Education: You have to waddle before you can be a swan: David Buckley looks at contrasting approaches on offer in Sheffield for parents keen to turn their offspring into budding Fonteyns and Nureyevs

Click to follow
'THEY'VE got to be out of nappies for a start,' says Judith Silvester, explaining why three- year-olds are the youngest dancers at Constance Grant School of Dancing in Sheffield, where she is the principal. 'We do get inquiries for 18-month-old children, but we find that before the age of three the concentration's not there.'

It may be because toddlers are so physical, bobbing around to nursery rhymes before they can walk, that fond parents eagerly seek out dance classes.

Not all parents can easily find what they want. Most dance schools like parents to stay outside the studio door, and some parents fear that the rigours of ballet training make teachers over-formal and restrictive in their approach.

'We don't stand them in rows and make them do things,' says Miss Silvester, of the school's approach to the youngest class. 'It's really done through fun things and expressive things. If you're teaching them to pretend to be a fairy, you might tell them a little story, which they act out. Without realising it, they're beginning to use their arms in the way they might use them later for dancing.'

Many of the younger children find their way into the next class up, which caters for four- and five- year-olds and meets on a Saturday morning - a time that does not clash with playgroups and nurseries. Here things are rather more formal. Surrounded by pink- washed walls and sitting stubbily cross-legged with hands on knees, an early ballet class is being introduced to movements for the first of the tests administered and set by the International Dance Teachers' Association.

Thirty-eight pairs of wide, wondering eyes look up for the next instruction from the teacher and her six assistants - dance students in their mid-teens. 'Heads down. Up. Smile to the wall. To the door. Now shake your heads off,' the teacher says.

'We find that the tests go hand- in-glove with today's needs,' says Miss Silvester, who is president of the IDTA. 'Sometimes you get a pushy mother. Her child may only have been to three lessons, and she wants to know when he or she is going to take an exam. Children have to prove to parents that they've achieved something.' Consequently, the early tests have been made easily achievable. 'Now you needn't concentrate on the talented child. It's open to everybody.'

With about 400 students on the books, 65 years' experience, and a large number of students staying with the school from the age of three to adulthood, the Constance Grant School of Dancing clearly caters for a popular need.

But down at The Leadmill Arts Centre in Sheffield things look rather different on Saturday mornings. Here, a Creative Kids' Dance Class for three- to seven- year-olds meets below the blackness of the stage in a centre that was converted from an old factory, and is still dominated by knots of industrial plumbing.

However the adults theorise it, the children are likely to see the purpose of the dance class as taking part in a story. 'You might be a group of explorers and you put on these heavy clothes. Then you have to fill a sack and that makes you a heavy person and so you move in a certain way. You're achieving mastery over the body and expanding your creative ideas at the same time.'

Parents can stay to watch or join in. 'The parent can take responsibility for focusing the child on the activity to help them get more out of it,' says Liz Elson, a freelance dance worker who has run Leadmill sessions. Parents' participation widens the children's experience of movement by helping them fly, crawl through tunnels of parents' bodies, or move across a sea of waves formed from parents' backs.

Some children younger than three attend. Karen Beasley, who has been taking her five-year-old since he was two, said: 'I wanted something that would develop his natural love of dance rather than crush it by teaching set steps and movements.'

(Photograph omitted)