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Animated Edition - Winter 2006
Ideas of British-Asian dance
Ruth Oakley, Touring & Education Manager of Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company (SJDC) outlines arecent initiative the company undertook in primary schools in Surrey
I recently had the good fortune to work with a mover-and-shaker of dance education from the Surrey Local Education Authority - Beverly Minette.

Beverly approached SJDC with an idea to devise a resource for Key Stage One teachers that features relevant and accessible dance activities with British-Asian content. She pinpointed Shobana Jeyasingh's artistic foundation in the British-Asian identity, her treatment of traditional dance forms and dialogue for new understanding of their place within contemporary dance, as fundamental to this project. The resource would benefit Surrey teachers and their Year One and Two students, who often only have access to limited experiences of multi-cultural dance in the classroom - typically exotic, bells jangling, kohl-eyed and exquisitely costumed, this had never transferred into a personalised programme of weekly dance activities for Surrey children.

Here is an educationist who wants to challenge people's ideas of British-Asian dance, I thought, and so a passionate partnership was born.

In October and November, I travelled with Beverly and two SJDC Company Dancers Kamala Devam and Shane Shambhu, to seven infant schools of Surrey's 'COBWEBS' cluster, where we trialled and developed the two 6-lesson dance units with over two hundred students and seven teachers.

The following outlines how the resource evolved:

14th October 2005: Introduction and planning morning with seven very generous teachers from Surrey's 'COBWEBS' cluster of infant schools.

There were flummoxed expressions early in the session as the teachers viewed excerpts of SJDC's recent works Transtep and Flicker. How could their 5-year olds possibly do THAT? I managed to allay concerns by explaining that we would not be attempting chunks of the repertoire with this age group. Rather, we would be doing activities such as turning a four-step Bharata Natyam dance into our own 'wobbly jelly and sticky toffee' dance or creating movements to tell the story of The Traveller and the Magic Tree - language with which these Year One and Two teachers seemed to readily identify.

The teachers welcomed the idea of a resource written for them by a dance company and the opportunity to input their expertise with this age group. There was trepidation and eagerness amongst the group about the practical work for the next part of the project, which varied according to the teachers' confidence levels in their dancing and teaching of dance.

3rd November 2005: Practical activities day with the teachers.

Dance, write, dance, and write. Today was a mixture of trying out the activities and starting to refine the ideas on the page so that any KS1 teacher could pick up the resource and teach.

We explored storytelling through dance, using Asian folktales, and then generated our own dance through invention of our own stories and movements. The teachers produced a rather frightening tale involving a giant lizard and an ice-cream tree, and we careened around the room as an enormous dancing tongue. Another activity was to write our names, words and sentences in the air with an assortment of body parts, exploring levels and dynamics to create a dance sequence. The activities had either an Asian or Contemporary dance starting point, with each learning progression always hinging on contemporising or personalising the work.

  • A fascinating experience to teach adult women as if they were children, which was the preferred route
  • Always ask dinner ladies for a thorough sweep of the hall for work after lunch to avoid the squashed pea dance.

9th, 10th, 14th, 15th November 2005: Travel to Shalford, Chilworth, Ewhurst, Wonersh and Shamley Green, Bramley, Wood Street and Busbridge Infant Schools. Trial of the draft lesson plans with over two hundred Year One and Two students.

Naturally the children picked up on a multiplicity of things that we adults didn't in the previous session. They did superbly well with the Bharata Natyam sequences we chose and demonstrated unequalled imagination in the way they transformed them.

As with any learning process, there are one or two trials along the way. In this instance we were saddened and rather frustrated that three sets of Surrey parents felt it necessary to withdraw their children from attending their school's dance workshop. These parents had searched 'Bharata Natyam' on the Internet and without approaching their teacher or SJDC for additional information on the content of the workshops, had decided that the dance work would have overtones of religious worship.

It was particularly difficult to lead a workshop where parents had requested that their 6-year old boy was to observe only. It was clear he wanted to participate with his peers as we undertook some thoroughly entertaining partnered contact work and explored some of the foot and hand positions of basic classical Bharata Natyam, in a similar manner as a number of the children had learned western classical ballet positions.

The teacher and Head of School acted as channels of communication with the parents and Beverly and I managed to address some of their fears by explaining that our contemporary exploration of Bharata Natyam dance does not in anyway address spirituality or involve spiritual content. Two parents re-instated their children in the project, only after their school workshop had finished, with the remaining child removed from any involvement with SJDC's work or the new resource in development. Some ideas are less malleable than others, but two out of three is progress!

I should point out that the majority in the hundreds of children and their parents who took part were enormously supportive and excited by the work.

  • Always make sure the Head of School provides notice of any full-school assemblies for which they anticipate a Company performance. A difficult task given the ever-dynamic schedule of the infant school! On two occasions our poor Company dancers came in cold from the train station and were thrust into a cold hall with 100 eagerly waiting faces
  • If an adult or teacher says that their children won't be able to perform a certain movement, sometimes it means that they themselves are having a little trouble with it
  • It's far easier to engage children as the 'exciting guest teachers' and the real test is for their regular teachers in their normal class time.

18th November 2005: Forty-nine overexcited children in the one hall and seven teachers madly practising their dance piece for the pending performance. The Surrey Advertiser clicking away from the sidelines. This was a successful sharing of work at Shalford Infant School with each of the schools demonstrating the dance produced in their workshop with SJDC.

There were several moments where Beverly and I both sat and marvelled at the pride and ownership displayed by the children in their dance piece, along with their teachers who were executing them with as much gusto and commitment.


The 12-lesson written and DVD resource will be available through the Surrey LEA soon. Contact or phone 020 7697 4444 for further information on how to obtain a copy.

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Animated: Winter 2006