Lord of the dance

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Start at the very beginning and everyone will join in the dance. Carolyn O'Grady finds out how to keep it spinning: Meet Hugh Dennis, who made dance his career thanks to an inspirational dance teacher.

In the the late Seventies a PE teacher at an inner city Leeds middle school introduced her pupils to dance. From these tentative steps, a flourishing dance school and company have emerged, and for many students, the chance to make dance a career.

Hugh Davis, now 32, was one of a staggering number of pupils who entered the profession. In 15 years around 50 pupils - mostly boys - turned dance into an occupation.

Born in Leeds to a West Indian family which came to the UK in the Fifties, he knew nothing about dance until he came to Harehills middle school where, uniquely then, dance was on the curriculum for every girl and boy in the school, every week.

The head, John Bramwell and PE teacher, Nadine Senior believed that it was a subject that, almost better than any other, could encourage inclusion and communication in a multicultural school in a deprived area.

Children came with no gender or class baggage about dance being middle class or for girls. Dance was cool.

"It was seen as macho, it wasn't seen as the soft guys doing dance," says Hugh.

"All my friends were into it, but they were also into athletics, in the school football team and rugby. We were all very physical."

There were no lessons in formal techniques. Students worked on set tasks, for example three rising and sinking movements, and Nadine would offer themes, visual imagery and stories. The actual movements were the pupils', however, who evaluated and refined their dances themselves. Nadine was exacting and Hugh remembers her insisting on "good movements".

When he left Harehills, Hugh joined the Harehills Youth Dance Theatre, set up by Nadine. Then Nadine helped found the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, ow a higher education college, where she is principal. Hugh joined and did three years of professional training in traditional and contemporary ballet, but "contemporary is what I'm really about", he says.

Work followed in an Afro-Caribbean company; a jazz troupe; at the Royal Opera House in Aida and with inner city kids in schools and colleges.

"To present a positive role model to young black kids is very important to me and always has been," he says.

In 1994 he joined Phoenix Dance, an international, multicultural dance company, where he had worked on and off since he left school, and which had been started by five young men from, where else, but Harehills middle school and the youth dance group.

The company's roots in athleticism and, some might say, PE, are still evident: "Muscular lyricism that is aggressive and tender in turns," is how The Guardian described recent work.

Of dance, Hugh says: "You have to love it to do it, it's so mentally and physically exhausting. We're always rehearsing for something or performing or involved in teaching projects.

"Like any job it does get to you at times. But you have to go through that to get to the end product.

"Performing gives me a real buzz. It takes me an hour to come down after a performance."

It can also be ruthless, he admits. "I've seen friends go to some auditions in the West End, do one part of their act and they say 'thank you, we don't need you' before they've finished."

But dance has also taken him round the word, including Japan, New York, South America and recently Malta.

"Don't do it just because it's a trend; you can't go into it in a half-hearted way," he cautions other young people. "And be true to yourself."

For information on Phoenix's programme with education write to Phoenix Dance, Yorkshire Dance Centre, 3 St Peter's Buildings, St Peter's Square, Leeds LS9 8AH. Tel: 0113 242 3486

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