Ballet might not seem the obvious choice an eight-year-old boy, but the Royal Opera House is helping to change perceptions and give children from all backgrounds a chance to dance, says Wendy Jones...
The boys could have been getting ready for football practice, such was their enthusiasm and excitement. But the girls in their red leotards perhaps give it away. These Year 3s were heading for the dance studio, not the football pitch. For this is an after-school ballet class – and no ordinary ballet class at that, but part of a remarkable education programme called Chance to Dance.
The class is held in a spacious dance studio at Platanos College, a secondary academy in Stockwell, south London, and the children all come from local primary schools. Their teachers are professional dancers-turned-teachers from the Royal Ballet, based at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
Stockwell, one of inner London’s toughest and most culturally diverse areas, may be only three miles from Covent Garden, but it could exist in a different universe.
The class of 20, two-thirds of them boys, are soon making confident use of the space: stretching, jumping, freezing, moving in time to the live piano music. In between the dancing, they settle in a circle with their teachers, David Pickering and Rhian Roberts, to discuss what they are doing.
“Which muscles am I using?” asks Rhian. “Legs, yes. And? ....Tummy muscles, that’s right.”
Then the children are on their feet again. They are preparing to dance for their parents next week and the ballet they are basing their performance on is Checkmate. They divide into twos and threes and become Red Kings or Black Queens or Pawns. They work with energy and imagination.
Attention does occasionally wander. Concentration is harder for some than others and one or two need short periods of time out – or simply rest – during the hour-long session. But overall the children’s engagement is striking. Most look utterly serious as they try to express themselves through movement interspersed with moments of stillness. And for all of them the class seems a joyous occasion and one they doubtless look forward to all week.
David, the company’s education administrator and a recently retired Royal Ballet soloist, says the classes combine a creative approach with an introduction to the techniques and discipline of ballet: “There is form, but it’s approached from a creative perspective. We slowly drip feed the skills and discipline.” Next year the children will start to make notes about what they are doing and by the end of the four-year programme they will be working at the barre.
Seeking out potential
Chance to Dance has been running for 23 years and works with 30 primary schools in the London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark and in Thurrock near the Royal Opera House’s Essex production park. The programme provides ‘a creative introduction to ballet’ for all Year 3 children in the participating schools, through a mix of Royal Ballet demonstrations and six practical workshops.
After this, those children showing the most potential are invited to audition for the full Chance to Dance programme, which provides free weekly after-school sessions like the one in Stockwell. The children on the programme work towards an annual performance alongside Royal Ballet dancers and they and their families attend creative workshops in Covent Garden.
Bonnie Jerrard, Learning and Participation Manager for Ballet, says they select children for their enthusiasm, aptitude for dance, creative responsiveness, physicality and confidence. They do not take those already having ballet lessons. “We are looking for children who would otherwise never have the opportunity. We are developing confidence, creativity and social skills. All of this ripples back into their school work.”
David Pickering and Rhian Roberts agree. “Teachers tell us they notice children improving in confidence, focus and teamwork,” says Rhian. “Hopefully we do unlock something. Some are very articulate but some do struggle at school. We have one on the autistic scale.”
David points out that the programme can offer children something way beyond their usual experience. “Every one of these children gets to go to Covent Garden. For some, it’s their first time in a theatre, let alone the Royal Opera House,” says David.
The importance of male role models
The most surprising cultural leaps come with some of the boys – and their families. Each class has both a male and female teacher to provide role models, but they still need the support of families if children are to stick with the programme, particularly with competition from other after-school activities. Resistance may come from older brothers and fathers.
“We had a case a few years ago of a child who was very talented, but his father was not keen on his son dancing,“ says Rhian. “But they all came along to a family workshop at the Royal Opera House and that father actually danced.”
Ursula Ovenden, head of Archbishop Sumner Primary School in Lambeth, has four pupils – three of them boys – going to classes in Stockwell. “I think it’s amazing for them to work with such highly qualified professionals,” she says. “This is completely outside the usual experience of these children. One of the boys from my school is a looked-after child. It’s really amazing the children they have chosen. I can only believe the discipline of the classes will enhance their learning and concentration.”
For some of the children, Chance to Dance may be life-changing and – for a very few – the opening to a future career. Ten-year-old Jacob Tidmarsh is in the final year of the programme. He has also become a Royal Ballet Junior Associate with more rigorous Saturday classes and has won a coveted place at the Royal Ballet School at White Lodge, where he starts in September.
Jacob says he loves the story-telling of ballet. “I’ve always loved movement, but this is completely different from anything else I’ve done. In sport you need technique, but you don’t have the expression that you have in dancing. I know that I want to be a ballet dancer.”
Jacob’s mother, Cordelia Galloway, says just going into the Royal Opera House gave him a confidence boost: “It helped him to fight off sometimes negative remarks from other children –
Cordelia agrees the programme is brilliant – but has one cautious reservation. She thinks it is not always good at managing children’s expectations. The route to the top becomes increasingly selective and competitive and many children will be disappointed at not getting chosen. That may be a hard lesson for some.
But the Royal Ballet insists that the main purpose of Chance to Dance is not to turn out the next generation of professional dancers, but to introduce as many children as possible to ballet and develop their self-confidence, creativity and self-discipline.
About the author
Wendy Jones is a freelance journalist, a former BBC education correspondent and a trustee of National Numeracy nationalnumeracy.org.uk
Your chance to dance
The Royal Opera House is, of course, limited in the number of children it can take, but it does aim wider through its Dance Dynamic programme, which offers INSET workshops so that teachers can develop in-school dance projects culminating in a mass performance by hundreds of children at the Royal Opera House. And there are now a number of other initiatives to take ballet to primary pupils around the country: Birmingham Royal Ballet runs it Dance Track programme in over 30 schools in the city, while the Royal Ballet School works with schools in Blackpool, Bury St Edmonds, Dagenham, Mansfield Woodhouse in Nottinghamshire and Swindon.