedral- like calm. The 22 teenagers studying dance for GCSE may not be destined for dance careers, but they clearly enjoy their lessons, and respond instantly to instructions to find a space or get into groups.

'You get a few who opt for dance because they don't like going out in the cold; a few choose it because they don't like physical sport, and much prefer individual work they can take at their own level. But mostly they just enjoy dance,' says Helen Leaver, head of girls' physical education at Myers Grove school, Sheffield.

The music also draws pupils to dance, particularly since they can bring their own for the warm-ups. But over-dependence on music can be a problem. 'In creative dance for GCSE you have to be interpreting something,' says Mrs Leaver. 'There has to be some basis for the dance. You can't just put a piece of music on and say, 'I'm going to make some pretty shapes to this,' and hope to get a good mark. It doesn't put anything across.'

After warming up, the group of 14- and 15-year-olds gather to consider a prose passage describing conditions on slave ships sailing to America. Discussion focuses on key words which suggest movement, and can be converted into 'dance phrases'. The class disperse into pairs to work on their ideas. 'Your actions look true-to-life,' says Mrs Leaver to one group as she circulates. 'But now try to make it bigger, so each movement takes a little longer to do.'

The emphasis on ideas and evaluation may come as a surprise to those who think of dance as warm-up bars, painful ankles, and repetitive movements to a plinkety- plonk piano. But the national curriculum gives this approach a significant place in both primary and secondary school dance. Practical work on movement may be physically tough, but it is rarely separated from aesthetics. The theory work in GCSE dance involves appreciation of professional dances.

Later, the pairs join each other to look at what they have been doing. 'We have a big emphasis on appreciating each other's dances at the end of the lesson,' says Mrs Leaver, 'and actually having to respond to them, pulling out bits that they like and ways they could be improved.'

A wave of excitement went through teachers committed to dance when it looked as if the national curriculum would make dance compulsory up to 14. At the last minute, however, the draft order was changed to make dance only one of six areas of physical education from which pupils choose four, largely because all-boys schools protested. Lessons in dance and movement are, however, compulsory for primary schoolchildren.

Antony Waller, Rotherham's arts officer for dance and leader of Rotherham and Sheffield Dance Project, regrets the Government's change of heart: 'It was only a tiny commitment. Some experience of dance within three years. It would have cost a school a relatively small amount of money to buy in a specialist for a term. And in terms of the whole development of dance, that would have been an incredible step forward.'

Mrs Leaver regrets that dance remains a girls' subject in so many schools. But she thinks teaching dance to everybody could have been difficult. 'There are the practicalities of trying to get staff to do it, because dance is quite a different way of teaching, and if you feel uncomfortable with it, it can be quite threatening.'

As a PE teacher who took a number of dance options at college, she feels at ease with dance. But she recognises limitations: 'The GCSE group needs to see proper dancers for their technique. I can only teach them so much because I'm not a trained dancer.' When she does get an outside dancer into school, she tries to make sure it is a man. Only three of her present group of 15-year-olds are boys, who fought tradition by keeping up with dance through activities after school.

Some teachers believe that the mixture of aesthetic appreciation and physical movement mean that dance is more suited to a combined arts syllabus, rather than the PE national curriculum. Mr Waller, however, thinks that it is correctly placed. 'If you study the basis of your physicality, you come to dance before you come to rugby. I think perhaps what is needed is a redefining of what is physical education. I would say that before you chuck out dance, you chuck out rugby.'

That view is unlikely to find favour with most PE teachers, but enthusiastic teachers of dance stress the poise and confidence it can foster. 'You're born with this body and that can either be a restrictive thing and something you're embarrassed about or something you can have fun with,' says Mr Waller. 'Dance education is about your sense of your place in the world, and the feeling that you have a right to be there. It's surprising how much of that goes back to the physical.'

'Dance in Schools', a framework for dance within the national curriculum, is published by the Arts Council on 2 March. Contact the Arts Council, 14 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 3NQ.

(Photograph omitted)