For some home-schoolers, it's gym time at dance school With erect backs, stoic faces and arms tight at their sides, the 11 figures look like string puppets as they glide across the floor, completing a series of intricate dance steps. Ponytails fly and beads of sweat begin to form on their brows. Through a doorway, a group of doting parents look on with approval.
From noon to 2 p.m. on any given Wednesday - at a time when most public school students are in class - these 30 home-schoolers perfect their steps at the Teelin Irish Dance School in Columbia, a social and entertaining way to meet the state-mandated physical education that can be elusive for home-school families.
"It's like gym class," said Tobi Proveaux, a Baltimore mother whose 12-year-old daughter, Morgan, is educated at home and takes part in the Irish dance class.
In fact, this is gym class for the home-schoolers, whose families are among the many in Maryland making special arrangements to meet the physical education component in each family's home-school instruction plan, which is supervised by the local school district.
Almost 1.1 million American children are home-schooled each year - about 2 percent of all students ages 5 to 17 - according to 2003 U.S. census data. Maryland has more than 25,000 home-schooled children, said Manfred Smith, president and founder of the Maryland Home Education Association.
To keep up with the physical education requirement, home-schoolers pursue an array of activities that include dance, team sports such as rec-league soccer and martial arts. Some businesses cater to that demand, said Smith.
"Thousands of home-schoolers can make the success and failures for these niche classes," said Smith.
Some home-schoolers go even further, forming their own teams - such as the Maryland Christian Saints football team in Harford County - to compete against schools willing to take them on.
The Teelin dance school's owner, Maureen Berry, has been working with home-schoolers the past two years, sharing her love of Irish dance with a younger generation of dancers.
"They are model students," she said of the home-schoolers who are among her 250 students. "They go home and practice. They always come in, they always know their steps. They are always excited about it."
And parents say the classes are just what they're seeking: a mix of education, culture, interaction with other children and all-important exercise.
"Home-schoolers are always looking for opportunities to get together with other children," said Beth Koolbeck, a mother of seven from Granite, whose 15-year-old daughter, Sarah, and 12-year-old son, Benjamin, attend the class. Irish dancing is "a way of relating to other people. It's [also] a comfortable way of relating to the opposite sex."
But Smith warned that some home-schoolers might be overscheduled.
"It is kind of against the purpose of home-schooling - individual learning," he said. "Parents are rushing around to make sure their child has 92 opportunities. They are in this class, that dance thing; on the weekends, there is a lot of soccer.
"Home-schooling is starting to see a lot of the stresses," Smith said. "People have begun to back off on the socialization."
The Teelin dance school parents, however, love the camaraderie among the students and one another. A sign of that bond can be seen on the dance school's Web site, which carries a tribute to Amy Martin, a home-schooler and Teelin student who drowned with her father in Ocean City in September.
That supportive family feeling was evident on a recent day, as a group of other parents sat in the Teelin school's waiting room discussing textbooks, a home-schooling Web site and driving directions to a book store.
"It's almost like a one-room schoolhouse," said Proveaux. "It's like Little House on the Prairie."
Another striking detail about the class is the number of males it attracts, according to Berry.
"The more boys we have, the more boys we get," said Berry, who added that eight of her 30 home-school students are males.
Sharon Hanson, a Laurel mother, enjoys the fact that her 15-year-old son Alex can take the class and not worry about being teased about it at school.
"The home-school community is much more open to individuals experiencing interests in art, dance," Hanson said. "There is less gender pressure in pursuing interests whether it is a boy or a girl. The home-school community is definitely a more accepting group than the public would be."
And then there's the exercise.
"It's very aerobic, you are a little tired, but you feel better about your dancing," Alex said. "I compare it to running, except that you also have to keep in mind what steps you are doing."
After an hour of practice on a recent day, a steady stream of students in calf-high white socks and black shoes headed toward the dance school's front door. Others lingered in the studio to the delight of Berry, who displayed her signature smile as she showed Jonathan and Alex a series of new steps.
"You guys are my guinea pigs," Berry said with a laugh as she completed the intricate footwork.
And even when Berry left the students and their parents in the studio to grab some lunch, Alex and Jonathan remained, perfecting their moves, laughing and joking with each other.
"They are some of my best students," Berry said.