Dance yourself dizzy

WHEN last May, Ant & Dec, the Britain's Got Talent presenters, stood on stage during the final of Simon Cowell's hit ITV show, flanked by the two final acts and poised to announce the winner, everyone knew that Scotland's own Susan Boyle had it in the bag.

Sure, the charismatic street dance troupe Diversity had played a blinder, easily out-performing Boyle, but then SuBo's now infamous audition had also become the most watched video of all time on YouTube, clocking up more than 100 million hits, and her story had captivated the nation. How do you compete with that?

And so no-one looked more surprised than Diversity when they were announced the winners, voted in by the Great British Public over Scotland's – nay the world's – most famous rags to riches story.

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Street dance – once the preserve of, well, the street – was being embraced by the mega-mainstream in the form of Cowell's influential army of followers.

Dancing is no stranger to primetime weekend TV, as the various versions of Strictly – with or without celebrities and on or off the ice – attest. But this month, taking their turn in the telly spotlight are the kinds of dance that don't involve a boy and a girl and a fancy two-step. Centre stage are forms of dance that were, until recently, found on the cultural margins.

Two new prime-time dance-based television shows: Sunday night's Got To Dance, presented by Davina McCall on Sky and featuring Diversity's Ashley Banjo as one of the judges; and BBC1's So You Think You Can Dance? presented by Cat Deeley on Saturday evenings, are making a point of showcasing world dance, street dance, body-popping and – most surprisingly – the kind of contemporary dance routines previously reserved for the most rarified late-night arts programmes.

BBC1's Strictly Come Dancing – wherein celebrities compete alongside professional ballroom dancers – may have pulled in a decent share of Saturday night viewers since it launched in 2004 but has looked pretty dated from the beginning.

It had its roots in Come Dancing, a show that first appeared on our screens back in 1949. The sequins, smiles, Lycra and hairspray may have been entertainment enough for some viewers, but they were hardly going to get a generation of young people tapping their toes the way Michael Jackson did back in the Eighties.

Got To Dance and So You Think You Can Dance? both follow similar formats to talent shows such as The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, but focus solely on dancing and incorporate a wide range of styles from hip hop to jazz. Crashing on to peak viewing television, their popularity (So You Think You Can Dance? pulled in eight million viewers in its first week) is evidence that the nation is a wallflower no longer and is ready to take to the dancefloor. Not only that, it's looking for some new moves.

It appears that we're seeing only the beginning of dance's domination of our TV screens. London's legendary Pineapple Studios in Covent Garden will be the focus of an eight-part documentary starting on Sky 1 in February, and insiders say a large proportion of this year's Britain's Got Talent hopefuls are youngsters who want to be professional dancers.

Our new-found obsession with dance is nowhere more apparent that at Dance Base in Edinburgh's Grassmarket where, on a wet evening last week, dance enthusiasts of all ages and backgrounds filled the building.

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Toddlers were chased around by their parents (the centre offers classes for pre-schoolers) while a group of middle-aged women learned flamenco in one studio, a younger group tackled hip hop in another, and the spectacle of a lit-up Edinburgh Castle loomed overhead.

Hip hop is one of the fastest-growing courses at the centre, with organisers having to put on extra classes to meet demand in recent years. When they recently staged a one-off workshop for participants to learn the dance to Beyonc's hit Single Ladies, it sold out so quickly that extra classes had to be put on and there was still a big waiting list.

A spokesperson for Dance Base, where more than 2,000 people attend classes every week, said: "Over the past couple of years we've seen a rise in demand for hip hop classes and added more of them to the programme. Dancers love them as they're always a fun way to get fit to current chart music. More and more people come to other non-traditional styles of dance such as burlesque, pole dancing and hula-hooping too."

So why has dance captured the nation's collective imagination? Perhaps because, while we're happy to watch The X Factor, when it comes to dance we can actually participate – even if it is just a little shimmy – regardless of age or ability. Not many of us can pick up a microphone and successfully belt out a spot of Tina Turner, but most of us can at least tap our feet to a beat, and from village halls to slick dance centres, access to nearby classes is easy. Each week, five million people in the UK attend a dance class.

Dance is now the second most popular physical activity among schoolchildren (the first among girls) and the number of people taking dance in further education is up 97 per cent in the past five years.

A remake of the 1984 dance flick Footloose is due to hit UK cinemas in June and even the Department of Health has caught on to the zeitgeist, this month launching its Let's Dance campaign, which aims to tackle obesity.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that this is happening at a time when dances that were once seen as specialist, underground or even inaccessible and intimidating have suddenly entered the mainstream.

Pole and burlesque dancing, both once viewed as a bit naughty, are now staples on the fitness circuit. Breakdancing and hip hop are no longer exclusively for young men, and classes are available in everything from West African dance to aerial work.

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In terms of capturing the imagination of young people though, it's the street dances which are proving most popular. In addition to Diversity, children are inspired by other Britain's Got Talent alumni like George Sampson and Flawless.

Street dance is also getting bigger on the arts circuit. Zoo Nation's clever Into The Hoods was one of the smash-hit shows of the Fringe in 2007 and since then a number of street dance shows have proven equally successful. Scottish troupes including Random Aspekts and Freshmess are firmly established on the scene, and dance events like Breakin' Convention and The Dancin' have proved hugely successful in Scotland in recent years.

The smash-hit production Off Kilter is currently touring Scotland, in which dancers perform ten short pieces reflecting Scottish culture, with everything from Bollywood dancers in tartan saris to a witty interpretation of Archie Gemmill's famous World Cup goal.

Like Diversity and similar street dance troupes of their ilk, Off Kilter acknowledge that incorporating a bit of humour and plenty of pop culture references endears dance to the masses. And the high-energy feel and cool-factor associated with the whole culture – from the clothing to the music – is hugely attractive to children and the young.

Ashley Jack, who teaches hip hop classes at Dance Base and has recently established Edinburgh's first all-female hip hop group, says: "People absolutely love to watch hip hop and breakdancing which are both really entertaining and impressive. The great thing is that now they actually want to try it too, and in bigger and bigger numbers. It's a really exciting time."

You dancin'?