How did a depressed former mining village in Yorkshire manage to breed a troupe of internatonal dance champions? Pete Davies meets the Classics
Where once thousands of men went down into the earth, where once there was a mighty and arduous enterprise, nothing remains now but a scene of monochrome desolation. In the distance lies a crescent of slag heaps; the foreground is flattened dirt and concrete strewn with chunks of broken brick. Everything has been blown up or towed away. Before too long, I suppose, it will be countryside again, and you will be able to look at it and never know that Frickley Colliery existed.

It did, for 90 years, before it was closed in the week before Christmas 1993. South Kirkby had already gone before that, and Grimethorpe over the hill towards Barnsley, and Kinsley drift mine just the other side of Hemsworth. These villages now, blurring into each other, marooned in the rolling country between Wakefield and Doncaster, don't have a lot to shout about. In some places, half the men are out of work; the women work instead, for pittance wages in tin barns on new industrial estates. I know one woman bringing home pounds 93 a week, and that's normal.

It's not a piece of the country you hear about, unless the news gets worse than usual. There was the hideous rape and murder of a woman in her nineties last year; that'll be in court soon, and might raise a headline. At the Hemsworth & South Elmsall Express, editor Charles Gardener speaks of low morale, widespread drug use, a spirit of violence about the place. Across the road from his office, business in the market fades away, and many stalls stand untenanted. The main street has charity shops and ex- catalogue discount stores; crumpled scratchcards blow across the car-parks of low-cost supermarkets. The cashless society? This is it, literally.

Gardener says: "We're not on the map here. They've forgotten us in the rest of Yorkshire, never mind the rest of the country. The place needs a reason for being again, and it hasn't got one."

South Elmsall is, in short, unpromising terrain, and the dingy doorway between William Hill the bookmaker's on one side and a tatty old branch of Freeman Hardy Willis on the other doesn't look as if it holds much promise either. There are three wooden panels for businesses to put name plates on, but they're bare. Then you notice that on one of them someone's written, in black felt tip, a graffito scrawl: "Dance class".

Up a dim staircase, past Rod Jackson, Creative Photography, and Bridal Hire & Buy (Also Wedding Cakes), the Gill School of Dance in the top floor studio is a surprising draft of light and airiness. Big windows look out across the worn little town; the ceiling arches over the sprung ballroom floor. "It must have been for dancing originally," says Hilda Gill, "though in the War they had machine tools on it. But when I got it 15 years ago you could see daylight through the roof."

She won't tell you how old she is - she admits only to being "over 21" - but people say she's been teaching dance in South Elmsall for ever. One woman, plainly awestruck, says: "When you talk up close with her, OK, you can tell she's knocking on. But she's that trim, if you saw her walking down street you'd think she were 20."

Upright and limber beneath feathered blond hair, Hilda is living proof that dancing is good for you - and her six-strong dance troupe, the Classics, are good for South Elmsall, too. Winners of a national competition in January, they have just returned from Russia, where they represented Britain at the International Youth Dance Festival, attended by 2,000 dancers from 47 countries and regions - and won.

The girls in the troupe are Claire Caulton, Kara Hollings, Melanie Copcutt, Emma Jones, and twins Amy and Sara Clayworth. Aged 15 to 17, five of them are still at school; the sixth, Claire, is a clerk at an insurance company. They've been dancing together for years - modern, disco, and tap - and when they talk, they talk with one voice, all answering each question together. As one of the Clayworths puts it, "We never fall out. We might argue about steps - but we'll not start fisting each other at back of room. We're sisters, aren't we?"

"Famous Six," smiles Emma. They had to raise money for costumes for the trip to Russia - they needed the best part of pounds 4,000 for five outfits each - so she and Melanie took a bucket down the high street. It rained. She reckons they got more water than money, but, she says, "You got people coming up to you, everyone had heard about it. And they chose us to go ahead of all them big dance schools, when we're only a small village - so it's like something good coming out of here, in't it?"

They had six weeks to put five routines together, five minutes each piece; after school and at the weekends, they rehearsed 14 hours a week. Giving permission for the trip, one teacher asked Hilda to make sure they did some homework while they were gone. Hilda smiles and says, "As if." She has, she says, only two hard rules: "No bad language. No chewing gum."

They didn't know much about Russia before they went, only that it was poor and cold, so they gathered a collection of things such as shampoo and chocolate, little gifts for their hosts. The welcome they received knocked them over. "The festival was held in a little place outside St Petersburg called Tikhvin," Hilda says. "At the opening ceremony, in the Palace Theatre, each team had to perform one of its routines. Dancing is a big thing out there and the place was chock-a-bloc. Our girls danced a Michael Jackson routine and they all went mad, they stood up, and clapped and cheered. We were treated like pop stars."

In the competition they also danced to music from Aladdin, and did a Charleston number in tassels; for the disco routine they were in leotards sequinned in British red, white, and blue. Hilda did check whether maybe they should cover up a bit more. "Legs up to the thighs," she says, "that's the sort of dancing we do." But they were told just to come as they were, and to do what they always did.

"Everyone there went mad each time the girls danced," Hilda says. "A lot of their dancing is folksy, they don't do tap or modern there. We were on national and regional television and all the newspapers came. They wanted interviews - how did I get the girls to be so good? How did I teach them? We have so many invitations to go back."

When one of the girls worried that it might turn out they were too different, Claire very quickly put that worry to bed. She said: "I want to be different. If you go somewhere and heads don't turn, what's the point? We aim to win, us. We put everything into it, we show we enjoy it, we dance 100 per cent."

Claire's father, a joiner, is out of work at the minute. So is Kara's dad; he had a stall at the market, but last spring he was minding a pub for a mate one night, and someone ran him off the road on the way home. He was beaten up, left with two broken legs, deaf, and blind in one eye. He has not worked since.

Claire says: "Everything that's ever been said about South Elmsall is always bad news. But we aren't, are we? And it's about time something good came out of here."

Hilda's not sure what they will do next. "We definitely want to do something with the group, maybe get an agent, though the girls are not old enough, in my opinion, to become professional. They might do some charity work, I don't know yet. We haven't really come down to earth.

"But I knew they were too good just to dance in a studio. In any year you might get one that stands out, but not six. And they're clever dancers, these - they were born to dance - so they deserved this. It's been the chance of a lifetime, because you look at them and think, how long can it last? I've seen them grow up into this - beautiful flowers that they are - and they are beautiful. I say to people, `Have you seen my beautiful girls?' Then I think, if only it could last - but nothing lasts for ever, does it?"