Dance challenges body and mind, making it both a great exercise and a wonderful creative outlet. We speak to four schools to find out how their pupils benefit

Dance has not been a traditional offer among the UK’s schools, but as they increasingly look for alternatives to the traditional team and individual sports in order to enthuse all their young people, it is coming to the fore. One reason it has been a bit slow off the blocks is that traditionally it was considered as genteel and ‘for girls’, but any casual exploration of the modern dance landscape shows it is neither. And with street and modern alongside jazz, tap, ballet and hip hop, it hits that rare sweetspot of being broad enough for all tastes. Critically, it is now viewed as pretty cool by students of all ages.

Of course, it is not just about physical exercise – it is a whole creative language that requires us to interpret the world through movement and tell stories that an audience can understand. This brings much broader benefits, as schools that take the subject seriously at Senior level have discovered.

Let's dance – four schools on why this is a super sport
Dance is on the curriculum for all Year 9s at Hurst College – and its benefits are appreciated by pupils and staff

Hurst College

West Sussex day and boarding school Hurst College most certainly believes in the beneficial powers of dance and has made it a compulsory subject for all Year 9 pupils. Regardless of previous experience, boys and girls take part in a lesson every fortnight throughout the academic year. After this Year 9 introduction, pupils then have the option to carry their experience forward as the school offers the subject at both GCSE and A level.

Head of Dance, Nicola Dominy says it’s important to understand what the Year 9 activity can bring, saying: “Its value is in nurturing young people’s creativity, promoting mental and physical wellbeing and providing insight into the wider world”. One fascinating aspect of Hurst College’s approach is that the pupils who arrive for their first lessons range from those who already dance to those who don’t and believe they have two left feet. And, of course, at around this age, many teenagers are painfully self-conscious about their growing and changing bodies.

Nonetheless, they are all in the studio together. “Some already possess a love and passion for dance while others may harbour prejudices and anxieties about feeling vulnerable and exposed,” says Nicola Dominy. “By the end of the year, regardless of whether or not a student ever sets foot in the studio again, it is hoped that stereotypes are dispelled, self-confidence is developed, and a life-long appreciation is cultivated for an art form that is at the very pulse of humanity.”

This can be a wonderful stress release as well as an amazing creative journey, and the performances that Hurst students create show just how far students can develop. Student feedback also suggests that putting dance on the compulsory timetable for all pupils works on many levels. One pupil has described how it: ‘makes you feel more accepting of yourself’. Another mentions how it helps you ‘engage with the world in alternative and interesting ways – to think outside the box’.  Perhaps the measure of the success of Year 9 dance at Hurst is best summed up by the boy who notes: ‘When I was younger, I probably did think that dance was more for girls…my opinion has matured’. He concludes. ‘At Hurst it is just normal for both boys and girls to do dance’.  

Hurst College

Let's dance – four schools on why this is a super sport
Marymount has a strong tradition in the art form, and fantastic facilities – also offering an IB Diploma in Dance

Marymount International School London

Dance is taken very seriously at Marymount London – it offers the subject all the way to IB Diploma level, having included it in DP subject choices in 2021. “This is a unique curriculum-embedded subject which only adds to the whole child development of a Marymount student,” says Teacher of Dance Daisy Tozer. She says the school views it as every bit as important as other subjects. “Dance lessons allow for creativity, physical activity, confidence building, collaborative skills and most importantly, expressive delivery. These are all key parts of a child’s development and promote many transferable skills which can be applied throughout other lessons and into a range of employment fields.”

Pupils at the school head to the studio as part of their IB Middle Years Programme curriculum from Grade 6 to 9 (Year 7-10). “They experience a range of dance genres, styles, and dance world traditions. This in turn opens the eyes of students, allowing them to see how universal dance really is,” adds Daisy Tozer. Alongside timetabled lessons, and specialist lessons and exams for individual pupils, there are a whole host of other opportunities to watch and try out different styles of movement – from the annual Dance Showcase held at the Exchange Theatre in Twickenham to STEAM festivals and creative workshops.

Dance also plays a central role within the Performing Arts Department, and with a Dance Hub where students can practice and develop their skills, stamina and strength. Located in the leafy grounds of the school, this dedicated building also offers a tranquil and light-filled setting for developing original creative performances.

Of course, this is also a part of the wider creative life of the school through plays and productions, including the summer performing arts concert to showcase achievements in each grade. Thanks to Marymount’s location in Kingston upon Thames, there are also plenty of scheduled opportunities for boarders and day pupils to enjoy world-class performances in the heart of the capital. Daisy Tozer says the world of dance offers broader benefits that last long after school. “A teacher’s role is to encourage and present a new physical form of language and to develop transferable skills to their students in a positive and creative environment.”

Marymount International

DOYRMS pupils are offered lots of opportunities as part of both the curriculum and extracurricular programmes

Duke of York’s Royal Military School

The Dance team at Duke of York’s Royal Military School (DOYRMS) say this is a unique subject for students, blending artistry with physical activity. What’s more, it works beautifully in collaboration with other art forms and subjects. Students at the Dover boarding school – which has a superb Performing Arts Centre – have many opportunities to perform both in school and at local and national events, as part of their learning. DOYRMS also ensures children participate in many related workshops and experience dance by attending live performances.

The team here is led by Amy Gerrard and Ashleigh Acres, who point out that this is a discipline which allows students to be expressive and work collaboratively – and it builds resilience. It enables students to be inquisitive, unlock innate creativity, and improve fitness. Like other schools that offer the subject, DOYRMS also believes it helps to sustain mental wellbeing. 

While performance is key, students here also learn to analyse and think critically about the historical, political, and social events which have impacted its development – they are taught that dancers are philosophers, scientists and historians, as well as performers. Classroom teachings are linked with current and past trends and events and teachers make a point of sharing cross-curricular knowledge in lessons (and opportunities to learn outside the classroom) to help support students’ learning journeys through the school. Recently dancers learnt about electricity, the wall street crash and the work of Banksy – all through the medium of dance.

A variety of styles from street, contemporary and musical theatre to African and Capoeira are offered at DOYRMS and some students at the school choose to get BTEC and A-level qualifications in the subject. Beyond the curriculum and co-curricular opportunities (via some 80 weekly clubs at the school), individual lessons are offered to support individual progression into RSL and ISTD dance qualifications. One mark of DOYRMS success in its dance pathways is that, with the help of the school’s careers and university advisory team, several students have gone on to study it at top universities. 

“While I grew up with a more modern dance style of street and hip hop, at DOYRMS I have discovered many new styles and different techniques,” says an A-level student at the school. “Dance pushes my abilities and enables me to grow mentally and physically through movement, which is why I love it so much.”  

Duke of York’s Royal Military School

Heathfield School near Ascot has a keen cohort of dancers and excellent dance teachers who have trained with the best

Heathfield School

Dance has been a popular activity at Heathfield School in Ascot for over three decades. “We are lucky to have a team of experienced and dedicated Dance Teachers, who have not only trained with the best at the Royal Academy of Dance and Laine Theatre Arts, but also danced in companies and shows worldwide,” says Natalie Shaw, the school’s Dance and Drama Coordinator.  

Heathfield offers ballet, pointe and tap, but also contemporary and acro (ballet incorporating acrobatic techniques). Girls can study it as a GCSE, and also have the opportunity to study dance to examination level through the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) and the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD).

All Heathfield dance classes are held in a purpose-built studio with harlequin flooring, ballet barres and mirrors. But dance also spills over into other school spaces, with regular shows and concerts taking place in the school theatre. Girls are given plenty of opportunities to maintain their interest in dance as a recreational activity, even if they don’t take it to exam level. “Dance is a popular form of expression and exercise and is a fantastic way to escape the cares of everyday life,” says Natalie Shaw.

She cites many reasons why dance is such a good activity for young people – cardio health, coordination, strength, balance and brain and body flexibility among them. But more than that, she believes it’s a great social activity – so often dance is a cooperative or teamwork affair. Students at Heathfield certainly enjoy all of that, and even use dance for good causes.

“Recently one of our dance students held a 12-hour danceathon to raise money for the charities Great Ormond Street Hospital and The OSCAR Foundation, which uses the power of football to teach the importance of education.” Proof surely that dance not only gives young people good moves, but also the determination and stamina to do great things beyond the school gates.

Heathfield School

Further reading: Fantastic sports – going beyond the usual team games