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In Conversation


When she was 15, Sharon Watson knew she wanted to dance professionally. She achieved that ambition at a remarkably young age and went on to form part of the prestigious Phoenix Dance company. Sharon then set her sights on supporting and training other young dancers in Leeds. She now runs the Northern School of Contemporary Dance and is an integral part of LEEDS2023, the year of culture. The questions is: where does Sharon Watson go from here?




Sharon Watson is the Principal of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance (NSCD), which is based in Chapeltown, Leeds. The NSCD is a leading centre for contemporary dance in the UK and provides the only conservatoire-level dance training in the North of England. Sharon was the longest-standing artistic director of Phoenix Dance Theatre. She joined the company in 1989 and and worked as a dancer, performing all over the world. Sharon is also a choreographer – she made the celebrated Windrush: Movement of the People a few years ago.


Sharon grew up in Harehills and was taught dance by Nadine Senior, an influential teacher who inspired countless young people to take up the art form. Nadine Senior has had a huge impact on Sharon’s life: “I would not be doing what I do today if it wasn’t for the nurturing caring and inspiring role she played.” Nadine set Sharon on her journey to become a dancer, choreographer, artistic director and now Principal of the NSCD.


In 2021, Sharon was awarded an MBE, for services to Dance. She was also appointed a Deputy Lieutenant. In 2016 was named one of the Sue Ryder “Yorkshire Women of Achievement in Business” and was named “Yorkshire Woman of the Year.” Despite these many accolades, Sharon stays grounded and rooted in her home community of Leeds. She lives and works a few streets away from the house where she was born and is passionate about making Leeds a creative, supportive, dynamic city. To that end she’s been an integral part of the LEEDS2023 Year of Culture. Sharon welcomed Shine into the Northern School of Contemporary Dance to share her story and passion.


How did you become a dancer?

I’m from a very large family. My parents had a house in Harehills - Potternewton Park was our stomping ground. And I’ve ended up in this amazing building – the Northern School of Contemporary Dance – which came from the ambition of Nadine Senior, a teacher at Harehills Middle School. Nadine Senior was a PE teacher. She and the headteacher decided to put dance on the curriculum: it was there for everybody. Every schoolchild did dance for the four years they were there. It was such an integrated school; so many languages, so many communities, races, cultures. Nadine knew that you don’t need words. Dance was the one thing that unified us all. It was where we could all do our best. I went there at the age of 9. I have a sister who is two-and-a-half years older than me so she set the pace. She came home dancing and I thought, “This is great!”


I couldn’t wait to get to the school. After my first dance class, I came home and said to my parents, “At 16, I’m going to London. I’m going to be a professional dancer and I’m going to travel the world.” My parents said, “OK, that’s really nice Sharon – we’ll talk about it when you’re older.”


After leaving that school at 13, I ended up at Parklands Girls High School in Seacroft. It was a battle. There were only four of us black girls in the class, it was really, really hard. Of course, I’d come back to Harehills for the after-school dance clubs and the performance group we were with. And the teachers were not impressed by that. At 15, I went to the school and said, “Please can I go to London to do a work placement. This was the early 80s. The teacher said, “We don’t do that.” I said, “There isn’t really anything you’re offering me that I’m interested in.” So I went back to Nadine and said, “I really want to be a student in London.” So she contacted a friend of hers who agreed to put me up for three weeks, contacted the dance school that was going to take me. And I went back to my school and said, “Right, I’m going.” They just looked at me as if to say “How?!” And off I went at 15.


What gave you that confidence?

I think I was hiding behind the shadows of someone else. I knew I had confidence in somebody else, who had my best interests at heart. I had the confidence to be in that space, to manage myself and do the job I’d gone to do. I had that discipline. Nadine gave me that discipline and confidence – if only I could bottle that! I went to the London School of Contemporary Dance, ordinarily a three-year course. My first job I got before I had graduated. I was 18. My sister and I, we were really naughty. We weren’t supposed to be auditioning at that age. The school didn’t really allow it. But we went anyway. The audition got down to two people: my sister and me. It was for the Spiral Dance Company in Liverpool. Tim Lamford said, “I don’t know who to choose. I need to think about this. Give me your numbers. What’s your name?” “Sharon Donaldson.” “And you?” “Dawn Donaldson...

No, we’re not having you on – yes, we’re sisters.” That night I got the phone call to say I’d got the job. But at exactly the same time, Dawn was on the phone with another company who said, “We we’d love to employ you for another job.” It was amazing. It was the best thing. That job took me to Liverpool and we ended up doing a performance in Broadmoor. I didn’t tell my mum! Then I graduated and became a BP apprentice. In terms of performance I just went from strength to strength. I knew I always wanted to do my own thing creatively.


Sharon Watson’s mentor and inspiration was Nadine Senior (pictured right).

Image by Pete Huggins, courtesy of Northern School of Contemporary Dance

What brought you back to Leeds?
In 1989 I was invited to join Phoenix Dance. It was an all-black, all-male company. We were the first women. I joined with my sister, Pam Johnson and Seline Thomas. There were four of us who joined the six men. It was a whirlwind of performance, of travelling, of creativity: it was magical. I don’t think there’ll ever be anything creative like that again. It changed a lot of people’s lives. 44 students came out that school into the profession. Most of us went to London, went abroad.
What did your mum and dad think about all this?
My parents never said, “Don’t do it.” But they never said, “Do it!” They said, “OK, that’s what’s happening: be safe.” I don’t think they realised the impact it was, going to London. It wasn’t my mum or dad who got us our grant: Nadine did that. Nadine took us to London to find our flat, she got us there. She sorted out our travel. When they didn’t give us the grants we needed, she threatened to give back her MBE. She was fearless. You either loved or hated Nadine. But she was doing it for the right reason: we all got our grants and went off to London. It wasn’t until much later that my parents realised the opportunity that gave us. My mum trusted that there was someone else looking after us. They had 8 kids and they worked, they grafted.
What did you learn from Nadine Senior?
Nadine was the founding Principal of NSCD. I call her my second mum. You can have debates with your parents but not fall out with them. I became the director of Phoenix and Nadine was on the Board. I said to her, “I really want a school for Phoenix. I need a school to feed the company.” She just said, “What’s stopping you?” And I told her. She said, “Well, they’re not problems, are they?” I look at the way she operated, there was nothing she didn’t attempt to do. She wasn’t always successful but she put herself in that space. She didn’t take “no” for an answer. To be told “no” was a big thing. We get told “no” all the time. But sometimes we do get the “yes” that we need. She taught me to ask the question, then ask again, then try another way – then do it yourself! “You’re going to tell me No? OK, I’ll find a solution!”
How does all that relate to how you support young dance students at the Northern School?
I have a great team. The members of staff here get it. They’ve had similar journeys so they know that generosity changes lives. We come with a solution – let’s figure it out together. We don’t have all the answers. We know we have a responsibility, we we have the power to transform lives. We don’t take it for granted.

I have an “open door” policy here, so if a student really needs to talk to me, they can come in. That was one of the things Nadine was really good at, she made herself very visible. I make myself visible too.
So you’re not trapped behind a desk?
I can’t do that! I’ve got to move! It’s also my job to talk about the amazing work we do here, with the dancers and with the community here in Chapeltown.
Why is it important to have a contemporary dance school in Chapeltown?
The visibility of what we do here tells other people they can do it. This community has been neglected for a very long time. And being here tells them that we are not mediocre, we can be exceptional. And that exceptional quality can come from you. This is a place that can produce quality. If you look across at the football field [opposite the dance school] we know how many footballers have been produced who play all over the world. And they’ve been created by this little community. We sometimes forget the value we have on our doorstep. This school will stay here.


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Part of that community’s story is the Windrush story. Tell us about that and how it relates to black people telling their stories.
It my narrative and my experience. My family, my parents experience of coming here and living in Chapeltown and Harehills. But there’s something about other people telling that narrative that distorts the bits they don’t like. I’ve had that conversation with people in authority. It’s very far-fetched to believe that parents left their kids in a different country to come here. But it happened and it’s happening now, with different countries. It’s important that people understand that the reason they came here was through an invitation. They never came here for handouts. It’s important that the rhetoric around it is the correct one. In terms of culture, we’ve always been told that we should talk about the negatives in our story. If there’s a fight, you can talk about that. Confrontation: talk about that. Riots: talk about that. But what about the successes? What about the real, beautiful things we’ve done and achieved. In every aspect: in fashion, in music, in theatre. That’s what we want to be proud of, proud of that aspect of British history. So you embrace that as well as the negatives. You get a really balanced approach to cultural inclusion, diversity and equality.

You know, I’ve faced criticism over the years about the stories I tell. The work I created with Phoenix, they said it wasn’t political. I say it depends on what you want to see. They said that about my Windrush piece: “Why is it not brutal?” Because that’s not what I want to share with you. I want to share beauty. Why should I have to take that responsibility? I’m an artist, with a broad breath of education. I’ve worked with the Wellcome Trust on a production about tears. Understanding the embodiment of where we hold trauma. The piece itself was incredibly beautiful. Then I worked on DNA, with the Psappha music ensemble in Manchester. DNA is always evolving, always changing. It was incredibly fascinating. People couldn’t necessarily pin a label on me: “you’re a political creator” or “you’re a black creator”. I’ll do whatever takes my fancy. I did Black Waters, which was political. A deliberate decision. It was about the Zong massacre and the Kala Pani prison in India. [In the late 18th century, the owners of the Zong ship attempted to claim insurance on the lives of the 130 slaves that they threw overboard. Over 100 years later the Kala Pani prison was used by British colonial forces to incarcerate Indian freedom fighters who spoke out against the regime] Death was absolutely inevitable for all of those people they decided to enslave and throw into rivers or incarcerate within prisons. That was a powerful, political piece of work, but it had beauty within the images. There’s always something to be gained about understanding your own narrative and your own history.
Nadine Senior had an MBE – but you now do too. And you’re on the Northern Power
List! How does that feel?

People say you don’t need accolades - I am a grafter and I do it because I love it - but when
someone recognises your work, you’re very pleased. Actually, I haven’t been recognised within my own industry. Other people are seeing what I do. That somehow makes me feel more empowered. Impacting people who are non-dance related, that’s massive. I smile about it. Someone’s taking the time to see that effort and energy. Those accolades do help me, as a black female, to sit in “those rooms” [of power] and say, “Let’s talk.”

One of the ways you’ve used your influence within the city has been with the LEEDS2023 Year of Culture?
I was Chair for four years. When they said we couldn’t be part of the European Capital of Culture, we sat down and thought, “We’ve just spent four years telling our citizens that culture is “worth it. And then we going to say we’re not going to do it because there haven’t got a prize to go for?” I said, “We can’t do that. Let’s get on with it. I don’t know how we’re going to do it. But let’s go for the ambition!” Let’s make it a city of world culture. Let’s get on with it. And here we are in 2023. The opening ceremony, The Awakening, was beautiful. Those 100 dancers that I choreographed, they were the community. They were the heartbeat of what we were delivering. Coming together. It was big and it will have an impact.

How have things changed for you in your career as you’ve got older?
I have no desire to be back on stage, that’s for sure. I’ve scratched that itch. But when I see the young people on stage, I do get such satisfaction. That’s my curtain call. And when I see them out in the industry – I’ve helped inform them and given  them an opportunity. That’s great. I need to pave the way for them. My concern over the next few years is to make sure culture isn’t squeezed into a box again. It’s the bigger agenda. Putting money into spaces that enable our young people to thrive. The recognition of how much culture brings back into the economy. Recognise our contribution and stop beating us up! Culture is the fourth biggest contribution to our economy. So let’s recognise that. I’m fighting in another way. Also, the disbelievers – the ones that say, “Culture is just nice to have.” It’s not. Imagine your life without anything cultural. I don’t know if that’s even possible. It’s no life. People don’t think sport is culture – but it is. The camaraderie and the community. If you love sport, then you love culture. Some of my job is subtle, making change behind the scenes, and sometimes I’ve got to be patient. And sometimes you have to be overt, like LEEDS2023.

What about getting older personally?
I think you can educate your mind to discipline your body. That’s part of being in this art form. Understanding that if you look after your tool, if you look after your body, it will give you payback. I’m not denying that age is a natural thing and you need to manage that, but you do need to give yourself some time, some time to think. I love to talk, to talk things through.
Do you still feel as confident?
I do! It’s different. I do a lot more reflecting now. A lot more strategic work. I’ve done a lot of leadership training to give me the tools. I was a practitioner first, I wasn’t running an organisation, or coming from a CEO position, I was a practitioner. I had to learn.
And how have your parents reacted to your success?
I told my Mum I got this job at Northern School. She said, “You can’t leave Phoenix!” I said, “I’m going up to the Northern School where I’ve got the opportunity to start with dancers even younger.” She said, “You told me you wanted that job 16 years ago.” “Did I?” “Yes!” She was absolutely bang on. She was pleased. She always said, to my sister and I, “So, when are you getting a proper job...?” Mum! Any “proper job” isn’t going to take us to Jamaica to meet the president, take us all over the world. Look where it’s taken us! She does get it really. But we’ve always been kids to her. Nadine’s young kids on the stage.
Thank you Sharon for taking the time to talk to Shine. Find out more about the Northern School of Contemporary Dance here.

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