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Reflections on the dance phenomenon at Harehills Middle School

Nadine Senior
dance UK

Nadine Senior, Founder of Northern School of Contemporary Dance, reflects on the incredible success of her work as a dance teacher at Harehills Middle School in the 1970s and 1980s.

How it began

In 1970, I was appointed Head of Physical Education in an all-girls high school in Leeds. Many of the girls in this inner city, multi-cultural school had behavioural problems and one of them eventually burnt the school to the ground, though fortunately no one was hurt. Thereafter, we simply moved into the boys’ school which was on the same campus.

It was here that I met Jack Bramwell, the Deputy Head Teacher of the boys school, and began the journey which would give rise to a new generation of contemporary dancers, an international contemporary dance company and a higher education college providing contemporary dance training.

Jack Bramwell recognised the positive effect of dance and when he was appointed Head Teacher of Harehills Middle School (HMS), he asked me to join him as Senior Mistress and PE teacher. He wanted me to teach both boys’ and girls’ PE and he particularly wanted dance on the timetable for the boys. This was quite revolutionary in the 1970s.

Harehills Middle School- Run to school
Harehills Middle School 1979

Harehills Middle School was a multi-ethnic school catering for a diverse community of students aged 9-13, largely from the Harehills and Chapeltown districts of Leeds. Housing was mainly back-to-back or multi-occupancy Victorian terraces, youth unemployment and crime were high and play/recreation areas were limited to the back streets.

Harehills Derelict Houses 1979
Harehills 1979

As the area attracted many immigrants moving into Leeds, dance was an excellent subject because language was not a barrier to learning.

Harehills Middle School - Dance
Harehills Middle School 1979

During the ten years from 1972 to 1982, 48 young people from Harehills Middle School entered professional dance training. Surprisingly, 44 of them were boys.

Dance in the PE curriculum

Dance was not on the curriculum to produce dancers, however. It was there to provide all boys and girls with physical activity which was not concerned with how high or how fast and who won and who lost. It was entirely concerned with personal physical development, expression and arts education, which formed an important component of a comprehensive curriculum.

Dance lessons encouraged a ‘can do’ philosophy but definitely not an ‘anything will do’ one. There was an insistence that the children’s personal physical and artistic intentions were articulated and met. The question was always, ‘What do you intend to say and how best can you say it through dance?’ The children had absolute ownership, there was no right or wrong and, therefore, no failure. Formal techniques and ‘in’ dance styles were avoided and instead lessons were based on the exploration of movement concepts.

Nadine Senior, Harehills Middle School 1979
Nadine Senior, Harehills Middle School 1979

Boys and girls took their PE classes together and had one lesson of dance each week throughout their four years in the school. The fourth and final year began with the children choreographing, rehearsing and refining a group performance piece to present to parents and friends at Christmas. This was jointly choreographed and was rehearsed both in the lessons and after school.

Harehills Middle School 1979
Harehills Middle School 1979

The only criterion for inclusion was commitment and a willingness to rehearse in their own time. The performance was lit and costumed by other members of staff and pupils and staff involved their classes in associated work where appropriate.

Working towards the performance (process) is where the learning took place but the live performance (product) inspired the intensity of effort – the team work, discipline and life confidence – so necessary to young people with low self-esteem and low aspirations. The benefit of having their work appreciated and applauded was immeasurable.

Nadine Senior - Harehills Middle School 1979
Nadine Senior, Harehills Middle School 1979

The children were never given steps, styles or routines to copy or perform and at no time were they choreographed on except by each other. Ownership of the creative process/product was critical to their personal development and their commitment. The children were the creators, the choreographers, the ARTISTS.

Children moving up through the school waited with anticipation for their fourth year and their opportunity to create and perform their own work. Years later, young men who see me in the community remind me who they are by proudly telling me which dance piece they performed in.

Harehills Youth Dance Theatre

After leaving the middle school at 13, some children wanted to continue with dance. It was difficult however because none of the high schools in their catchment areas taught dance for boys and few for girls.

A number of the very committed children attended Intake High School which, although two bus rides away, did provide a performing arts course with an excellent dance component. Eventually however this school introduced a policy of selection and some of the committed 12-year-olds failed to gain a place. This sense of failure proved difficult to overcome at such an early age. In response, we introduced a youth group meeting at Harehills Middle School two evenings each week and catering for ex-Harehills boys and girls who wished to continue their dance education.

The Harehills Youth Dance Theatre became a performing company and the dancers continued to choreograph most of their own work. Funding was raised to provide occasional technique teachers and production expenses. The standard of the work was internationally recognised by educationalists and dancers and the group was regularly invited to perform throughout this country and abroad.

The Phoenix Dance Company

In 1982, three unemployed young men who had been introduced to dance at Harehills Middle School decided to form a professional dance company. Choreographing their own pieces they put together a programme ready for performance and named their company The Phoenix Dance Company.

It was difficult for them to find a platform to get their work seen, so we took them to the venues where the youth group had been invited to perform and included their pieces. On one occasion the school and youth group had been asked to perform for a major education conference and, as usual, we took Phoenix with us.

Phoenix Dance Theatre - Gang of Five
Phoenix Dance Theatre – Gang of Five. Photograph: Terry Cryer.

The audience included teachers, professional dancers, choreographers, artistic directors and theatre directors. Jude Kelly, the then Artistic Director of the Battersea Arts Centre, was so impressed by Phoenix that she immediately booked them to perform at the Battersea Arts Centre. This was their first professional booking and was an instant success. Thanks to David Hamilton and the original dancers, Phoenix continues to this day and is now led by Artistic Director Sharon Watson who was also introduced to dance at Harehills Middle School.

Thanks to the vision of Jack Bramwell and his inclusion of dance in education at Harehills Middle School, many young people from non-traditional dance backgrounds have and continue to have outstanding careers in a profession more usually associated with the elite.

During the 1980s, 20% of London Contemporary Dance Theatre’s male dancers (Darshan Singh Bhuller, Paul Liburd and David Hughes) were from Harehills Middle School. This is remarkable when considering that the company could select from the world’s best performers.

Northern School of Contemporary Dance

The path from inner city Leeds to dance training in London was difficult for young people aged just 16 and with limited money and support. In 1983, the Gulbenkian Foundation recognised the need for a school of contemporary dance in the North, and together with the leader of Leeds City Council (LCC), agreed to establish a school to provide professional contemporary dance training in Leeds. The school was housed in a deconsecrated synagogue in the heart of Harehills and Chapeltown and was funded by LCC through its Further Education Provision.

I was seconded by the Local Education Authority to establish the school and to recruit staff and students. The school was opened in 1984 with the aim of providing professional post-16 contemporary dance training appropriate to young people from non-traditional dance backgrounds. The first prospectus was printed and applications for the academic year 1984/85 were invited. Of the 50 candidates who applied, 12 were accepted.

There was only one studio and basic support facilities. Today the college is a Higher Education Institution with state of the art facilities and an alumni which reads like a who’s who of contemporary dance.

Universal access

Harehills Middle School, the Youth Group, the Phoenix Dance Company and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance were all based on the belief that the arts, and in particular dance, can and should be available to young people regardless of their background.

The following excerpts are from a letter I received only three years ago. It is written by an ex-pupil of Harehills Middle School. Matthew didn’t continue to dance after leaving HMS, for him and many others it was just another a subject on the timetable, albeit a significant one:

“In the September of 1973, a short chubby boy aged 12 walked through the doors of an old Victorian school sited on Harehills Road in the centre of bustling Leeds. I recall vividly the dark, sombre towers of the separate ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’ entrances of Harehills Middle School, as I took my first steps into the unknown. Little did I know that as I ventured nervously through those doors that it would shape the rest of my life.

“There wasn’t a great deal to do after-school in the Harehills area and most of us came from families with little or no disposable income to enjoy activities other than those that the terraced streets of Harehills could offer. So the opportunity to do something that involved music, theatre, dance, lighting, all pretty cool things in the disco age, was too good to miss…

“You somehow cultured a spirit of creativity, of excitement, of daring to be different. You introduced us to the art – theatre, ballet and classical music – domains of culture familiar only to the middle class.

“How did you manage to get those tough, scrapping-rough boys to wear tights and leotards at the hormonal teen age?

“That period of time was enormously influential on me, more so than any other time or place I have encountered in the 48 years of my life so far. It shaped the way I think, it gave me the self confidence and strength of character to perform in front of people, it triggered creative thinking and gave me an appreciation of the arts, to name but a few…

“Those early influences of creativity, coordination, discipline and commitment as well as team spirit… played a massive part in making me the person I am today.”

This pupil, who ended up studying electronic engineering at University and had a very significant career in TV and satellite technology, gives witness to the great value of education in the arts and particularly in dance.

The skills and confidence dance promotes, as well as greater sensitivity to feelings and expression, is a testimonial to the flowering of the human spirit which can be brought about through the ‘right’ educational experiences. Creativity, autonomy, discipline and commitment are essential components of a successful adulthood, and dance at Harehills offered them in abundance.

Read full article at dance UK


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2 thoughts on “Reflections on the dance phenomenon at Harehills Middle School”

  1. Love this, I came to leeds 87 so just heard about it. Great middle school. Pe an maths teachers great, Mr beardnmore an Mrs Casey thank you

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