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Making it cool

Rachel Hutchinson (right) was a child gymnast who took A-level dance before training as a PE teacher. She is now head of dance at South Devon community college in Newton Abbott, Devon

When I was appointed here in 1997, there was little dance in the curriculum for boys. There was no dance club for them. Boys weren't really a focus. So we brought a couple of dance companies in to do workshops, but that didn't really work - they were too advanced and it was putting the boys off rather than encouraging them.

I thought those I needed to get involved were the most energetic, demanding boys, the ones who struggled with the curriculum, the non-attenders. I wanted to give dance an attitude, to make it hip. I knew if I could get those boys involved, the extroverts and the characters, it would take off.

So I got them all together and asked them what they felt their reputation was - what they thought the teachers thought of them.

All this negative stuff came out. Then I asked them: "How would you like to do something that would surprise the teachers?" They all said: "What's that got to do with you; you're a dance teacher, you're not expecting us to dance are you, Miss?" I said: "I'm going to start a dance project and I'm expecting you to attend. Give me four weeks and, if at the end of it you say, 'This is not for me, I feel stupid doing this', that's fine, but we're going to try to turn things around for you."

I started with about 40 boys, and by the end of the four weeks about 20 were left. With some of these lads, just getting them to attend was a nightmare. I asked them what they didn't like about dance and they said they felt exposed and embarrassed because they couldn't move, they didn't like making things up because they had no ideas - all the things you would expect lads to say.

I took them to the sports hall and did lots of fast-paced, dynamic movement - running around, falling, stopping and starting. I taught them how to catch each other safely, and some martial arts rolls.

The project really took off. I was coming into school one Sunday to work with them and they were all turning up on their skates and skateboards and jumping over dustbins in the car park. They were doing things that were adventurous and risky, so I thought, let's take that and use it. Their enthusiasm was fantastic. It was the most amazing project I have ever worked on. I have never seen so much development in such a short time. They were starting to be creative without realising it. We ended up taking the show round eight sports colleges.

These were boys from Year 8 to Year 10, and I got the core group to do the GCSE. They thought: "If we can do another exam that's practical and not in a classroom, we'll do it."

I go into other schools (as an advanced skills teacher) and ask: "Why do you want boys to dance?" and they say: "Because boys should do dance." But a lot of energy goes in the wrong direction. In some schools, they say: "We are doing street dance, we love it." But when they try to get boys to do something else they don't want to know. You have got to make a curriculum that fits the students rather than saying, this is what we are doing and making them do it.

I wanted boys to do dance because I believed they could get something from it that they don't get from anything else in the curriculum - creativity.

When you see strong adolescent lads exposing themselves to their emotions it is amazing. It's telling teenage boys that it's OK to be honest about how they are feeling and express it. It's not about making lots of Billy Elliots. Some have gone on to do degrees in dance, one lad got a scholarship to the Laban Centre. But I don't want all these boys to be dancers. I want to give them another aspect to their lives, another way of accessing their emotions. My heroes are the ones who have done it to a high level and aren't going to be dancers.

There's one lad doing A-levels now - he must be 6ft 1in and 16 stone - and in September he's joining the Marines. He told them all about it at interview because he's proud of what dance has given him.

Rachel Hutchinson was talking to Harvey McGavin

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