Toddling the light fantastic!

Toddling the light fantastic!

Emmerdale star James Hooton, who plays Sam Dingle, with daughter Lily at the class

Emmerdale star James Hooton, who plays Sam Dingle, with daughter Lily at the class

Emmerdale star James Hooton, who plays Sam Dingle, with daughter Lily at the class

First published in News Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Photograph of the Author by , Leisure and Lifestyle Editor

A toddler in a pink tutu and fairy wings squeals with delight as she throws a silk scarf into the air, stretching out her arms to reach it.

A little boy nearby is sitting on a mat with his mum, singing Wind The Bobbin Up and going through the actions. Another tot is clutching a teddy bear, sticking out one of her legs and pointing her little feet with the grace of a ballerina.

Welcome to baby ballet. The concept may be new to Bradford, but it's catching on, with increasing numbers of infants enjoying the structured movement-to-music programme.

Designed for babies and young children, the Babyballet Song and Dance Academy was launched in Halifax in 1999.

After researching young children's development and learning abilities, founder Claire O'Connor designed a song and dance-based programme to develop skills such as balance, co-ordination and agility. The friendly, informal classes, for babies, toddlers and pre-school children, introduce them to structured, supervised physical activity.

The concept has proved to be a success, with thousands of infants taking part. Now Nancy Lucas and Rachael Gascoigne-Higgins have launched the first Bradford Babyballet classes.

"There are dance classes for older children but we found there wasn't really anything like this for pre-school ages in the Bradford district," says Nancy. "Baby ballet introduces children to physical activity early on. The idea is that they'll grow up with it as part of their lifestyle."

A former professional dancer, Nancy started dancing at the age of four. "It gave me confidence and self-discipline," she says. "Dancing stays with you for life; it helps with your posture and the way you move. It has always meant a lot to me. When our daughter Lily was six months old, she was crawling around a lot more and we were keen to get her into an active routine. She loves the movement and repetition of baby ballet.

"It's a great way for young children to get some regular exercise in a more structured environment than they'd have at home. With childhood obesity on the increase it's more important than ever for children to be active from an early age."

Nancy's partner is actor James Hooton, who plays Sam Dingle in Emmerdale. At the class I visited at St John's church hall in Greengates, he and 15-month-old Lily are sitting on the floor, going through the actions to Row, Row, Row Your Boat. It's clear that Lily is thoroughly enjoying herself and is keen to join in with the class. She even points her toes with the other children.

James enjoys the bonding process that baby ballet gives him and his daughter. "Because I spend a lot of time working I miss some of Lily's development, so spending this quality time with her is special," he says. "The children are very responsive to the music and actions, I've noticed a big development in Lily. We work together on the movements, it's lovely to see her confidence and co-ordination develop."

He added: "We met Claire O'Connor and were very impressed with the way she ran things. Nancy was keen to start classes in Bradford. Even if the children don't become dancers later on, this boosts their general co-ordination skills and gets them into fitness early on, so it becomes a natural part of life."

There are three levels of classes; babies (six months) and walkers (12 to 18-month-olds) which is musical playtime' with singing, mime and toys; Tiny Toes' for 18-month-olds to three, who are encouraged to explore their ability to move, sing and dance; and Mini Movers' for three to five-year-olds, allowing them to further enhance their movement and imagination.

Apparatus, including tunnels to crawl through, bubble machines, scarves and toys, are used for all age groups, helping with hand-to-eye contact. "Baby ballet is still a new concept here but it's starting to boom," says Nancy. "It introduces young children to health and fitness, and for parents it's half an hour with your baby. It's something babies and parents can do together - and spend time with other babies and parents in the process."

The class starts with a warm-up. The youngsters are sitting in a circle on mats with their mums, (James is the only dad here on this occasion, but dads and other carers are welcome), clapping, shrugging shoulders, stretching out fingers, arms and legs and touching toes.

They stretch legs out and point their toes before curling up into a ball. Singing along to nursery rhymes, they point to different areas of the body, making a learning process too.

After the warm-up they jump up like a Jack in a box and there follows a frenzy of jumping around the room, which the youngsters find great fun.

Lily has been pointing out her toes, winding the bobbin up' and stretching out her limbs. Now she's busy jumping around, with James gently lifting her.

Next comes the apparatus; Nancy and Rachael pull out brightly-coloured scarves from a bag and hand them out to the children. "They wait for their name to be called out then come forward to collect the scarves and other items. That helps them learn about the discipline of waiting their turn," says Nancy.

"It's also a way we give each child some individual attention. We move around and talk to each of the children, it helps them feel part of the class. It's great watching them develop each week."

The social aspect is as important as the movement and the youngsters are clearly enjoying each other's company. Three little girls in pink tutus clutch each other's hands as they form a circle and jump in unison.

"It's a good way of bringing children together, they benefit from that social contact early on," says Nancy. "It's also a get-together for parents."

Keeley Gooch has recently moved to the area and has brought her two-and-a-half-year-old son Maxwell to the class. "It's our first time," she says. "I don't know many people round here yet and when I heard about this I thought it would be a good way of getting to know other mums.

"Maxwell is really enjoying himself. It's great to see him moving about with other children. There's a bit of a stigma attached to ballet and boys but he enjoys dancing at home so I thought, Why not?' All children love moving to music and that's what this is all about."

Keeley's seven-month-old, Harrison, is asleep in his pushchair. "I'll see how Maxwell gets on and hopefully Harrison will start with the baby sessions," says Keeley.

There are several little boys toddling about - it's certainly not all pink frills and tiaras.

"People tend to think ballet is just for girls but there are lots of boys coming along. At the end of the day, it's movement to music which is something all children enjoy doing and should be encouraged to do," says Rachael, whose 22-month-old son Harrison is happily waving a red scarf around the room.

"Children pick up actions to songs with repetition. There's a big fun factor involved, it's all very informal and relaxed but a more structured programme than you'd perhaps have at home with your children.

"It's great for parents too; you need to get out sometimes otherwise you'd be staring at four walls all day. Here you can meet other parents, let off a bit of steam, and spend some quality time with your little one, ensuring they get plenty of exercise and fun."

Nancy and Rachel are holding baby ballet classes in Greengates, Thackley, Saltaire, Shipley, Saltaire and Bingley. There are also plans to expand to Denholme, Wilsden and Clayton.

There will be a break from baby ballet classes over summer but Nancy and Rachael are holding summer activity sessions.

To kickstart the summer sessions they're holding a family fun day, featuring stars from Emmerdale, at Thackley Methodist Church on July 5, in aid of baby research charity Tommy's.

  • For more information about the classes ring 0845 6024620 or visit

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