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?
PHOTOGRAPHY: JONATHAN TURNER
FEB/MAR 2023 ISSUE
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