How do you get boys interested in dance? Just don't mention ballet writes Carolyn O'Grady.
Until recently, Mark Chiverton thought dance "was girly, and just about ballet". This term, along with nine other male contemporaries at Stopsley High School - a designated sports college in Luton - 14-year-old Mark is talking about signing up for a GCSE in the subject. Now he's been converted. "It's something boys can get into," he says.
Daniel Saxty, who is in the same year, is equally enthusiastic. "Once you start getting into the movement, it gets your body moving. It feels good."
Mark and Daniel have been attending workshops run by Peter Francis, a dancer with contemporary and classical experience. The workshops have been organised across the school, for girls and boys, but success has been particularly marked among the boys. For some time, Stopsley has been seeking to promote dance, especially to boys as part of their school development plan, and Sara Mitchell, head of PE, is delighted with the progress so far. "This year, dance, as a GCSE, attracted 25 girls and no boys. Now we have about nine boys wanting to do it next year."
She says many of these boys had been exhibiting very challenging behaviour in class and several were even attending anger management sessions. So why is dance suddenly registering on their sensitive antennae for cool? "The reason boys don't like dance is that it's graceful and boys don't feel graceful", says Peter Francis. "You musn't scare them out of the class with classical music and 'be a cloud'. Most of the time they don't see what we teach at the workshops as dance."
This is dance by stealth, if you like, although that hardly seems the right word to describe his sessions. With the focus on rhythm, music is created by stamping and clapping increasingly complex rhythms with hands and feet, and these are combined with different types of jumps, turns, and kicks.
"While they're stamping and clapping, they're concentrating on that, not on how graceful they are," says Peter Francis.
He makes no secret of the fact that he is classically trained. In fact, he emphasises to students that anyone seriously interested in a career in dance has to do ballet. Inspired at the age of eight by Fred Astaire's films, he worked with the Northern Ballet School, the London Contemporary Dance School and the Ballet Rambert, before touring Europe with the hit show Stomp - a modern dance troupe which uses everyday objects, as well as their hands and feet, to create percussive music. His approach draws on these experiences and techniques he has devised himself.
Disdance, the company which he set up with his wife, has been working with primary, secondary and special schools throughout the country for about three years. (The first year was spent discovering what worked. "At the start we weren't making it challenging enough," he says.) At Stopsley, the workshops are proving more than just a successful luxury add-on. The students' new found love of movement and rhythm is reflected in the more formal lessons they attend. Specialist dance teacher Mandy Marsh (dance is a discrete subject on the school's curriculum), says: "Boys are more willing to participate in the national curriculum dance topics we're doing, and they want to learn more things. They're more focused and better behaved."
Moreover, the school is hopeful that some of the skills and attitudes they learn in dance, such as counting, concentration and teamwork, will be transferred to other areas of the curriculum. She says teachers are commenting on improvements in some students' behaviour and ability to focus. And comments from boys also suggest their optimism might be justified: "It gets you thinking. It gets your mind sharper," says Year 9 student Kinsey Williamson.
During a Year 9 workshop the boys concentrated and worked together without arguing to create short, but exciting routines. The workshop began with a warm-up game, which involved students copying increasingly complex routines. They were then taught a routine which encompassed many basic dance movements that were linked with rhythms covered in the warm-up.
Next they formed small groups and choreographed a short dance themselves, which included elements Peter Francis had specified. For example, students had to pass a movement from one person to another. They might stamp their feet three times and then the next person would do the same, and so on. If the timing is right this can be very exciting rhythmically. He also asked that each group member be given a short solo piece to do, which included an interesting way of swapping positions. Finally, each group performed its routine for the rest of the class.
Peter Francis is now contracted to run workshops at Stopsley for a year and is also working with the "family" of schools which surround it - two secondary schools and three primary feeders - taking some of the boys from Stopsley with him to demonstrate routines. He finds it more rewarding than performing. "If after a couple of months I've got 10 to 15 boys taking GCSE dance, then it's a job well done".
Disdance can be contacted at 215 Broadfield Road, Moss Side, Manchester M14 7JH. The company's website features teaching resources, synopses of work schemes available through the company, and video excerpts of dance routines Tel: 0161 227 8903www.disdance.com