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Animated Edition - Winter 2005
Signature moves
No longer bothered by the stereotype that dance is for girls, the Holloway Boyz are proud to dance. Kate Scanlan explains
In March 2002 the 180-strong teenage audience in the Lilian Baylis Theatre, London, erupted with cheering and wolf whistles. The cause? 16 teenage boys, pupils at what was then called Holloway Boys School. The Boyz were demonstrating their skill and passion for dance with impressive back flips, body popping and Michael Jackson style routines. This was my first encounter with a group of young men that have become the Holloway Boyz.

When Jackie Sherren joined the staff as Head of Dance and Drama there was no dance in the school. Jackie is a professional dancer and teacher who trained at the Young Dancers Theatre, before studying for a BA in Dance and Drama, and a Bachelor of Education (Hons) from Deakin University and forming her own dance company, all in Australia. When she started teaching at the school the response of its 600 male pupils was that dance was not for them - it was for girls. Jackie notes that things began to change when, "some of the big boys started coming to the class and they set a great example. I began to see how much dance was doing for their self-esteem and self-worth."

Two years later and the new head teacher, Bob Hamlyn, describes an environment in which everyone dances. The school, now mixed, has dropped the 'Boys' from its name, and has 800 pupils. It's a dynamic school where the intake reflects its local ethnically diverse community. It was the combination of raw young talent and the commitment, creativity and leadership from Jackie that sparked the Sadler's Wells/Holloway School relationship.

Since the start of this relationship, the Boyz, aged between eleven and 16, have become regular visitors to Sadler's Wells as performers and audience members. They have wowed guests at a private gala for Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker, held end of year school productions at the theatre and showcased one of Jackie's projects between Holloway School and the Bridge School, for children with special needs.

Sadler's Wells' Holloway Boyz project gained financial support in 2004 from Mellon Financial Incorporation. Announcing the sponsorship, Jack Klinck, Vice-Chairman of Mellon Financial Incorporation and Chairman of Mellon Europe said they are proud to support the project because it, "provides such strong role models for young people... We know how much dance can do to change people's lives and this project really brings that point home strongly." The partnership is about providing access for this group of young men to world-class artists, to their performance and education work and to the theatre itself. It is about opportunity, excellence, progression, and fostering talent. This partnership has also won a cash investment through New Partners, a scheme run by Arts & Business, the national charity dedicated to encouraging and sustaining arts/business partnerships.

Through its work, the connection with Sadler's Wells team aims to open up the theatre and its artists to the local community, providing participation on all levels and challenging preconceptions of dance and theatre. The Boyz are no longer bothered by the stereotype that dance is for girls. They are proud to dance, and their teacher has trained them to look beyond their current knowledge, Nabeel Ahmed is certain that, "you don't have to stick to one dance type" and fellow member Femi Richardson adds that, "you can mix different styles of dance together". The selection of artists for the project aims to challenge the group widening their understanding of dance and at the same time develop their skills in street dance and Hip-Hop, their favourite form.

In 2004 the group tasted ballet with Dance Theatre of Harlem and PUSH (working with Benjamin Love). They got the 'Krump' Hip-Hop vibe from pioneer Hip-Hop artist Tommy the Clown (USA), developed their lifting and duet work with the Ballet Boys, explored the athleticism required by The Fondation Jean-Pierre Perreault, and got inside the characters and bird-like qualities of Matthew Bourne's all-male Swan Lake. London-based artist Kuldip Singh is working alongside the Boyz throughout the project and creating a new work with them drawn from their experiences.

Tommy the Clown is the Hip-Hop dance artist responsible for devising the hottest new style and vocabulary in Hip-Hop dance. Tommy is based in Los Angeles where there are now countless crews who Krump and Clown in major dance battles. In May 2004, Tommy and two of his crew led a residency with the Boyz. The artists captured the imagination of the Boyz immediately when they arrived in full clown make-up with intricate designs hand-painted by each clown. The music and emphasis on battle was well matched to the group. The interesting learning curve for the Boyz was that the artists wanted them to maintain their individuality; Krumping is about adding to your style, not changing it. This reinforced the way that the Boyz work with their teacher Jackie where individuality and personal skill is celebrated in each young man.

Progression is a key word in education these days and for this group it is no different. Dance for these Boyz is a passion, and they spend all their spare time doing it. The artists working on the project each give an Aspire Talk, talking about their route into dance and their life as an artist. The routes are varied, ranging from starting ballet at the age of 5 to taking a ballet class aged 22 to improve the chances of getting a place on the national American Football squad! The Boyz were pleasantly surprised. Opportunities for work experience and technical training at Sadler's Wells and at Mellon will provide them with the opportunity to try it out.

In addition to the workshop programme, the project has been designed to develop the appreciative and analytical skills of the group through performance trips. It also aims to develop their performance skills through increased opportunities for them to perform.

The Boyz now get to see a lot of dance, in 2004 they saw 19 professional dance companies/artists perform at Sadler's Wells and this informs their taste and preferences for dance. In May 2004 they were part of the line-up at Breakin' Convention, the UK's first international festival of Hip Hop Dance Theatre, a collaboration between Sadler's Wells and Jonzi D's company Still Brock Productions. The young performers were cheered by an audience of 1,800 and also won plaudits from mainstream dance critics. Clement Crisp (Financial Times, 22 May 2004), summed it up when he wrote, "What was I doing bellowing for the Holloway Boyz....No more than I should, in such surroundings. The dancers were splendid, and we wanted every yelp to drive them on to further spins and wild balances... to more eye-defeating tricks... I can record that the young performers of... Holloway Boyz were admirable." Zoe Anderson (The Independent) applauded their confidence, virtuoso steps and sense of style in her review.

In post workshop/show conversations with Jackie, words like, 'complicated', 'controlled', 'excellent', 'weird', 'inspirational', 'spooky', and 'relaxing' crop up as the experiences of the group are deconstructed. It is interesting to hear them battle out their preferences and there is usually a mix of responses. At school Jackie encourages each of the Boyz to develop a signature move. With such an age range, this means all bring something special to add to the collective whole. The Boyz mentor each other, share in each other's successes and strive to reach their true potential. Year 10 student Efrem Semreab said, "It makes me want to dance forever. I'm being open to all types of dance and learning to adapt. I'm surprised at how high I can jump and how I can memorise a phrase quickly."

What does the future hold? Jackie Sherren and Holloway School, in collaboration with Sadler's Wells, are educating - and learning from - a group of superb young men with an increasingly developed understanding of dance. Through the work of the school they are going on to study at local colleges. Of the two who went on to study Sports Science at City and Islington College last year, Prince Offori-Atta returns regularly to work with the group and try out his choreographic ideas. In the current ranks of the group there are at least two who aspire to be performers. Whether or not they make a career in dance, they will take confidence, creativity, achievement and fantastic memories into their adult lives.

Sadler's Wells is learning from this project too. This is very much a collaboration with Jackie and the school; without the ongoing work that Jackie does with the Boyz there would be no project. Sadler's Wells provides the input from its visiting companies, and the resources of its team to support. This project is as much a learning curve for the artistic team as it is for the Boyz. As I learnt to perfect my first half-windmill in a recent session led by Kuldip Singh, the Boyz were shouting, "Go miss. Go Kate, wow, she's on her neck". Good advice on how to protect my neck and dance safely was forthcoming, demonstrating the Boyz are not only developing dance skills but also a calm and focused approach to teaching and communicating.

The Holloway Boyz will be performing new works by Jackie Sherren and Kuldip Singh at the culmination of the project in February 2005 at the Lilian Baylis Theatre.

Kate Scanlan is a freelance dance artist in education and project co-ordinator for the Holloway Boyz. Contact: katescanlan@hotmail.com

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Animated: Winter 2005