"Winds to the left, thunders to the right!" barks Miss Booth at the -sparkly mass filling the main hall at Jumeirah Primary School (JPS). "Remember what we said about working as a team and looking after each other," she adds, as the purple sequins and silver lightening bolts shuffle off in their various directions. In the middle of the room, the blue sequins are holding their positions. When the music - a moody, electro-tinged number - starts, a small group of parents thrash fabric streamers up and down as the water group uncurls itself. In Our Element - a dance themed around fire, water, wind, earth and thunder - is JPS's entry to The Rock Challenge, a dance and drama competition that will see around 330 children from 11 Dubai schools compete at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (Ductac) on June 1. The competition, which started in Australia in 1982, has since gone global and now stages events in the UK, South Africa, Japan, New Zealand and the UAE. To date, over a million students have taken part worldwide. As well as providing a platform for young talent, the Rock Challenge also seeks to foster a broad range of skills in young people and promote the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Juniors (aged four-12) and seniors (aged 13-18) compete separately. Eleven schools and 320 students took part in the senior competition which took place in Dubai on May 1, and the English College emerged victorious.
Aysel Duman, who brought the competition to the UAE three years ago, competed in the event in her -native Australia when she was young. "When I came to Dubai, there wasn't much for students to do," she says, "so I decided to bring The Rock Challenge here as a global platform for students to get together and do things in groups." She has since witnessed the competition stiffen considerably. "Schools are getting prepared six months ahead now," she says, "which is -really good - it's getting towards the level of Australia, where it's very professional." Aside from the competitive -element, Duman sees the event as an integral part of children's education. "They learn how to work together in a team and how to communicate," she says. "Some kids are very shy and it gives them a chance to be part of something. It's important for kids to have other interests during school hours." In Our Element stars 60 children aged between nine and 11. "Anybody could sign up, and we got 60 kids!" says Sarah Booth, a year-four teacher at JPS who co-produced and choreographed the production. "I run a hip-hop after-school club as well," she says. "But this is something extra because it's more of a competition against other primary schools. With the extra-curricular clubs, they don't get to do anything to perform it, but they can perform this on stage." James Oakden, who is the head of year four at JPS and wrote the -music for the production, believes that providing the children with a real theatre experience will help them make -decisions about the future. "Any children who are -aspiring to be dancers or actors or theatre technicians can start to -understand the structure and -professionalism and how hard it is," he says. "It broadens their mind and their -experiences in terms of possible -future careers." As well as commitment (rehearsals take place twice a week), there is also plenty of focus on team work, says Oakden. "We have a lot of team-building activities that go on through clubs and after-school activities, as well as how we teach in class," he says. "So this is part of what we do here. With the Rock Challenge, they've got to realise that what they're doing can affect everybody else in the group." "It's really important for everyone to work as a team," says nine-year-old Amelia Strothard. "If someone forgets their cue and nobody reminds them, the whole dance would collapse." Strothard got involved because she was keen to improve her dancing skills. "I love dancing and moving and I thought this would be a great opportunity," she says. Ffion Hopwood, 10, liked the idea of being able to express her feelings through dance. "When you have dances like the water one, you feel really good," she says. And Genevieve Lane, nine, took her mother's advice. "My mum is always saying, 'Oh, you should be on stage,' and I was like, "Oh, all right, then.' I like showing off my moves and the music's quite funky, as well."
A few streets away at Emirates -International School (EIS), an equally buoyant but less decorative rabble (their costumes cannot be -revealed until the final performance) are -being put through their paces. "Great line, guys," shouts Emma Moffat, a grade-six teacher, at the 35-strong group of students filling the PE hall. Mysterious Little Things explores a more philosophical theme, according to Alana Hicks, a grade-four teacher, who choreographed the production with -Moffat. "We asked the kids questions like 'If a tree falls in the woods, does it -really happen if no one sees it?' says Hicks. "And 'What happens to all the missing socks?' We decided to focus on the question that if you don't see something, does it really happen. And the kids came up with the idea that there may be little people in our world who borrow our things, but even if you don't see it happen, it still makes a big impact on our life. There was a slight educational message, that just because you're small or you're a child, it doesn't mean you can't make a big impact." Hicks believes in the importance of community events. "It doesn't -happen much in Dubai," she says, "and it's great that they'll be mixing with lots of other kids. Also, it's really creative and the kids really feeling like they're achieving something." Moffat was impressed by the number of boys who joined. "We had loads of people dropping out of the football club to join Rock Challenge," she says. "I decided to get involved because I'm not that good a dancer," says Anubhav Mathur, 11. "You can always look forward to it and think, '-Today's Tuesday - I hate Tuesday - but at least we have Rock Challenge.'" Tommaso Manetti, 10, saw it as a way to work on his talent. "I like dancing - I'm quite good at it - and I wanted to try out somewhere where I could just dance and have fun." Despite the enthusiasm Rock Challenge inspires, Duman has been frustrated by the fact that more schools have not got involved. "-Instead of 11 schools, we should have 50 or 60," she says. "I'm trying as much as I can, but I can't go to 50 schools in one day. This should be a regular slot on the calendar. There need to be more events like this here." Booth believes the strain on an -already overstretched teaching staff may be a factor. "Teachers are so busy and this is an additional thing to what we do anyway," she says. "It's in our own time and the demand on one's time is so much as it is. I think it's up to the teaching staff in that particular school about how dedicated they are, really." Duman has also had to face the challenge of having no sponsor this year. "It's tough times," she says. "And to put on a production in -Dubai is not cheap." To help cover costs, the children have held fund-raising events such as cake sales and car washes. "That's another thing they have had to learn how to do in terms of production," says Duman. "They put on sales and get the school working together." Both schools have also relied -heavily on the support of parents. Rima Gibbons, who son Daniel is at JPS and is taking part in the Rock Challenge, is doing the make-up for the whole group. "I used to be a working mother," she says. "So I didn't get much chance to be -involved with extra-curricular -activities. I suppose I wanted to compensate for lost time." Ghada el Khouly, whose son -Mahmoud is also taking part, has formed part of a crack support team that has been training the thunder group after school all week in order to get them up to speed. "I wanted to be with my child," she says. "This is a way of supporting him. It is quite a lot of work, but we are happy to do it. And it has made a big difference." That the competition is non-selective is crucial to its ethos, -Duman believes. "Rock Challenge isn't here to break people's spirits," she says. "It's here to build spirits." "It's been hard because you've got lots of different abilities," says Booth. "But I think it's important to give the kids a chance to be part of something." "It's all about building positive -experiences in school," adds -Oakden. "If they can't dance, they obviously need to skill up and work hard, but it's important that -children get the opportunity to try out different things. Not everybody's dance-smart or music-smart, or maths-smart or words-smart. But it's about taking and recognising potential and -allowing children to express themselves - that's very important." Hicks has already noticed a big -difference in her students. "They've really come out of themselves," she says. "Most of them had never danced before. They get so many benefits out of taking part: -self--esteem, friendship building, responsibility, coordination and health." "I can't dance on stage because I get stage fright or something," says Mathur. "But now I feel much better about it." "I've become more confident in front of people," says Hopwood, "Because before, I used to be really nervous." "I'm a better dancer and I'm -definitely less shy now than I was -before," says Strothard. And she has even found a way of rationalising her last-minute nerves. "I'm feeling kind of nervous, but then I said to myself, 'Well, there's a lot of people out there and only around 100 of them are going to be looking at me - so that's not so bad." The Rock Challenge will take place at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre on June 1 at 7pm. Call 050 873 900 for tickets.