Kevin Berry watches pupils learn wushu for a GCSE in applied performing arts
The change has been quite astonishing. Six boys are at one end of the Wortley High School gym. Moments ago they were kicking a ball around to the accompaniment of raucous shouts. Now the boys are silent, calm and thoroughly absorbed. They are copying the graceful yet dynamic movements of Seb Greenfield, one of two wushu teachers in the gym.
The movements are vaguely reminiscent of the red-costumed tai chi group we see just before BBC programmes start. Is this tai chi? Not exactly. This is wushu, and these boys are among the first students to enrol for a GCSE in applied performing arts based on wushu. The Chinese use the term wushu to cover fluid, continuous movements with a long tradition. Etiquette and respect are integral elements of wushu - respect for self, for your teacher and for each other. Some movements are taken from Chinese martial arts but there is nothing confrontational or competitive. Arts is the key word.
"It's all about empowerment," explains Seb a little later, "teaching people how to become more in control of their physical body and their mind. It helps keep you calm and keep a sense of discipline, and there is an overall improvement in health.
"This GCSE is designed for the alternative curriculum: for young people who are perhaps in danger of being excluded from school. Young people are coming to the classes full of energy but it's frustrated energy. There is also built-up tension which they find difficult to control. Wushu is a way of expressing that energy and it gives them a sense of achievement."
Vicky Middleton is the work-related learning skills co-ordinator at Wortley High School, in inner-city Leeds. She asked to be included in the GCSE when it was first announced. Four girls should be in the group but today they are absent.
"These are challenging students and to see them working together like this is fantastic," she says. "They have made real progress. They have developed their learning and their ideas of learning. We do get the occasional 'I can't do that', but then they do it and they want to do more."
Quiet words encourage poise and the correct placement of hands and feet.
The desire to get it right is palpable. Being better than someone else has not entered anyone's thinking. "Is this OK Seb?" asks Jonny May. Seb approves and Jonny continues. The boys are going through the first 10 movements of fay shou, a traditional flowing exercise sequence. It looks difficult. "Fay shou is also known as the flying hand," explains John Garland, the other wushu teacher. "It helps with balance, co-ordination, conditioning and keeping calm."
The wushu GCSE has been introduced by the College of Chinese Physical Culture and financed by the European Social Fund and the West Yorkshire Learning and Skills Council. The college, based in Leeds, teaches a particular style of wushu called weihai lishi quanfa which dates back more than 2,000 years. Three Leeds high schools have students who are taking this GCSE:Intake, John Smeaton and Wortley.
Comments from the Wortley High boys indicate both approval and pleasure at doing something different. There is loyalty to Seb and John. Seb suggests the reason: "We come to see them, no one else. We turn up every week and they appreciate that."
Now the mats are brought out. The boys roll forward in turn and spring up.
Then they go over a wooden horse, roll on a thick crash mat and spring up.
At the second or third attempt there is a wonderfully relaxed fluidity.
Time for a refreshing drink and a chat. Seb talks about the wushu-based performances that the group must choreograph and prepare as part of the course. The performances will take place in late spring before a primary school audience. Everyone will have to make costumes and masks and then market their performance. Work experience in Leeds theatres and with the city's major dance companies is included during the course.
"Will we wear masks?" asks Kasim Hussain. "Oh good." Kasim is relieved. In fact, he is happy. A performance could be embarrassing, he explains. Better do it with your face covered.
Then the boys show foot flow patterns. They spring from a trampette, clear a wooden horse and, as they fly through the air, execute a kicking movement. Vicky Middleton has the expression of a deeply satisfied teacher.
lThe Chinese College of Physical Culture holds regular classes in many centres throughout the UK and in other countries. The college has teaching packages for all age groups and all abilities.
Tel: 0113 2930 630 www.ccpc.ac.uk
* The term wushu, literally translated as "military arts", is used in China to describe all forms of exercise that use the hands and body. It can be likened to the term athletics in English.
* Traditional wushu, as practised at Wortley High School, is a non-competitive discipline based on Daoist principles.
* Traditional wushu is used extensively at the Beijing Opera.
* The first World Traditional Wushu Tournament was held in Zhengzou, China, in 2004. The second will be held in the same city this year.
* Competitive or modern wushu was formed in the 1950s, and is now China's national sport. This form encompasses a wide variety of fighting styles, involving everything from bare hands to guns.
* Film star Jet Li won China's National Wushu Championships five times.
* The International Wushu Federation tried and failed to have competitive wushu included as an Olympic sport at the 2008 Games in Beijing.