United we dance

Ismail, 15, is proud of the jump he has learnt in dance training. He springs into the air; legs fine as wishbones buckle under him then flip out as he lands, with stylish gracefulness, in a finishing pose.

Three months ago, dance and pride were not part of Ismail’s life. He was a classic disaffected youngster – in trouble at school, hanging out with “bad” friends, his mother despairing at the way he was going. Ismail’s social worker suggested that the newly opened Dance United Academy based in King’s Cross, London, might help him. It offers an innovative dance training programme designed to rehabilitate young offenders and children at risk of offending. Ismail was accepted and has since spent six hours a day, five days a week on the rigorous programme, with a cohort of nine others.

Director Siobhan Maguire-Swartz’s delight in working with these troubled and troublesome youngsters is evident, although she is the first to get tough if they fail to arrive on time, if their attitudes are bad, or if their behaviour towards others is abusive and unco-operative. “Because the programme is about teaching social as well as physical skills, [the students] must be seen to put real effort into how they behave,” explains Maguire-Swartz. “Our aim is to help them see what they are capable of and to make more constructive choices for their lives.”

“I didn’t know if I could stick it at first,” says Atakan, 13, “but this has been the best place to learn how to change myself.”

The London Academy, one of three nationally (another will open in Winchester in June), followed the success of the pioneering Dance United Academy in Bradford, where magistrates sentence young offenders to dance rather than to community service or spells in prison. Significantly, an independent evaluation of the Bradford academy, conducted after two years, showed that between 2006-2008 less than 33 per cent of trainees reoffended after leaving – markedly lower than the local reoffending rate of those with other types of sentence. Among 81 participants traced, 80 per cent were in education, training or employment.

It is the night of the group’s final performance and Ismail is wearing linen trousers and a matching jacket. As he performs his spectacular jump, the jacket flies open flashing a spotted lining. The audience applauds and, at the front, his mother sits beaming as though her heart would burst.

Dance United is currently seeking new funding. www.dance-united.com

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