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dance, Things To Do

Dance Days with NDCWales

Wowzers. We started our Easter holidays as we meant to go on: having an awesome time. More specifically, dancing. My kids and their mate had a whale of a time with National Dance Company Wales at Dance Days.

I drove us over to Cardiff Bay, parked in the Red Dragon Centre (because I’d rather buy a coffee and ice creams in Cadwalader’s to validate my parking than just throw pound coins away in a car park machine) and trotted over to the Dance House, the home of NDCWales in Wales Millennium Centre.

Guy, the organiser of Dance Days, greeted us with a smile at the door. Guy is calm, warm and helpful so put the three boys at ease and made them feel really welcome. Going along to courses and workshops like this in the holidays isn’t only about the facilitator, it’s also about all the other people you meet and talk to along the way.

Dance Days are our national dance company’s way of introducing contemporary dance to children and young people, using the choreographic ideas that their professional touring company perform around the world. For context, my boys don’t go to regular dance classes but their friend goes to street dance on the weekly and all three of them were buzzing when they came out. Experience level didn’t matter. There’s no specialist kit to wear, they take part in bare feet and comfy clothes so no one feels like the odd one out or a newbie in the wrong gear.

The outside of the Dance House with large printed words saying Ty Dawns and a massive Discover Dance poster showing a male dancer and a boy in school uniform copying his one legged, arms out pose.

The children don’t stay for the whole day. It’s split into two sessions of 3 hours for 7-11 year olds in the morning and 12-16 year olds in the afternoon. My dancing trio were 7, 7 and 10 and it was perfectly pitched at them and the other children in the group.

The date and timing worked out well for me (selfish!) as I had a work meeting in the Bay that morning but from all the little scooters that accompanied younger siblings at pick up time I think most families made the most of the location and school holiday by zooming across the Barrage during Dance Days. We also had a crack at the free crafting in the Wales Millennium Centre foyer on our walk back to the car.

You could opt to do one day at £15 or two days at £25 per child. I worked through the holidays and couldn’t get the logistics to work out for two days. It would have been more convenient for me to have them both in one place for a full day but I appreciate for the younger dancers that it might be a bit much and it’s not designed for babysitting or childcare (but that is a Brucey Bonus of taking kids to this sort of thing). If money’s a barrier, NDCWales also offer some Dance Days tickets at £5.

At the end of the hour session, the grown-ups and siblings were invited to watch a “quick sharing of what they’ve been up to”. The amount of work that they showed back to us was bonkers.

a group of 9 children in leggings, joggers and t shirts balance and freeze as a group with arms, legs and feet stretching out. They're in a dance studio.

I particularly loved the general positive vibe in the room. There were no show offs, they were all happy and silly but behaving respectfully, working together and listening to the dance ambassador who led the session. A diverse bunch of children of difference abilities and ages all worked together and shared something really special.

They didn’t just spend the three hours learning routines. They had creative tasks using Caroline Finn’s choreographic ideas that the company use in Revellers’ Mass, one of their 2019 touring productions. In this case, they were greeting partners as they met from opposite sides of the stage; what might start with a handshake or a high five becomes a back roll, jump or cartwheel. They also learnt a to dance part of the show, quite a gestural section that the children performed with real earnestness.

I’ve gone into so much detail about the “quick sharing” because I also ended up taking my sons to see National Dance Company Wales perform Awakening, their spring tour at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. I’d been regretful about my possibly optimistic plan to take them to a night of three contemporary dance works. On the train. For the evening show. They were being boisterous but I’d paid my money so we’d give it a go. I’m so glad we did.

The piece that informed the Dance Days session was the longest of the night, it didn’t have the same visual trickery of the first two (which they loved but I’ll have to write that up separately so this doesn’t become a novella), it was later in the evening, past bedtime and I only had the dregs of the sweeties left. I needn’t have fretted. They were gripped. They gasped a little in delighted surprise and whispered “it’s the same music, we know this!” and subtly echoed the moves on stage that they’d remembered from Dance Days. That connection between physically putting their own bodies into learning moves, exploring the choreographer’s ideas, creatively problem solving then seeing actual real life dancers perform to the same music sparked something in them. Respect for the craft? A connection with the performance? Feeling involved in something exquisite and different? Maybe all of that, maybe none of it but it’s an experience that’s stayed with them.

a blackboard pillar has been written on with chalk with dates and times for Dance Days. A Dance Days flyer is stuck to the pillar with a magnet.
New dates are on the NDCWales website

Dance Days aren’t just for keeno dancing kids. The sessions for ages 7-11 are especially great for kids who are just happy to give something a bit different a go. Head over to the NDCWales website for details of future Dance Days: ndcwales.co.uk (CLUE: there are some coming up at the end of July)

*We were very kindly invited to take part in this event in return for a review. I bought our own tickets for the show at the Sherman. Dance Days are well worth the price and they do offer some bursaries if money is a barrier for you.

Places To Go, Things To Do, Thinking Out Loud

Urdd Eisteddfod 2019 and Welshness issues

I’m Welsh but I’m not a confident Welsh speaker. On the daily, this doesn’t make me ponder on Welshness, on national identity and bilingualism but last week I took my boys to Cardiff Bay for this year’s Urdd Eisteddfod where it felt like a bigger deal on the Maes.

We were non Welsh speakers at a Welsh speaking event in Wales. We had a lovely day and we did feel welcome but also at a remove. I felt like a visitor, an outsider, somehow other.

The Urdd Eisteddfod is one of Europe’s largest touring youth festivals. As well as all of the stalls and activities on the Maes, there are loads of competitions for children and young people in things like singing and dancing following regional rounds. About 15,000 competitors take part through the week. The Urdd was set up to give children and young people the chance to learn and socialise in Welsh.

A sign post in Welsh language with the Pierhead building and Wales Millennium Centre in the background
Ble mae’r bar?

We toyed with sending the boys to Welsh school back in 2012 but our closest English primary school is behind our house. We cross no roads to get there, I can hear the playground from home and garden and it’s a cracking school.

The seven year old was in his absolute element in the Senedd display of the 2D and 3D art and design competitions. He’s a model making fiend and a puppet fan boy. He was so genuinely impressed with the paintings and drawings “wow, I can’t believe this one only came second, it’s a winner for me”, it was unsurprising when he looked up at me, his eyes glowing with creative crafting ideas and asked “how can I join in Mum?” like it’s Blue Peter and anyone can enter. Sorry babes, you can’t because you don’t go to a Welsh medium school. *insert sad child’s face* That’s where it feels excluding and exclusive. Which is understandable knowing that the Urdd exists for Welsh speaking children.

When I posted about this on Instagram I had a reply from a teacher at an English medium high school who told me that they had pupils compete so it turns out they don’t have to go to Iaith Cymraeg schools to participate. I did not know this. I thought the Urdd Eisteddfodau were a cultural rite of passage that my kids would have no part of in the same way that the opportunity wasn’t there for me as a child who grew up in Wales at English language schools. And that’s as a pupil who did extra Welsh (true story) and chose to do Welsh GCSE and A Level.

My Welsh is OK, I can get by to a limit. If you did A level French, that’s the kind of language vibe. Except it’s not. I’ve got an A Level in it but I don’t only encounter it at the boulangerie on my holidays. I work all over Wales so Welsh is at meetings, seminars, conferences, it’s in the lunch time chats and evening meals out, it’s sprinkled through emails, it’s on print, websites, in theatre productions, social media strategies. And that’s just work.

At the Urdd Eisteddfod we made an effort to use as much Welsh as we could all day. The 10 year old ordered his hot chocolate all by himself and enjoyed his “un siocled poeth”, the 7 year old  said “diolch” to pretty much everyone in Cardiff Bay.

They were in awe at how much Welsh I used (my children are very easily impressed) “how did we not know you can speak another language?!” I can’t, I’m really not that confident with it but I do try when I can. I felt guilty and lazy for not using it more at home when I do make the effort in work emails and events. I want to use Welsh with them more at home, beyond our current “nos da cariad” (good night love) and “pwy sy’n barod?” (who’s ready?).

Inside the roof of a teepee style tent with bunting and garland lights.
Inside the Children’s Commissioner for Wales tent

It was a lush day out though, one of those exhausting days where you walk for miles, while away time soaking up live music, have a nosey in every trade stall, race cars in virtual reality, golf, join a band, colour in, trampoline, make a bead bracelet, toast mshmallows and bump into a couple of people you know. As it was free entry this year I treated us to drinks and a fairground ride without the inward panic about spending all of the money.

It felt right to expose the boys to a world where people assume you can speak Welsh, it opens their mind up to realising it’s the first language for some people and it’s alive in Wales, not just something to learn in the classroom.

Places To Go, Things To Do

The Big Pit

Boom! It’s National Museum Week 2019 so I’ve been thinking about the last museum I went to, Big Pit National Coal Museum, Y Pwll Mawr. I bloody loves museums I does. The best of them stir a little something in your soul, leave some new knowledge nestled in your brain and get my kids buzzing with the experience. The Big Pit delivers on all three.

The first time I visited, I was excited to get free entry with my Blue Peter badge (which I’ve sadly lost, do they do replacements?) in about 1990. Another time, aged about 18 with my 9 year old brother the day after watching How Green Was My Valley, he produced a white cotton handkerchief to mop his brow because that’s what they’d done in the film. A few weeks ago we took our own similarly aged children and it’s still a thrill to travel in that dark lift 300 feet underground, to stoop through the tunnels, to momentarily stand in darkness, feel the terror and thankfulness that life has changed.

One of the themes of Museum Week 2019 is #WomenInCulture and the vital role of women in the mining industry and mining communities is explored in the Pithead Baths exhibition. Women were only banned from working underground because the inspector was shocked at their state of undress. The work they did was so physically demanding that they were replaced with ponies. Ponies.

As a museum, the displays and experiences above ground have had a hell of a lot of work since becoming part of National Museums Wales, which gives so much more to explore than the 50 minutes down the pit, the shower block was especially effective with interactive bits. Plus, it’s been free to visit since 2001. FREE. (Think it’s £3 for parking though). It’s set in a unique industrial landscape, designated a World Heritage Site.The guys, real life miners, who lead the tours of the mine are essential, their wit, knowledge and warmth give visitors a flavour of the camaraderie and banter of the place.

That said, I’m not writing this wearing rose tinted glasses about the job of mining. My grandad, great grandad, great uncle, my dad’s cousins all worked in the mines of the South Wales valleys. My grandad hated it. “No son of mine is ever going to work down a mine.” The day he started working at the pits as a teenager, a body was brought up from underground (the deceased man is mentioned in part of the museum), so I can’t say I blame him and he worked his arse off to have a career in another sector.

I am, however, writing this sat in the second largest town in Wales that only sprung into existence on this scale because of the coal industry but I’m also writing this in a time when we’re looking for cleaner energy sources than fossil fuels. Museums are powerful when you can make those connections.

The Big Pit

For more info, opening hours, directions and all that, head here: museum.wales/bigpit/

School Days, Thinking Out Loud

Babies Starting School

My social media is abuzz with school admissions posts and wails about “my baby” going to school. Excuse me while my lack of sympathy and I snicker darkly yet sagely into our milky tea.

I hear you, I do, but I also raise you this: MY BABY IS GOING TO HIGH SCHOOL. They will eat him alive. He is tiny and geeky and high school is not the nurturing, learn-through-play haven of Reception. He will be spat out at the other end as a legal adult.

Ok, he’s not a baby. He’s 10. Double figures and all that. And yes, I may well be projecting my own fears about moving from Primary to Comp. I blame Grange Hill. My comprehensive school looked like the fictional hell hole, it was populated with the same permed, mean eyed, all-knowing teenagers. I was definitely going to get my head flushed down the toilet or be tricked into taking an acid tab. One of the boys in my year 6 class who had an older sister there assured us that it was a rite of passage. The toilet thing, not the drugs.

I’m still yet to ever have my head flushed down the loo or trip on acid (in the words of Zammo “just say no”) and if I’m honest, I’m sure my son will be fine. He’s friendly, he’s sensible, he’s a good guy and he’s feeling cautiously confident after plenty of visits to the school and transition days.

I’ve written about it before, this ever marching time of childhood, not standing in the way of them moving on and developing, of celebrating change and not infantilising them when they’re not babies anymore.

Don’t let your 4 year old see you cry when you drop them off that first week. Please. It’s not about you. Letting them see you panicked, upset or overwhelmed is unhelpful. The same goes for all those future residential school trips. Imagine starting a new job with your partner, parent or friend crying at the entrance. I’ll be doing just that very soon (the job not the weeping) and I’d prefer a thumbs up and a snazzy new lunch box.

My step daughter’s been in high school for two years now and is having a grand old time of it. We see her so much less than we used to but that’s a whole other blog post. I’m sure my son with throw himself into a new school, make new friends, have great experiences but it’s still the great unknown. Think of all those positive things if your child’s starting primary school too.

Of course, I’m writing all of this before his Hogwarts letter arrives this summer and there’ll be a whole other level of worry going on.

Two children's books on batman bedding. The larger book on the left is 100 Things to Know About Space and the other book is Grandpa Was an Astronaut by Jonathan Meres.
School Days, Thinking Out Loud

World Book Day

Before I launch into a rant of sorts, please know that this isn’t anti World Book Day. What they stand for and what they aim to do is brilliant. World Book Day is the world’s biggest campaign to provide every child and young person in the country with a book of their own. Their twitter biography sums it up:

The biggest annual celebration of books and reading in the UK & Ireland. Share a Story with us on 7 March 2019. A charity, sponsored by National Book Tokens. @WorldBookDayUK

Our school isn’t dressing up for World Book Day this year and I’m cool with that. Instead, the children have been asked to take their favourite book into school. It’s perfectly in keeping with the whole ethos of sharing a story, building a love of reading, getting kids excited about books and seeing what a huge range of stories and factual books there are.

Yet some parents still moan. If they’d had to dress up there’d be other parents moaning. I think it comes from the everyone-else-is-dressing-up-why-can’t-we zone while completely missing the point that every child in the school will still have a free book token and a chance to share their favourite book with their class.

World Book Day’s current campaign is #ShareAStory. It’s not #SendYourKidToSchoolInARandomCostumeThatsNotNecessarilyInABook or #BuyABookCharacterCostumeFromTheSupermarketEvenThoughYourChildsNeverReadThatBook or #WearYourFavouriteFancyDressOutfitRegardlessOfWhetherOrNotItsInABook

It isn’t about dressing up. That’s just one of many ways in which schools can mark and celebrate the day. Write a story, find a fact in a book, design a book mark. My kids have dressed up some years but other years they’ve had a pyjama day at school for a day of bedtime stories. The years we’ve dressed up, we’ve talked about their favourite books and did what we could with clothes and props we already had. Think Iggy Peck the Architect (patterned knitted jumper, skinny trousers, daps and a pencil behind the ear) or Jesse Aarons from Bridge to Terabithia (jeans, raglan top and a crown made out of twigs).

I know that my children and I are coming at this from a place of literary privilege. I grew up in a home of books, we had regular tips to the library, I saw my parents read for pleasure, my best friends enjoyed the same boks as me, I had books as gifts, we had day trips to Hay on Wye, I ended up studying books at university (English Lit) and there are books in every room of our home. I read to my children and they read because they want to. When the new Health Visitor first visited after my youngest was born she glanced around the living room and said “you’ll be fine, you’ve got books”, to which I said “none of them are about parenting”. “It doesn’t matter,” she replied “it makes a difference.” The sad thing was, most of the houses she visited didn’t have books.

Not everyone lives a life immersed in books. I know mothers who taught themselves to read as adults. At Christmas in a toy shop I was browsing the children’s books when I overheard a woman say to her friend “no, she wouldn’t want a book as a present, that’s boring” and my heart broke a little. 4 in 10 boys and 3 in 10 girls aged 11-13 who took part in a 2010 National Literary Trust survey did not own any books.

Spending just 10 minutes a day reading with children of all ages can make a crucial difference to their future. Literacy matters. The National Literacy Trust research showed that children who don’t own books were two and a half times more likely to read below their expected level than children who have their own books* (19% compared to 7.6%). It helps to put important campaigns like World Book Day into perspective.

Schools have enough to deal with and your misplaced outrage about fancy dress or late notice about taking in a book isn’t going to be their top priority. Remember it’s also the season for belated St David’s Day Eisteddfodau, British Science Week and bloody Red Nose Day.

Of course, all the Matildas and Boys in a Dress, the Tigers Who Came to Tea and the Highway Rats are delightful. A gaggle of primary aged children in fancy dress is a wonderful thing. There’s joy and creativity in making outfits. But if your school isn’t dressing up for World Book Day, don’t be a dick about it. Dress them up on the weekend or this evening if you’re really gagging to take that photo for Instagram. Even better, just read a book with them, find out what their favourite book is and why.

My boys both chose books that are space themed, which isn’t surprising as they both want to be astronauts (the youngest wants to be the first ventriloquist in space, please tell me no one’s beat him to it). Both books are signed by the authors because they’re both from different literary festivals. They’re not the books they’re in the middle of reading but they’re important to them. One’s a book of facts and the other’s a story.

This quote hit the nail on the head more succinctly than my waffling diatribe:

If your child’s World Book Day costume costs more than a book, STOP RIGHT THERE! Make something from a cereal box, and BUY A BOOK instead.**

If you found yourself cursing World Book Day as you stressed over a costume last night, take a moment to be grateful that your child has access to books. If you fumed about your school not letting you show off via your offspring’s costume today, take a moment to be grateful you had one less thing to stress about and that your child has access to books. And if you don’t give a shit about books or which children have access to them, I’ll take a moment to be grateful for World Book Day doing what they do.

*National Literacy Trust online survey, took pace in November and December 2010

**from an instagram post by @brightbuttonschildminding spotted on @childcare_adventures