If you have watched the rise of Black Grace as a tour de force in New Zealand's contemporary dance world, you will know there is more to the company than great dancers. They are all male and predominantly Maori or Pacific Island, performing stunning, original choreography that leaps and bounds from the sublime to the slapstick, from hip-hop to the avant garde.

If you have enjoyed the performances of artistic director Neil Ieremia's junior project, Urban Youth Movement, you will have seen the same strength of identity carefully cultivated in that group too.

You will have been charmed by the way Black Grace choreographers, usually company dancers who step up to a new creative mark, stand front of stage at each performance to introduce themselves and say something about their new work. It is a little homespun, but it has great heart. And it speaks volumes about the culture Black Grace so carefully creates and nurtures backstage.

"The most important thing to us is our art form - our dance," says Ieremia. "That is what has changed us, developed us, it is what we do. But what we do is also more than dance to us. It is life. It is friendship. It is learning to be men - real men."

Ieremia believes a huge part of being in Black Grace is learning to discuss issues, before going out to perform. That process of personal communication and development is why five of the original Black Grace members are still in the company, and why it is not only hard to get into Black Grace but even tougher to get out.

Black Grace does not hold auditions. They recruit by inviting a likely candidate to "hang out" for a while. Not many get to stay.

Jeremy Poi, the youngest and newest recruit, moved from Urban Youth Movement in January. "It's been great, wicked," he says. "All the guys are so funny, then when it comes to work it is serious."

After his first week following Black Grace's daily routine of class for an hour and a half from 9am, followed by a working day that finishes at 6pm, Poi was practically comatose. "But the guys looked after me, told me what to do."

Now a lot stronger and fitter Poi looks set to stay around a while.

Mala Tevita, a founder member and, at 34, "one of the dinosaurs", describes life in Black Grace as "a big learning curve". He talks of the physical challenge, the mental challenge and continuous process of learning about yourself that comes from "just being around these guys. One of the hardest things was learning to talk with Black Grace. I'm not much of a talker. I express myself physically, through dance. But now I can communicate with the other guys and with the audience, even with my wonderful English. I am thinking of bringing out a book of slang."

Call it work or fun, Tevita enjoys Black Grace even more today than when it began in 1995.

Ieremia says the Black Grace bond is based on mutual respect and special respect for whoever is the choreographer. "We have the laughs, but underneath all that, we have serious respect.

"We think it is a very serious thing that we get money to do what we do. That money comes through Creative New Zealand from our parents and friends and supporters, from their taxes and from their investment in things like Lotto. We feel a responsibility to use that money well and for the benefit of the wider community. It is not given to us just so we can show off.

"So we have to try and contribute too, to put something back into society. That might be to share the things we have learned through our dance: the things we have discussed and learned about anger, for example.

"Maybe we can be an inspiration. Maybe we can shine a bit of light on other people's lives. Certainly we can show them, with the quality of our work and with bodies dripping with sweat and chests heaving with exhaustion, that we are doing our best for them, for the audience, that we are really trying."

* Black Grace's New Works 2002 opens at the Herald Theatre tomorrow and runs until November 30.