Taking part in regular dance classics seems to develop self-discipline, initiative and maturity. But how do you get British boys, who traditionally see dancing as a girlie passtime, to join in? Kevin Berry finds a streetwise dance company that may just have the answer
It's pass the box of tissues time. Whenever the dancers of the RJC company work in schools the reaction is always the same. They take a group of young people, work with them and produce a performance that startles the parents. Many of them are not used to seeing their children perform on stage, not used to being proud of them, and the tears flow.
One mum in south London recently said: "My boy would normally be outside smoking or stealing cars. Then he came back home after his first dance class and he was practising all the time in his bedroom, saying - 'Mum, watch me, watch, watch!' Since then he's been home on time, he's been tidy, he wants his food and he wants a bath! He's getting up in the morning, can't wait to get back to dancing. And he's doing better in his school work."
The RJC dance company - the initials stand for reggae, jazz and contemporary - was founded in Leeds six years ago. All its dancers and choreographers are black, and they specialise in dance forms that reflect the black experience. Their theatre work is thrilling, often so exciting it could stir the dust on Mars. Some of RJC's founders were in the now nationally renowned, black, Leeds-based Phoenix Dance company when it first started in 1981. They formed RJC because they believe that much contemporary dance lacks excitement and passion. They also wanted very much to teach.
The dancersteachers have an almost spiritual commitment to education and are especially concerned that dance should have an exciting image with teenage boys. Young Men Dancing, the company's new outreach programme, hopes to encourage young men, aged from 14 to 20, to take part in regular dance classes; groups are being set up in Swindon, Leeds, Kent, Gloucester and London. And girls need not worry about being neglected: the company also has four enthusiastic female dancers.
RJC's artistic director, Edward Lynch, says: "We want to make dance accessible. Education, British education, British teachers opened our eyes to dance. We're putting something back. Our message is that dance is for everyone."
At a morning workshop in Blyth, Northumberland, a mixed group of Year 11 pupils from nearby Cramlington County High School, who will be starting a GNVQ performing arts course in September, has gathered. The boys have not done much dance before and look awkward and apprehensive. Two of them are wearing Newcastle United shirts and would probably be happier kicking a football outside.
Facing them is RJC's De Napoli Clarke. He starts with some warm-up routines to the vibrant sound of garage music. The warm-up lasts almost 40 minutes and by the end the boys are hot and sweaty. But there's no moaning.
De Napoli exhorts them to push themselves further, encouraging them to go to the limit. Everything is "Wicked, man!". But he does not spend all his time demonstrating, nor is he always at the front of the class. The blasts of energy from the dancing soon has the blinds on the windows bouncing.
The boys and girls are working on their own, not looking at each other to keep in time. The rapid change in the boys is remarkable; you can see the beginnings of grace and precision appear as they try out movements on their own, unembarrassed, dashing into the centre of the room when their turn comes. They are very keen and, always a good sign, they are soon no longer looking at their own feet.
De Napoli turns his attention to reggae, his favourite music, and the delight can be seen in his face and body. The young people aren't quite getting it, though, so he stops them. Technique is important.
"Hey man, you can't fake reggae," De Napoli grins. "Listen to that base line, let it get to your head and your heart. Let me see the rhythm."
He sways once. Moments later everyone in the group is moving as if reggae is second nature to them - the pelvic ripples are astonishing. Moving on to a hip-hop style also presents no problems - the boys' and girls' movements are brisk, punchy and confident. Then someone notices the time. Two hours have shot by and one of the boys remarks that he is hungry. The class looks tired but not weary.
"It's really easy to pick up," says one student, Trevor Cox. "You just seem to know where to go. I was very surprised. I didn't think I would ever do anything like this."
"You feel really good when you're doing it, the music moves you," says another student, Paul McFarlene. "It was fixed in your head, like you could draw a picture and you could see the picture in your head."
Morag Greaney, their teacher, is beaming: "Great. No embarrassment, no thoughts of being a sissy, no awkwardness and they all wanted to do it."
De Napoli knew he wanted to teach dance from the moment he first tried a dance class, as did his colleague Leo Hamilton.
"With me it's all about moments of revelation," says Leo. "Moments when you realise that they understand what you're teaching. The moments are small and infrequent. Dance teaching is not about length of lessons or big things - it's those moments."
De Napoli explains how the enormous physical energy required of dancing saved him from getting into trouble. "When I was bored, I used to distract people in class, I had so much energy. If it wasn't for dance, I would have been using it in the wrong way. When I did dance I was really tired because there was so much work involved."
Lloyd Marshall, headteacher of Dulwich High School for Boys, in south London, which RJC has also visited recently, saw the same effects in his pupils. "What astounded me was that, following the visit, a group of our boys formed their own dance group. Being involved in a workshop brought home to them that just putting on a record and jigging about is not enough. I saw a marked difference in terms of their maturity; they showed fortitude, initiative and remarkable self-discipline."
De Napoli gets such a kick out of teaching dance that he says he wants to do it for the rest of his life. Lowering his voice he says: "I'm past simply loving it - it's more than that."
For details of RJC's Young Men Dancing programme and other workshops and residencies, tel: 0113 239 2040?