A world of dance at a Leeds School

Following on from last month’s Leeds education special, One Dance UK wanted to celebrate the Leeds dance world as part of the conference. Here is another success story from the city. Co-op Academy Leeds, a rapidly-evolving secondary school in the heart of Leeds. Two dance teachers were tasked with setting up and delivering a brand-new dance curriculum to engage, inspire and motivate the young people of the school. Dance teacher Ms Wilson had previous experience within setting up dance departments and therefore she thought she knew what would work when setting up a dance department at the Co-op Academy Leeds. She began re-writing and adapting schemes of work that she knew that been a hit in her previous schools, such as ‘The Matrix’, Parkour, Dance Battles and Gladiator. She arrived for her first week bursting at the seams with ideas, ready to engage the students alongside her then equally new colleague. She quickly realised that her preconceptions of who these students were and how they would get them dancing might not quite cut it this time. They were both met with an assortment of reactions, the most common being hesitation and resistance. Miss, when can we learn how to back flip? was quite a popular question at the start. They both realised that they needed to manage expectations of the students fast.

The mix of students, cultures, and expectations of what makes dance meant that the new department would be a big challenge to the dance teachers. With myriad cultures and in excess of 70 languages spoken by staff and students, most classes at the school are predominately EAL weighted. Many students are new to the country and even newer to the world of Dance. In the past, Street Dance was always a hit, but suddenly it had appeared to have lost its power, and the dance teachers found themselves having to flip everything on its head. The Academy has a significant Roma community, in which music and dance are culturally integral. The dance teachers responded by delivering high-energy warm-ups and games with an emphasis on competition, in which the boys loved. Roma boys could spin with precision, jump the highest and land the quietest, and had a natural flair for rhythm. As dance teachers, they knew all too well getting the KS3 boys on board is pivotal. The boys were easier to win over than the girls this time. Some of the girls said that their religion didn’t approve of dancing and were visibly reluctant to get involved due to embarrassment. They participated in PE lessons separately so were not keen to be physical alongside the boys. Ms Wilson knew that she needed to therefore differentiate tasks, movements, group work and learning outcomes like never before. She wanted to involve everyone but be sensitive and in tune with my learners’ needs. She felt for the first time in her 14 years, how intimidating a dance studio can be to a student who has never danced in front of others before.

The dance teachers made great strides to overcome the many barriers they had faced. For example, students were visibly struggling with choreographic tasks due to lack of movement vocabulary and experience of independent dance work. Stripping it all back and introducing students to taking ownership of work by giving tailored bite-sized tasks and activities to build confidence has been key. For groups who were very resistant to dancing and felt embarrassed about being watched by others, chair dancing was a successful way of getting them to move in a safe and controlled environment. The chairs acted as a safety net and Ms Wilson was able to progress students from moving away from their chairs gradual and in a non-threatening way. Standing in a space and dancing for an hour had proved a challenge, but now the chair was supporting them to find their feet in a safe space and in their own time. This year they will be mostly tapping into dance material from the students’ cultures, starting with exploring Body Percussion inspired by the Roma students; then moving to Bollywood fused with street dance, Contemporary and African Dance collaborations.

The dance teachers want to ensure that dance is a subject that students look forward to on their timetables. As part of the interview process, Ms Wilson asked a student what is was like to have friends from such a mixture of cultures and religions. She said, without hesitation, It is totally normal to us but nice because we all learnt new things from each other. Ms Wilson’s time at Co-op has been a huge learning curve, at a time in her career where she had thought she had seen it all. That’s the thing about the world of Dance… We are all constantly learning from each other she comments.