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Tune your soul and move those feet

A shocked silence from GCSE students at Bishop Challoner Girls' School, Tower Hamlets, greets New Yorker Kewyao Agyapon's casual remark: "Are you familiar with the classics?" Then the tape recorder blasts "Shaggy Ragga" and the class visibly relaxes into swinging walks ("elbows in. . . deeper. . . deeper!"), gradually whooping up energy into an uninhibited fit of clapping.

For the only group of GCSE dance students in Tower Hamlets, this is a rare opportunity to experience a masterclass from Forces of Nature, one of New York's most acclaimed Black performance companies, which has been flown over by Deptford's Albany Theatre as part of Ancient Futures, its recent International Black Dance Theatre season.

This celebration of vernacular dance springs from multiple fusions of traditional African and Caribbean dance, with western contemporary and classical ballet, including the Jamaican L'Acadco and Albany-based Afro-Caribbean IRIE Dance Theatre's Rude Girls' Party, a collaboration with dub poet Jean Binta Breeze and theatre director Yvonne Brewster.

Seeing its mission as "creating a living book to experience the mythologies and accomplishments of the African diaspora and its influence in American dance", Forces of Nature has a 15-year history of working with American schools and community centres.

"Philosophy is more important than the dance," says company dance artist Tina Bush. During a snappy, classically-based, jazz warm-up aided by African drums and percussion, she strolls around, teaching calm isolation exercises that assume an understanding of classical ballet terms. "Elongate the rib cage, hinge the pelvis, swing with a flat back and rebound; degage; lift the leg 45 degrees from a tendue into a 90 degrees battement."

"Life is difficult," she advises a class struggling valiantly to translate her brisk commands. "It takes pain and concentration. You have to push your body."

For this mixed-ability group of 14 and 15-year-olds with only six months of dance training, but responding magnificently during a long session of hard slog, it's a lesson in self-empowerment as much as dance. Dancer Peter Moore fronts a snappy street-dance to ragga rap music. "Stop telling yourselves you can't do stuff. Give yourselves a chance." he shouts. "The mind controls the body."

In a bright yellow, African T-shirt, head scarf and wrap, Fritzlyn Hector teaches a traditional harvest dance from Mali to a drum beat. "It's just two steps," she says, airily scudding along with a toss of her head. But as these disciplined steps become progressively more demanding, the class collapses exhausted on the floor.

Clustering round the dancers, animatedly laughing and clapping for more, the group eagerly anticipates the company's own brand of ritual storytelling, "choreodrama", during a packed Albany diary that includes subsidised schools' performances, a conference on issues facing black dancers and special needs and college workshops.

This international initiative was funded by the London Arts Board, Deptford City Challenge and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, expanding the Albany's outreaching educational work.

Norma Cohen

* Albany Centre, Douglas Way, London SE8 4AG (Education Officer: 0181 691 3277).

* IRIE workshops, sponsored by Marks and Spencer, tel: 0181 691 6099.

* London dates for IRIE Dance Theatre's Connecting Vibes: Albany Theatre, October 16-19; Yorkshire Gardens, November 2; City and Islington College, November 20-21; Jackson's Lane, December 5-7; Cochrane Theatre, January 14-18 1997.

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