Dancing into the classroom

Diane Parkes on a DanceXchange initiative that is taking dance into Birmingham classrooms

Hundreds of children are taking their first steps into dance thanks to a new education initiative by Birmingham-based DanceXchange.

Picture credit, Stephen Wright Photography

Launched in the autumn of last year the dance agency’s schools programme is reaching into classrooms across the city, introducing youngsters to dance and using movement to support the wider school curriculum.

This new focus on education is the latest step in a refreshed strategy for DanceXchange, which is based at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

For more than 25 years DanceXchange has supported the growth and development of dance in the Midlands, connecting people with great dance, nurturing young dancers and championing some of the UK’s most exciting choreographers – as well as producing the award-winningBirmingham International Dance Festival.

Now the new education project sees dance artists visiting schools throughout the academic year, working with teachers in primary, secondary and special needs schools. They offer a tailored programme that meets the specific needs of each school, with options including themed and topic-based learning, specialist sessions for GCSE and BTEC levels and continuing professional development for teachers.

“We are passionate about placing dance at the heart of the curriculum rather than positioning it on the periphery as part of PE. What we bring is the expertise to create a bespoke programme with each school” explains DanceXchange’s executive director Clare Lewis.

“In order to ensure that we’re making a long-term impact, we prefer to deliver sessions weekly across a whole academic year. Each school and each class can work differently, depending on the children’s needs and focuses.

“While a final performance could be an important goal, our focus is predominantly on the process itself and the learning journey the children are on. Their responses and their voices are respected so that they feel a true sense of ownership and achievement by the end of the programme.”

For some pupils, it is the first time they have taken part in organised dance activities.

“The children may see the sessions as a way to express themselves, they may develop dance as a hobby or they may find a real commitment to it” says DanceXchange’s head of learning and Participation Alex Henwood. “The programme gives them the introduction to technical skills and creative expression so they can absorb the experience and use it for their own personal development.

“We enjoy taking a thematic approach and making sessions cross-curricular. For instance, we’ve been working on curriculum topics such as electricity and the weather, and we have also been working with groups on positive social interaction, empathy and well-being.  Sessions begin by encouraging the children to think creatively, building on something they can relate to, for example the creative task might be ‘imagine you’re a soldier’ or ‘imagine you’re splashing around in a puddle’. Our dance artist then guides them to develop movement material around this, to shape their own choreography” Henwood says.

The response to the new programme so far has exceeded expectations, with teachers seeing a positive impact on the children, helping them to gain confidence beyond the classroom.

“We have found that many of the children have benefitted from increased self-awareness, getting to know themselves better and expressing themselves more confidently” says Henwood.

“Dance has also proved a perfect fit with schools’ well-being initiatives and can make a valuable contribution topupils’ personal development as well-rounded individuals.

“Each child is unique and not every child has the chance to express their individuality within the school structure. We hope that dance allows those children to feel they have a chance to shine, find a new skill to excel in and express themselves.”

This year the initiative has taken a huge leap forward with a project connecting five Birmingham schools which will lead to a performance by around 500 schoolchildren at the city’s Town Hall in July. The work has been commissioned by Living Arts Network, supported by the West Midlands Bridge Organisation Arts Connect, and brings together pupils from five Roman Catholic Schools based in and around Chelmsley Wood – John Henry Newman Catholic College and St John the Baptist, St Thomas More, St Anne’s and St Anthony’s Primary Schools.

“It’s a creative dance and music project which centres on the themes of identity, belonging and community and uses the schools’ mottos as an artistic stimulus” says Lewis. “For example, one class has composed a really heartfelt and uplifting song around the John Henry Newman Catholic College motto ‘Heart speaks to heart’ – helping the young people to connect more deeply with their school values and also with one another. This song will be performed live by the students as well as being mixed to create a track for the dance piece they are soon to choreograph with our hip hop artist.

“For us, this is an amazing opportunity to deliver an authentic and empowering artistic experience for young people across all five project schools.

“It has been important to bring on board a team of artists who share our ethos and are able to work with the young people in a really bespoke way, so that each individual’s responses are heard and reflected in the making of each piece” Lewis adds. “For us, the value and legacy of this project is as much in the artistic process as it is in the final product. We want this to be a rich and engaging creative process for young people and teachers alike, and for them to own and be proud of what they share at the final performance event in July.”

For the DanceXchange team, working with schools is a vital way to engage the next generation in dance at a grassroots level and to develop the audiences, performers and leaders of the future.

“Our schools work can be a first step for children to discover they have a talent and a passion for dance – which we can then nurture through our training and talent development programmes Generate and the Centre for Advanced Training (CAT), providing young people with the tools to reach their potential as dancers” Henwood says.

Successful CAT alumni include Vidya Patel, who was a finalist in BBC Young Dancer in 2015 and has been a guest artist with Richard Alston Dance Company. Vidya was also recently nominated for Outstanding Female Modern Performance at the 2018 National Dance Awards.

“Christian Griffin, another successful student, was talent-spotted on the streets of Birmingham where he was busking, doing hip hop” Henwood recalls. “He came to CAT, then went on to dance in National Youth Dance Company for two years and now he has set up his own street dance youth academy Brums Dynasty in Birmingham and is investing back into his community and the region, helping the next generation.”

“These young people are our reason for being” says Clare Lewis. “We want to inspire and facilitate their journey through dance, supporting talent right from the grass-roots, through engagement with those who want to enjoy dance just for itself, right through to encouraging excellence in young people who want to progress to careers in dance.”

For more on all of DanceXchange’s programmes see www.dancexchange.org.uk

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