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The best schools in the UK for dance

By Talk Education
27 April 2022

Image - Dauntsey's

We’re often blown away by the performing arts offering at independent schools up and down the country: theatres to rival the West End, teaching staff at the very top of their game and facilities to put leading colleges and universities to shame. And as a result, pupils no longer need to choose a specialist performing arts school to pursue a career in the creative industries: today, more and more independent schools offer dance as part of their standard co-curricular offering, with classes led by some of the most talented industry professionals and a full roster of dance-related exams and qualifications on offer in tandem with normal academic lessons – and brilliant pastoral support too. And what’s more, dance isn’t just a sport and a means to improve pupil fitness – it’s a brilliant way to encourage pupils to think creatively and boost their confidence too.

For the next instalment of our series profiling schools that excel in more off-the-wall sporting options, here’s our pick of the best schools in the UK for budding dancers.

Bede’s School, East Sussex

At Bede’s, dance isn’t just an add-on: instead, there’s an entire academy woven into the fabric of the school. Talented pupils can join the Legat Dance Academy, signing up for an intense programme of ballet, jazz and contemporary dance alongside working towards GCSEs, BTECs and A-levels – with many securing places at some of the world’s most prestigious dance colleges.

‘Our priority is to align the dual demands of dance training alongside a high-quality academic programme, preparing the next generation of dancers, choreographers, producers, teachers and creative leaders,’ says Sherrie Pennington, the head of the Legat Dance Academy. ‘Our job is to ensure that pupils feel supported physically and mentally to take the next step in their careers.’

After passing an audition, Legat pupils’ school day is extended to fit in evening training sessions. Clever timetabling helps them do 20 hours of dance tuition during the week without affecting their classroom studies. They are taught by world-class industry professionals, treated to guest workshops with leading choreographers from the West End and given countless opportunities to perform – last year’s ballet production of Alice in Wonderland was a smash hit. They can also sign up for extra classes in strength and conditioning, tap, creative and musical theatre, and opt into exams in RAD ballet and ISTD contemporary dance, as well as taking a BTEC in performing arts. Almost everyone receives the highest level of distinction.

‘Legat has allowed me to make valuable friendships, learn how to survive in the industry and strengthen my technique and performing skills,’ says Legat’s dance captain Freya Woods, ‘something I will be forever thankful for.’

Dauntsey’s, Wiltshire

Dance is compulsory for pupils in the first two years at Dauntsey’s, when pupils learn street dance and hip-hop in the cool Harlequin-floor studio and spend a term practising for a bumper performance piece for the annual Lower School Dance Show, a fun, inclusive and entertaining spectacle involving everyone. And it doesn’t stop there – those who get the dancing bug can opt for GCSEs and A-levels in the discipline. All the hard work pays off: each year, a handful of pupils get accepted to the likes of the London Contemporary Dance School and Trinity Laban Conservatoire.

It’s encouraged as a hobby too, with a raft of clubs encompassing everything from tumbling to musical theatre, all of which encourage pupils to get creative and experiment with their own choreography. We particularly love the rather cheekily titled GNI, the boys-only dance group throwing some serious shapes with just one polite request: ‘Girls Not Invited’.

Frensham Heights School, Surrey

Frensham Heights ripples with creative energy. Pupils in Years 7 to 9 benefit from a full six hours of creative arts each week, and what sets the dance offering here apart is the fact that it’s compulsory for all, right the way from nursery to Year 9 – making it a true part of the school’s personality.

The school is evangelical about dance’s benefits. ‘We take the view that how we move reveals and communicates our personality and inner qualities, and is an important skill in communication and leadership,’ says Bob Keane, Frensham’s effervescent head of dance. ‘Comfortable movers have a natural charisma and confidence, which are important and respected attributes in our modern world – and how you come across to others is paramount in getting people’s attention and achieving what you want. This is why we value and teach dance – not only as an art form, but as a life skill too’.

With two full-time dedicated dance teachers, dance is taught to a phenomenally high standard. Take-up of dance GCSE and A-level is soaring – and from next September, there’ll be a more practical dance and musical theatre BTEC on the curriculum too (the qualification will have an even stronger emphasis on physical and performance skills). Plenty of pupils have gone on to compete in national teams, while others’ talents have secured them spots in professional stage productions.

St Edward’s School, Oxford

St Edward’s has noticed a surge in applications from prospective pupils specifically attracted by its flourishing dance programme. Head of dance Lisa Elkins has been at the school for 20 years – and her 12-strong team of teachers lead classes in every discipline from ballet, flamenco, tap and Latin to street jazz, breakdance and cheerleading. And although dance is never compulsory at any stage, everyone is actively encouraged to give it a go at some point during their school career, with an impressive 150 pupils currently taking part.

The school’s staunchly co-ed ethos is in real evidence in the dance department, with members of the 1st XV rugby team and rowing squad getting stuck in. ‘Ballet and rowing, or rugby and netball – where footwork and elevation are key – or any other sport for that matter, work beautifully together. You develop great core strength and flexibility through dancing, and this helps enormously on the pitch,’ says Ms Elkins.

Dancers have been putting the school’s stunning new purpose-built performance venue, the Olivier Hall, to good use. Three main dance productions a year include a contemporary ballet recital, a dance show and a slot in the Gaudy Arts Festival, which takes place in the summer term. Over in the drama department, dance-based musicals are hugely popular, and many enter exams in RAD ballet, ISTD modern dance and tap, with a handful of pupils going on to pursue careers on stage and in the wider creative industries.

‘Even if pupils are stressed, they come into the studio, leave their revision for 45 minutes, enjoy themselves, get the blood flowing, then go back to their work. It’s good for their wellbeing and concentration,’ adds Ms Elkins.

St George’s School, Ascot, Berkshire

‘Developing confidence through performance is central to the St George’s education,’ the school tells us – and it’s thanks to its long-term association with the Natalie Vinson School of Dance that it’s such a popular and thriving co-curricular activity here, and a real pull for prospective pupils too.

Founded in 1992, the Natalie Vinson School of Dance is held in extremely high regard in the dance world (it has won five prestigious Dance School of the Year awards over the past six years), and Natalie herself started teaching at St George’s over a decade ago. Girls can choose from classes in ballet, pointework and conditioning, tap, Zumba, street dance, Pilates and acro, with lessons tailored to suit all abilities.

Dance isn’t just a hobby here – many girls sign up for dance GCSE, with a 100 per cent pass rate to boot. In fact, the standard is so good that many pupils take their exams a year early – last year, one dance superstar achieved the top grade at GCSE after having trained almost exclusively online during the pandemic. And after two years of missed live-performance opportunities, pupils are currently putting the final touches on their upcoming Evening of Dance and Jazz – a dazzling showcase of their love of the art, and ‘the perfect opportunity to celebrate our association with a dancing school of such calibre’, says the school.

The King’s School, Canterbury, Kent

After recently unveiling its shiny new dance studio, King’s has started handing out dance scholarships for the very first time – and pupils certainly have the facilities to nurture their talents. The school’s award-winning Malthouse Theatre was opened by Joanna Lumley, and the adjacent dance studio comes complete with a sprung Harlequin floor, barres, mirrors and a clutch of smart dressing rooms.

‘There’s a focus on the narrative elements of dance here, as well as classical technical training at a high level for those who wish to train with a more specialised focus,’ says Victoria Outram, the school’s head of dance. ‘Pupils are taught by experienced teachers and choreographers and enjoy a wide range of genres, encompassing as many styles as possible from show to show.’

Those who hold either a dance scholarship or exhibition or who have demonstrated a particular flair for dance and performance are invited to join ‘Dance Excellence’, which meets weekly to create and choreograph new pieces to be performed during the academic year. The highlight is the annual King’s Week, a mini-Edinburgh Festival-type event of plays, concerts and performances, all set against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the cathedral.

And while dance isn’t compulsory, it’s very much open to all – previous experience or not. ‘Aside from the dancers, we seek and encourage pupils to take part in the technical aspects of a production – lighting, sound, stage management, costume, hair and make-up,’ adds Ms Outram.

To find out more about which schools offer dance, head to our school search page and use our search filters to select ‘dance’ in the dropdown list of sports offered.