Get into the grove

10th October 2003 at 01:00
A form of New York City street culture is changing attitudes at a North Yorkshire school. Ian Lamming reports

The student has attitude. It's obvious from his stance and clothes. It's got him into trouble in the past, but right now it's an advantage.

He is the first on the floor and as the heavy bass hammers out its shattering beat, he spins on his head, before moving like a caterpillar back to his place. He gets the attention he wants as the room erupts into applause. He smiles. He's got respec', he's cool.

"He is one the 'characters' of the school," admits Paul Jackson, headteacher of St John Fisher Catholic High School in Harrogate. "But at least this time everyone is noticing him for the right reasons." That is what the school's dance project is all about.

He is young and enthusiastic but, through dance he's finding skills he never knew he had, such as timing, balance, spatial awareness, strength and suppleness. He even helps the other students in the class, coaching them on how to swipe, spin and flair - the technical names for the moves he's an expert at performing. This is street culture New York City-style, and it's turning around attitudes in north Yorkshire.

"School is about engaging students, so you have to find out what they want to do," says Paul Jackson. "Through dance it has become cool to do things in school with teachers. It gets students to buy into school and once they feel they can do something well, this confidence spills over into everything else."

Dance has been on the curriculum since the school gained art status, giving it the funding to afford the pound;2,000 a quarter fees, which come from the Department for Education and Skills via North Yorkshire County Council's education service. Dance is taught for nine weeks throughout key stages 3-5 and is delivered within the arts rotation programme, along with drama, music and art. At KS4, pupils can study GCSE dance and GNVQ performing arts and, from the beginning of this term, AS-level dance has been introduced into KS5, making the school the only one in Harrogate offering the qualification.

Boys and girls are taught separately, with head of dance Claire Noonan taking the latter. "The aim is to use dance to develop each pupil spiritually, encouraging cultural and moral awareness," she says. "We introduced breakdance to break down any barriers stopping boys from dancing. It is such a popular genre with the likes of Justin Timberlake bringing it to the fore."

The boys' sessions are run by the professional dance group Streetdance Workshops for Schools who stage classes all over the country and comprises 17 teachers and specialists, including Spike (Simon Dawbarn) from the band 911. Workshop director Jonathan Fatimilehin says the boys get a sense of achievement from breakdancing: "They have already absorbed the dance concept through the television so there is no sense of awkwardness when they have a go. In fact you can often find them practising in the playground at lunchtime and after school."

"In Salford and Trafford, Manchester, the programme is being funded as part of the Healthy Schools Initiative. So even though only 1 per cent of the children you see will go on to become dancers, 99 per cent still benefit," says Jonathan Fatimilehi.

Breakdance originated from the streets of New York in the 1970s. It's a mix of a Brazilian art form, martial arts and jazz. Streetdance's sessions are tailored to meet schools' needs and the dance company also teaches flamenco, tap, stomp, salsa, line dancing, contemporary dance, hip hop and cheerleading.

Instructor Lloyd McIntosh leads the boys through a variety of moves and then they try to follow suit. "They get into it big time," he says. "They pick up the routines really quickly."

There is a long waiting list to join the breakdancing classes. For the lucky ones taking part, the session is over all too soon and the students move on to normal lessons buoyed by the experience - all brimming with the right sort of attitude.

Streetdance Workshops for Schools charge from pound;110 per session Tel: 070 50178834

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