OVER the last six years, schoolchildren across Belfast have been dancing their way to fitness, confidence, and greater self-esteem thanks to the innovative ‘Teenage Kicks’ programme offered by Belfast City Council.

The scheme mirrors the rise in popularity of contemporary dance as a hobby among young people, with shows such as ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and ‘Got To Dance’ featuring troupes of high-energy youths jiving and back-flipping their way to success.

Conceived by the council’s Sports Development Officer Claire Moraghan in conjunction with dance and training enthusiast Freddie Kinnersly of Energy Fitness, the pair saw the potential to develop a programme that would target not just the typical classroom sporty types, but those who feel marginalised in school fitness activity, offering them a chance to get motivated without trying out for the football or hockey teams.

In previous years, the team have visited local schools to find pupils keen to take part, but this year a new format has been introduced, with open ‘X-Factor’ style auditions in Belfast City Hall.

Once chosen, the youngsters will complete an intensive eight week course covering varying styles of dance and movement, and at the end will put on a stunning show open to friends and family at one of the city’s most iconic performance venues, the Waterfront Hall.

In an interview with the Belfast Media Group, Claire spoke of how ‘Teenage Kicks’ has grown in popularity, and even attracted greater numbers of boys to forgo their traditional football and gaelic training in favour of high kicks and shimmys.

“One of the things we hope to achieve every year is attracting kids who don’t normally play or join in with sport at school,” she explained.

“We have found that we are really able to connect with these teens, and that dance is a fantastic way to build their self esteem. Throughout the programme we monitor their confidence levels, and the change is often remarkable. Even the parents tell us they notice they have come out of their shells.

“Many also go on afterwards to join dance groups, as they love the skills they learn on our course, and want to continue the sport. Of course I have to thank Freddie for this as his enthusiasm is infectious, he really connects with the kids and gets them motivated about dance as a really fun way of keeping fit.”

Of course it’s no surprise to learn that more girls than boys are attracted to apply for the programme, however times are steadily changing, and each year sees more boys deciding dance is the sport for them.

“In De La Salle in West Belfast, for example, the boys are now fighting over the places on the programme,” Claire continues.

“They’re even missing their GAA and soccer practise because they would rather learn to dance. It’s brilliant to see more young males take part and they find it’s not as easy as they might imagine as it can be a real physical workout so it keeps them fit. Freddie also has a bit of a boxing background and a lot of the moves he teaches have elements of this and even martial arts in them which is a draw for the young males.”

Children from special needs schools are also getting on board, often “stealing the show” according to Claire.

Meanwhile, the cross community element of ‘Teenage Kicks’ means that some youngsters are dancing alongside peers they might not otherwise get the chance to meet.

“We have discovered a few ‘across the barricade’ romances have occurred as well during the course, and it’s always good to see teens from different backgrounds coming together and making friendships that don’t end when the course finishes.”

The open auditions are taking place this year on Sunday January 22 and anyone aged between 12 and 15, who is interested in the medium of dance, is free to come along and try it out. The judges are not necessarily looking for dance skill, as enthusiasm is the key to making the most of the course, and so no previous experience is required.

“For those who are chosen, they will get to try a range of dance styles, including the ever-popular street dance, which fuses elements of hip-hop with more classical moves to create a dazzling style.

“With enthusiasm and willingness to work as part of a team the experience can be life changing  so we expect demand to be higher this year than ever before.”

To register for the open audition, log onto www.belfastcity.gov.uk/teenagekicks, or by contacting 90 320202.