It’s no secret that getting children involved in the performing arts can have a significant payoff in school. Research shows that youngsters who sing, dance and act are four times more likely to be recognised for academic achievement than their non-performing friends. They are also predisposed to having superior cognitive, motor, and social development. But the benefits don’t stop there. Getting up on stage and performing can enrich a child’s life in all sorts of surprising ways, such as mastering anxiety, raising self-esteem and expressing brand new emotions.
So if ‘art for art’s sake’ doesn’t seem worth the time, perhaps the fact that the performing arts can provide children with an awareness about themselves and the opportunity to develop creative skills they’d never learn anywhere else does. And if for no other reason, it’s about time that singing and dancing were put on the school curriculum.
Lisa Scott-Lee, co-founder of Dubai Performing Arts Live and Dubai Performing Arts Academy (DPA), and a member of the phenomenally successful British pop group Steps, agrees, saying: “I feel that the performing arts has always been in the shadows, and I believe that there should be a lot more awareness towards the benefits. That should start with children in schools, and that’s really why myself and Johnny (co-founder Johnny Shentall-Lee, DPA Live choreographer and creative director) created and launched Dubai Performing Arts Academy.”
The Performing Arts – Where Work Meets Love
Arriving in Dubai in 2011, Lisa and husband Johnny landed at DBX with two children, two suitcases and a two-year plan! “It’s an incredible city, and we felt very welcome and very safe straightaway. And we quickly spotted a gap in performing arts training for children, which was always at the front of our minds, and launched DPA in 2014.
“Johnny and I share the same kind of background – I’m from the pop group Steps, and he is from the pop group Hear’Say, as well as having performed on the West End stage in London; he was one of the original cast of Footloose, playing one of the lead roles, Chuck.”We met during the first open auditions for Steps, leading up to our very first tour at the end of the 90s. Johnny walked in with thousands of other dancers, and he got the job; there were only five spaces at that time, and he was one of the original Steps dancers. So we toured the world together, and we shared the same ambition to have a performing arts school, so it’s wonderful that it has come to fruition in Dubai.”
DPA offers all aspects of the performing arts, taking in everything from private singing lessons to drama exams with the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). “We offer performing arts solely for children who just want to have fun, enjoy the social interaction and grow in confidence, as well as offering classes with the option of taking an examination because a lot of children are serious performers,” Lisa explains. “We have a lot of talent here in Dubai and the wider UAE, and so many of our students do want to go onto prestigious vocational colleges such as Italia Conti, where I trained in London, Performers where Johnny trained, and also ArtsEd (Arts Educational) PPA and GSA (Guildford School of Acting) where Johnny taught at Degree level.”
Inspiring and training children at the grassroots is the raison d’être of DPA, with the entire team fully aware of the many health benefits associated with the performing arts, not just from a physical point of view but from a mental point of view too. In fact, with everyone being in lockdown in Dubai, DPA had over 500 students who were crying out for the performing arts – they were locked down in their homes, weren’t going to school every day, and weren’t having that all-important social interaction with their peers and teachers. So DPA did something rather special, which highlighted its position at the heart of the community.
“Johnny and I decided to give something back,” Lisa begins. “We had our full-time teachers at DPA, highly qualified and very passionate, and they were, of course, in lockdown in their respective homes. So we decided to launch a campaign to keep children active during lockdown. And not only children in the UAE, we also invited children from the UK and worldwide; we had children signing in from Australia and many other places.
“We offered free performing arts classes for the whole of the lockdown in Dubai. There were hundreds of children logging on by Zoom – six days a week, where we offered multiple classes and genres, and it was just incredible because everyone feels helpless when they’re in the middle of a pandemic, and this really helped to keep children fit and active. We were greeted daily by lots of smiles, which helped us through lockdown also. The feedback made us feel very humble. It was not just from the children but from the parents too, who also needed that support. We had numerous emails and letters telling us how we’d helped children and families get through lockdown, and that’s something we’re proud of.”
The BTEC in Performing Arts is a two-year programme consisting of 720 guided learning hours split across multiples units
Inhale Possibility, Exhale Creativity
Lisa, Johnny and her team have a lot to be proud of, not least introducing a BTEC Level 3 in Performing Arts to Dubai. “Even before we moved out to Dubai, we were discussing the idea of further education because Johnny has taught at several amazing vocational schools; that’s his area of expertise, and he’s such an incredible teacher – so inspiring, so humble and very talented,” Lisa says.
A BTEC is ideal for the performing arts because it’s a qualification based on practical study rather than academic study. And let’s bust one myth here – BTECs do not have to be an alternative to other qualifications such as A-levels. Indeed, they can be taken alongside A-levels or taken as a standalone BTEC.
A BTEC is a vocational qualification, which means that it is career-focused and grounded in the real world. Students work to gain skills and knowledge in their subject area and then put those skills into practice.
“We are passionate about introducing the performing arts into the school curriculum, which we think is key,” Lisa continues. “There are after-school clubs in the various disciplines, but we want the performing arts to be accessible in all schools and for all nationalities. Music and dance are universal, and every child should have the opportunity to explore them and enjoy the benefits, including getting up on stage.
“So the BTEC is something that we’ve had in our minds for quite a few years, but it really took off when we met Clive Pierrepont, then Director of Communications at Taaleem PJSC, at an Awards Ceremony in Dubai. Clive was on the next table, and at one point came over to speak to me, saying, ‘I recognise you; you’re Lisa from Steps, and you run DPA with Johnny, so why aren’t you in our Taaleem schools?’ To cut a long story short, we met for coffee the very next day and quickly realised that we all felt very passionate about raising awareness of the performing arts within the school curriculum.
“Clive introduced me to Dubai British School, Jumeirah Park (DBSJP), which was a new school at the time, and he had already partnered with our late friend and celebrated Michelin Star Chef, Gary Rhodes OBE, to launch a new ‘healthy eating and family dining’ school meal initiative. DBSJP has got wonderful facilities – it has a purpose-built 500-seater theatre, which is where we now have the DPA offices. We have four dance studios, and Taaleem has built an exclusive area for Sixth Form and BTEC students. So we very much came together as a partnership, and after about three years of this partnership, we introduced the idea of the BTEC.”
The course is equivalent to two A-levels for the BTEC Level 3 Diploma
Everyone was behind this game-changing idea, including Alan Williamson, CEO at Taaleem, who loved the whole concept from the very beginning. “We were then able to link up with Pearson in the UK, which is the affiliated board that oversees our BTEC course,” Lisa explains. “We launched in September 2020, so we’ve got our first year of students, and they’re fantastic – it is so exciting to be offering something new to the region.
“Johnny is a choreographer, and he choreographs a lot of shows here, and we work with a London production company, and they flew over a professional cast at Christmas and our BTEC students performed alongside them in around 20 shows over the festive period. So for us to be able to offer unique opportunities outside of the classroom and studio is what makes our BTEC unique.”
“Johnny and I share the same kind of background – I’m from the pop group Steps, and he is from the pop group Hear’Say”
Of course, it’s also run by an internationally famous pop star and a leading light from the West End – you don’t get any more authentic or knowledgeable than that!
Each Step You Take Reveals a New Horizon
The BTEC in Performing Arts is a two-year programme consisting of 720 guided learning hours split across multiples units. The structure of the qualification is in keeping with current industry practice, university teaching and assessment methodology. The completion of an extensive portfolio showcases learners’ skills and allows for large-scale projects whilst providing a holistic learning experience. The assessments enable learners to demonstrate valuable skills such as analysis, planning, organisation and critical thinking in the context of developing practical outcomes.
The curriculum embodies the three fundamental strands of the performing arts – dancing, singing and drama. Students are not required to be competent in all three genres and they can opt to study one genre as their chosen subject, giving flexibility to the course. Students experience the creativity of developing their own pieces, along with rehearsal and performance, where they have the opportunity to bring to life the skills and techniques they have learnt.
The course is equivalent to two A-levels for the BTEC Level 3 Diploma. There is also an Extended Diploma that offers the equivalent of three A-levels.
Prospective students within the Sixth Form are expected to meet the general requirements of four 9-5 (I) GCSE grades or higher, with a pass in English Language and Mathematics.There are a limited number of scholarships available, too.
Those are the ‘nuts n’ bolts’, but to understand the passion, joy, and commitment, listening to what the students say is important. Rohan comments: “When I started the BTEC Performing Arts course, I was so excited to be able to study a subject that was not offered anywhere else, and it was so cool that I could take an A-level subject that was also my passion. Over the course of the first two terms, I have learnt and gained so much experience and knowledge of the industry. I love our diverse timetable with a variety of all our teachers so that we can get experience from multiple people who have recently worked in the industry. I am excited to continue the course and work towards entering the performing arts industry in the future.”
“Fellow student Alice agrees, saying: “I have truly enjoyed the BTEC Performing Arts course this year. It has allowed me to develop my learning in all areas of the performing arts. My teachers have been excellent throughout, guiding me and enhancing my skills. The course has not only developed my skills in performing arts but also time management and organisational skills, which are essential for me for further education after Sixth Form. The course itself has enabled me to branch out of my comfort zone and has expanded my horizons when it comes to the performing arts industry. It is the perfect course for any aspiring performer.”
Where Words Fail, Music Speaks
This authenticity and knowledge have come from over a quarter of a century of study and work, with Lisa and Johnny just as successful today as they were back in the 1990s. Steps, for instance, is celebrating its 25th anniversary next year, which is an incredible feat. “That’s very exciting,” Lisa says. “And I think one of the reasons we’re enjoying this international success all over again is that it’s still the five original members of Steps – it’s still the group that all of our fans know.
“Also, we’ve always had dance routines for each of our songs, and dance is universal. It doesn’t matter if we speak a different language to our audiences, we can all dance together, so I think that has been a big part of our success story.
“We’re also very inclusive – we have what we call an open-door policy – and want everybody to feel good, be inspired by our success story and listen to music. In the current circumstances, music and Steps can offer hope and escapism, as well as just plain happiness. For the duration of a single, album or concert, it’s possible to forget everything else that’s going on in the world and simply have a good time.”
When Lisa talks about the Steps success story, which she believes her students can emulate, she means success too! The new album, ‘What the Future Holds’, went it at No.1 on the UK iTunes Charts, No. 2 in the UK Pop Charts, No.3 in Australia, No.5 in Indonesia, there’s a long list.Steps have remained true to their own creative and entertainment philosophy on the album, recording a perfect collection of pop that is very possibly Steps’ finest album to date. Jam-packed with hit after hit, it’s undoubtedly the best pop album released in the last year. And it’s come at just the right time; if ever we needed an uplifting album full of catchy songs, it’s now.Ahead of the album’s release, Steps released the title track as a single, a dark, edgy song written by Sia, one of the leading singer-songwriters in the music world today, and it debuted at No. 10 on the UK Singles Download Chart.
It’s not just the recording studio where Steps have been busy, though. They are rehearsing for a new UK tour in November/ December this year, something Lisa is really looking forward to. “I love touring. I’m a performer at heart. I’ve been dancing since the age of three, on the stage from probably the age of five; all I ever wanted to do was perform. That’s why I understand my students. All they want to do is perform. It makes them happy because they can express themselves. It gives them a creative outlet. For me, I say time and time again that I’m blessed that my dreams came true.
“I worked hard, though, including becoming a qualified teacher of dance when I trained with Italia Conti. And with Steps, we were on the club circuit for very little money in the early days – it was the love of performing, and all of the hard work has been worth it.”Steps are playing around 25 dates in total across the UK and Ireland; they are playing some venues twice because tickets for the first shows sold out virtually overnight. “I think people need live entertainment – they need to have that creativity and that happiness. That’s why we do it, to make people happy.”
Creativity is Intelligence Having Fun
The performing arts play a hugely significant role in helping children to develop on all levels. Educationalists are increasingly emphasising the importance of ’emotional intelligence’, and while the performing arts allow youngsters to develop creative passions, they simultaneously teach them language and communication skills, helping them to communicate effectively with others with confidence. These are vital skills in every area of life.
Creativity is vital to being human – society, industry, science all require the spark of creativity to move forward. Dance, singing, acting and the many other performing arts allow that creative spark to be born and take shape. Without that initial spark, society cannot move forward. If for no other reason, then nurturing creativity is the core reason why the performing arts are essential.
Jam-packed with hit after hit, it’s undoubtedly the best pop album released in the last yearIt’s about time that singing and dancing were put on the school curriculum.
What’s more, the performing arts industry is still growing, while many other industries are shrinking. So it’s an increasingly attractive career path to those with talent and a truckload of passion! And that’s why DPA has quickly become so important on the Dubai educational landscape. “I feel so humbled and grateful,” Lisa says. “To be able to come into work every morning and see all of our students and the community we’ve created is amazing. It’s really rewarding to help children benefit from the same kind of training that Johnny and I were so privileged to enjoy.
“We started slowly, introducing the LAMDA and Trinity Musical Theatre examinations. And to expand on that and to be teaching BTEC five days a week is wonderful. There has been a lot of interest in our BTEC, and I think it’s a great addition to the region, she concludes.”