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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Living history - the legacy of Harehills
Animated, Winter 1998. Luke Judd talks to Nadine Senior about the importance of enabling young people to become artists in the deepest sense, developing their creativity and self awareness - a philosophy that is still implicit in her work as Principal of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance
Why, and how, do people become dancers? A perplexing question which still attracts plenty of answers of the 'I was simply born to dance' variety. Yet, in opposition to this viewpoint it is possible to cite the remarkable case of a north Leeds comprehensive - Harehills Middle School, and its accompanying youth group Harehills Youth Dance, which produced virtually a whole generation of UK contemporary dancers in the 1970s and '80s. Either there was something in the water in Leeds 7, or there are real lessons to be learnt about how we teach dance to young people, and help them develop both as artists and as individuals.

But, before we contemplate the causes and ramifications of this phenomenon, it is perhaps important to note a few of the names which are testament to both the scale and the quality of the dancers to emerge from Harehills: Darshan Singh Bhuller (London Contemporary Dance Theatre [LCDT], Richard Alston Dance Company), Neville Campbell (Artistic Director of Phoenix and Dundee Rep), David Hughes (Rambert, Adventures in Motion Pictures, LCDT), Sharon and Dawn Donaldson (Extemporary and Phoenix), Paul Liburd (LCDT and Rambert), Seline Thomas (Phoenix), Pam Johnson (DV8 and Phoenix), and the group of five young black men who changed the face of British contemporary dance when they founded Phoenix in 1982 David Hamilton, Donald Edwards, Villmore James, Merville Jones and Edward Lynch. David, Donald and Edward later went on to form RJC Dance Theatre. This list is only a fraction of those who became professional dancers after spending their formative years under the tutelage of a teacher called Nadine Senior.

The story starts in 1972, when Nadine became the physical education teacher at Harehills Middle School, situated in a vibrant but run down multi-ethnic area in north Leeds. One might assume that Nadine approached the job with a grand scheme or radical methodology which she imposed upon her charges, but she doesn't see it like that.

"I think that it is easy for people to look back and assume that I had some complex theory about dance in education which I rigorously pursued", she says. At the time I was simply trying to be a good physical education teacher, offering the children something that would interest and motivate them, artistically and physically. I had studied Laban's theories of movement and this was very important in terms of the wide range of abilities and commitment we had to deal with, as it could be applied fairly flexibly". The school had 450 pupils aged between nine and 13 - three quarters of whom were from Asian or Afro Caribbean backgrounds. Many did not have English as their first language. "I was lucky in that I had a very enlightened Headteacher in Jack Bramwell," Nadine explains, "who saw the value of the arts in encouraging young people from a variety of ethnic or social backgrounds to actively participate in education. I was also fortunate in working in a fairly down-to-earth multi-cultural comprehensive, as this meant that the children had very few pretensions or preconceptions about 'art' or 'dance'. The pupils hadn't been told by their parents what was 'good' or 'bad' art, or had ballet lessons forced on them as soon as they could walk. And as soon as we were able to establish dance as a regular event for the children, it became simply 'what people did', and lost all of its gender or class baggage."

In educational terms, Nadine's techniques were a model of good practice at the time, although she now says that she was merely using her common sense rather then conforming to current trends. What emerged from the dance classes at the school came from the child's intuitive artistic base; the physical skills acquired simply serviced this artistic impulse, and that is what gave the work its quality and impact. Nadine's physical education background provided her with an understanding of how the body works, but this physicality was the means and not the end.

"We always demanded the highest standards of artistic integrity," she says, "but the criteria was as much decided and maintained by the children as their teachers. There was no external imposition of artistic ideas or ideals, but rather this was developed from the child's own imaginative responses."

All this of course precludes a basic belief and understanding of the natural potential inherent within all children. Allowed to express themselves Nadine's pupils became 'artists' in the deepest sense, and carried this quality into their later work and dance careers.

Gurmit Hukam was one of Nadine's first pupils at Harehills in the 1970s, and is now Artistic Director of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance (NSCD) in Leeds, where Nadine is Principal. He has of course experi-enced Nadine's work at first hand, both as a pupil and colleague. "I was only 11 when Nadine began to teach us, and it's difficult to pinpoint when we first realised that we were doing more than just physical education. We began to explore different movements, usually based on imaginative themes given to us by Nadine - simple ideas, involving partner and group work. I guess it first dawned on us that it was 'dance' when we had our first performance, and Nadine asked its whether we wanted to wear tights and a T-shirt or tights and a leotard - we decided on the tights and a T-shirt as the lesser of two evils!"

One of Gurmit's earliest performance memories is as Frost in A Selfish Giant, but the real breakthrough was a dance version of Jesus Christ Superstar, which captured the imagination of both the children and the general public.

"We began to get loads of incredibly positive feedback - we began to feel special, and that we belonged to a group. There was absolutely no stigma attached to dance either. In fact, all the hardest boys were part of the group!"

After continuing his dance training at Intake High School in Leeds and The Place in London, Gurmit performed for a while before moving into teaching. With the experience he has gained since leaving Harehills, how does Gurmit explain not only the enthusiasm of this disparate group of youngsters but their subsequent successes? "Well, my version of events is that it was the use of dramatic ideas that worked for us - being inside a character, and developing ideas rather than just exploring the physicality. Nadine would never choreograph our specific movements - she directed us, gave us themes and ideas, but the actual movements all developed by us ... were the tool of the ideas, and the form was the result of the feeling or emotion. I still believe in this methodology today. In fact, all my ideas and methods now are a development and refinement of what I was doing when I was 12!"

To overcome the problem of what happened to the children's enthusiasm and direction when they left the middle school, Nadine formed Harehills Youth Dance, an evening youth group for 13 to 18 year olds. This allowed the young people to further explore their potential, whilst establishing dance as something voluntary; something people chose to do. Harehills Youth Dance went on to perform at festivals all over the country and abroad, winning prizes and plaudits wherever they went.

One of the most startling facts about Harehills was that the majority of the dancers to emerge were boys. Most dance officers would 'kill' for similar participatory figures, but Nadine is remarkably matter-of-fact about this achievement. "It was a great advantage to be teaching physical education if you wanted to get boy's involved in dance - although I didn't separate one movement concept from another. Whilst they wouldn't go anywhere near anything that resembled ballet, as soon as they understood that you had to be fit and strong to dance they became more committed than the girls - dance almost became a macho thing to do."

These days, things have of course changed at Harehills. The school no longer exists (lost in an education reorganisation in 1990), although the building itself is still there - an imposing Victorian edifice used for community groups and evening classes. Nadine went on to help found the NSCD in nearby Chapeltown, which Leeds City Council established in 1985 in order to offer local dancers an alternative to going to London to complete their dance training. This has flourished and is now a Higher Education College with almost 200 students from all over the UK, offering a dance degree course validated by the University of Leeds. It still tries to retain something of the spirit of its founding movement, with specific regard to access and opportunity; highly subsidised dance classes are offered to local children every Saturday, outreach work is undertaken in local schools, and there is a one year Foundation Course offering Higher Education access to young people with little or no formal qualifications. Above all, the NSCD is one of the few specialist dance schools in the maintained sector, enabling young people from all backgrounds to take on vocational training. (New lottery funded buildings also offer them facilities equal to any in London.)

Another tangible and lasting product of Harehills is of course the many young men and women from the school or youth group who are currently dancing, teaching or choreo-graphing all over the world. It is patronising to assume that none of them would have made it without Nadine's influence, but it is probably fair to say that many wouldn't have thought of becoming dancers were it not for their early grounding. Nadine is also keen to stress that she gets a huge amount of satisfaction meeting her ex-pupils who didn't become dancers, and finding a well-adjusted, confident and successful man or woman.

However, the final legacy of Harehills must relate to how we teach young people, and what we can expect from them. Away from today's 'norms' and 'standards' imposed from 'on -high', we must not forget that the children we teach can themselves be trusted to develop high levels of discipline and a remarkable self-awareness. They can be their own artistic directors, and this can in turn imbue a profound self-confidence. As Nadine herself says: "Isn't it so much more satisfying to create a good piece of work - or art - oneself, rather than merely fulfill a teacher's instructions? That's the kind of thing you remember for the rest of your life."

Luke Judd, Marketing Co-ordinator, Northern School of Contemporary Dance. Contact +44 (0)113 262 5359 or email

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001