Curtis James claps his hands and brings the class to order. There's a moment of silence before the music kicks in and the loose formation of 20 dancers comes to life. Feet start stepping, arms and legs throw shapes, bodies move in unison. They shift into a body-popping sequence, the sinuous bass line wriggling down their spines, then the routine cartwheels to a finish.
Curtis gives a slow-motion demonstration of a difficult move while the dancers catch their breath. Then the music starts up again. Their next performance is just four days away, so this is the last chance to get it right. With its sprung floor, wall of mirrors and booming sound system, the venue for these rehearsals could be an uptown dance studio. Instead, this is a converted classroom in an Essex school and, just as unexpectedly perhaps, the dancers are all teenage boys.
Bang in the middle of one of the biggest council estates in Europe, Dagenham Priory school is just down the road from the huge Ford motor plant that is synonymous with this Essex town. Ford doesn't make cars there any more, but Dagenham Priory has established its own production line, turning out talented dancers - male and female - and acting as a springboard to inspire achievement.
The boys' dance project has been acclaimed within the school and outside it (one ex-pupil has won a scholarship to the prestigious Laban Centre in London), performing everywhere from local primary schools to the Royal Opera House. These 90-minute after-school sessions on Wednesdays are well attended; several boys forgo sports practice to come along. In this school, boys' dance is cool.
Every key stage 3 pupil at Dagenham Priory (which won specialist arts college status in September 2001) has one dance lesson a week. The boys'
dance project has ensured the subject's popularity beyond that; 10 of the 41 pupils taking GCSE dance at the school this year are boys.
Any connection between boys' dancing and improvements in achievement and behaviour might seem unlikely, but teachers are convinced there is a link.
Caroline Watkins, the group's artistic director and one of three specialist dance teachers at the school, says: "For quite a few of the boys who are low achievers academically, it has given them a sense of belonging, doing something worthwhile and gaining praise for their achievement in a new aspect of the school curriculum. It is great for their concentration and control. It must have an impact on their academic performance."
Dean Hendrickson, 15, liked dancing at parties with his mates, and joined the group "for fun" when it started four years ago. It's still good fun, but taking the subject seriously has helped him to add discipline and control to his repertoire. Now he choreographs routines for the group. "I have learned new skills," he says. "You have to concentrate to learn certain moves, and it teaches you to remember."
Its specialist school status has lifted the Priory's dance provision to a new level, helping to pay for a new studio and for regular workshops from professional dancers such as Curtis James and Dan O'Neill of the Featherstonehaughs, a London-based multi-disciplinary organisation that works with community and education groups.
Carol Tustanowski, the Priory's head of performing arts, says the moral support of senior staff has been just as important to the project's success. "Not all the boys' parents come, but there will always be a senior member of staff there when they are performing, even if it's on a Sunday night. It's important they get that recognition."
When the boys took to the stage of the Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch last month, as part of First Feat, a celebration of youth dance in east London, deputy head Jamie Tuplin was cheering them on. "What they do in dance influences their life in the rest of the school," he says. "Sometimes their behaviour isn't perfect. But, after a performance, senior staff will come up to them and say, 'That was fantastic', and mean it. That has a great effect on their self-esteem and confidence."
Far from being an isolated case, what is happening in Dagenham is part of an emerging trend. Nationally, dance is growing in popularity. Ofsted's annual report in 19978 said that while standards in dance were generally good, "in many schools, boys are denied access". Buoyed by the creation of almost 173 specialist arts schools (with another 29 from September), the number of entrants for dance GCSE increased from 5,628 in 1998 to 7,003 in 2001. Still only 5 per cent are boys, but the number is growing.
"It has gone from being a Cinderella subject to something that's on everybody's development plan," says Carolyn Woolridge of the National Dance Teachers Association. The rise of dance music and the popularity of imported styles such as the Brazilian street dancemartial art form capoeira, have all helped. Men are dancing in the BBC's series of themed "red" programme trailers, and in adverts for the Halifax financial group.
"You'd never have seen that 10 years ago," says Ms Woolridge. "Culturally, its more part of young people's lives than it was."
Crichton Casbon, the Qualification and Curriculum Authority's principal subject officer for PE and dance, has noticed an upsurge in interest in the subject as a way of addressing boys' underachievement. "Where it is taught well and has real investment, it has a major impact on young people, but especially boys," he says. In its recent three-year study of good practice in PE, the QCA praised schools such as Hailsham community college in east Sussex, a specialist sports college where a dance project has brought improvements in behaviour and attendance.
"When I came here three years ago, there was a culture that dance was not for boys," says Mary Walton, the school's head of dance. "But now a lot of younger boys are keen to join. It has had a positive effect and given a boost to their confidence." Teachers of other subjects came away from watching a group of notoriously difficult Year 11 boys leading younger pupils in a dance class thinking they were "model students", she says.
Now evidence is emerging to support the notion that boys' dance might have positive spin-offs into other areas of their school life. In the 1990s, Vic Ecclestone, a special needs teacher at Hartcliffe school, a large comprehensive in a deprived part of Bristol, set up a series of arts projects, including a hugely successful boys' dance group. Research by Education Extra, the extracurricular educational charity, found a "statistically significant" link between the arts activities and a sudden jump in boys' GCSE exam results: that cohort drew to within 0.3 per cent of the points score of the girls, an improvement of 9.5 percentage points on the previous year.
And as The TES reported in February, at Wildern school in Southampton, where ballet, contemporary and tap classes have been compulsory at key stage 3 for the past three years, boys outperformed girls at GCSE for the first time last year. Headteacher Jeffrey Threlfall believes dance has been a major factor in helping 70 per cent of boys achieve five A*-C GCSEs - a huge leap from 30 per cent in 1996. Mr Ecclestone, now arts development officer at the Colston hall in Bristol, says reading about that gave him "dej... vu".
The potential of dance to engage and motivate boys has been seen elsewhere, most notably at South Dartmoor community college in Devon (see box). Laura Kendal, a PhD student at the University of Surrey, looked at how the attitudes, attendance and achievement of boys involved changed over the course of several years. The attendance of one boy increased from 92 per cent to almost 98 per cent between Years 7 and 11 after he joined the group. Excerpts from end-of-year reports point to the powerful effect dance appears to have had on boys' development in other subjects. Ms Kendal's 80-page thesis testifies to the positive effects a stereotypically female art form can have on boys. Dance has, in the words of one senior teacher, "changed them from drop-out potential to high-energy, ambitious individuals".
Back at Dagenham Priory, pupils Derek (Year 7) and AK (Year 9) are dancing a duet, sparring gently in the middle of the floor. The others watch then offer encouraging comments. "It needs to be sharper," says one. "They should stand closer together," offers another. "That's good," says Curtis James. "You need to find where it pops and where it flows. Focus on each other. Now do it one more time." Derek and AK go through their paces again, concentrated and relaxed, absorbed in the dance.
To these boys, dance is a means of self-expression and a chance to shine.
It's unlike anything else on the curriculum, yet it impinges on everything else they do at school. On the wall of the studio are pasted sheets of paper, each with a single word. They read like a list of what is learned here: flexibility, control, confidence, co-ordination, mobility and strength. To which they could add another - success. Ahmet, the newest recruit to the class, explains: "Some people think boys can't dance. I want to make them understand, to show them we can do it."
National Dance Teachers Association, tel: 01543 685162; www.ndta.org.uk.
South Dartmoor community college, tel: 01364 652230; www.southdartmoor.devon.sch.ukhome.htm. Dagenham Priory, tel: 020 8270 4400; www.dagenham-priory.co.uk