Four teenagers, busting with vitality, freshness, hormones and – well, whatever else teenagers are always busting with – sit in a row on the floor. Each one faces a parent – three mums and one dad – who are not so much busting as sitting on chairs, from which they scrutinise their offspring. It looks like the line-up of some TV game show (the Intergeneration Game, perhaps), or maybe that awkward moment at the start of a group therapy session. But then a groovy soundtrack flicks on, triggering the kids into a funky little routine of nonchalant shoulder-brushes, risqué bum-wiggles and cool chest thumps that also, rather sweetly, suggest the pitter-patter of their beating hearts. And the parents? The parents do the same as their kids. Only a bit scrappily, a bit behind the beat, and with a bit more wobble than wiggle. But their hearts, too, are in it.
What started out looking like a face-off between the generations is a quick dance class that parents have been invited to join. The teenagers are from the RAD’s Step into Dance youth companies (one each for contemporary, street dance and musical theatre), and they’re here at RAD headquarters to prepare for their end of year performance at London’s prestigious Sadler’s Wells Theatre.
Today is the last rehearsal before their big show, and artistic director Sue Goodman – a powerhouse of positivity and a formidable multi-tasker who is sewing costumes in between giving peppy but no-nonsense rehearsal notes – has arranged for some of the parents to learn the clap-happy curtain call they’ll be doing at the end of the show. Students do it from the stage and parents, if they want to join in, from their seats. Has this brief dance session, I ask, helped them appreciate the amount of skill and hard work that dance training demands from their children, even for an easy routine like this?
Wrong question. Or rather: it misses the mark. On the one hand, what they have just appreciated is not the difficulty involved, but the fun. Siobhan Gibbs, who has just been out-manouevred by the classy dancing of her 14-year-old daughter Oonagh, is panting – with pleasure. “Why can’t I do this?” she laughs as she tries some ‘tutting’, a kind of hip-hop hand-jive. “Back in the day” – she smiles at the memory – “I’m sure I would have just got it…” But now, her fingers flap and her timing’s off. But she’s still game for a go.
Parents are less interested in the dance as such than in the part it plays within the life of their child
On the other hand, all the parents already know how much hard work, skill and commitment it takes. Every Sunday, their children travel from all over London to rehearsals, and the attendance rules are strict: no bunking off, ever. They know how many hours of training their kids put in, they see them come back dog-tired, and that they skip Saturday night social life just so that they can be fresh for Sunday – every Sunday. Maybe they don’t appreciate the technical details of the training – how to balance that spin, work that joint, co-ordinate that jump – but hey, they’re parents, not dance teachers. That means they’re less interested in the dance as such than in the bigger picture: the part it plays within the life of their child.
Elaine Howard, whose daughter Katie, 15, has been at Step into Dance for four years, thinks “it has really helped Katie’s confidence to be with this mixed group of people. Sometimes with girls at school you see jealousy and competition and so on, but they’re not like that here. They really support each other.”
“It helps them in lots of ways,” agrees Michaela Day, mother of 15-year-old Lucas. “It’s not just about dancing, it’s about their whole life. Lucas makes decisions differently because he wants to do the best he can here, and I think that attitude follows him elsewhere. It helps in self-confidence, self-organisation, self-motivation. It’s not just a dance class.”
Likewise, Adrian Hall, father of 12-year-old Lakaya, is happy his take his daughter to dance, partly because it really helps her schoolwork. “Lakaya knows that if she wants to go to dance on Sunday, she has to finish all her homework by Saturday. And she does, every week. She is very motivated.”
“It’s an education too,” adds Michaela. “Coming to dance here I think definitely broadens their horizons.”
“And they’re so fit!” says Elaine.
Between rehearsals I check in with the students. They’re focused on dancing, but also very aware of the broader benefits their parents see. “You learn to feel comfortable around lots of different people,” says Lucas. “I think dance is good for schoolwork too. Yes, it can tire you out, but it also takes you outside school life so that you come back to it fresh.”
“And it really does build your confidence,” agrees Katie. “As for missing parties, well, we make lots of friends here too. And anyway, I prefer dance, definitely!”
“I think my parents totally get what we’re doing here,” says 16-year-old Ronnie Jellye, and adds, with an unforced instinct for theatre, “and they also know that without dance I would just – die.”
I’ve looked for conflict between the generations, but in truth, I haven’t found any. Yes the parents are not so focused on the dance training itself, while it is a very big deal for their children. So what? Those are student-teacher issues. The parents are interested in other questions: are their children thriving, and are they happy? And that, it seems to me, is just how it should be.