Interview: Sharon Watson, Northern School of Dance principal and CEO

How do you teach dance in a pandemic? And stay positive in a world obsessed with STEM? We asked Northern School of Dance principal and CEO Sharon Watson how it started, how it’s going, and why culture will save us all

It’s week three of the autumn term at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. In her office in the school’s grade II-listed former synagogue home in Leeds, principal and CEO Sharon Watson is beaming.

“To hear the music coming out of the studio is just wonderful.”

Her 200 or so students are back. Having only started her job in May, after lockdown, Sharon’s relishing the opportunity to finally get to know them in person.

The latest cohort may be short of four new international students – who opted not to board their flights when they heard about the Covid-19 outbreak in Leeds – but they’ll be joining next year along with, it’s projected, an increased international intake. So far, things are going well. They’re taking it week by week.

The silence and stasis of lockdown has been particularly painful for performing arts students and their teachers. Like all higher education institutions, the Leeds-based dance conservatoire was, in March, forced by coronavirus to pivot – pirouette? – to a new way of learning. Overnight, student dancers had to abandon their spacious studios, dance floors, barres and full-length mirrors, and learn in their homes.

Luckily, explains Sharon, much of the year’s performance assignments had been completed by that point. Yet class still had to take place every day – and the technological and practical challenges facing students became immediately clear, she explains.

Sharon (far left) as a student at NSCD in the mid-’90s

“Trying to get online, whether they had wifi that was adequate, the computer that they were working with, several of them operating in one space, did they even have a space that was actually feasible for them to move around…

“Even just to stretch their arms – if the wall is a few inches away, it doesn’t allow you to feel the breadth of the space that you’re in. And that has restrictions. So you’re already beginning to change the way the body absorbs information.”

As a result, class “had to be redefined in a way that enabled them to focus inwards”, says Sharon.

“You have to see how a student’s body is responding differently. But what an amazing way to learn.
Some of it was recorded, so they could go back and see themselves and begin to ask the tutors questions in a way that perhaps they’ve never done before.

“So positives will come out of it.”

Her key takeaways from the period? “The inequalities that, I think, are across the whole sector. And some of the new ways in which blended learning can help us to deepen the knowledge and understanding. We can see that there’s a future in that.”

Live online classes remain part of a new, blended learning approach, but now that the NSCD’s buildings are open again, its full-time foundation, degree and postgraduate students are back dancing in a studio, in bubbles of 10 or 11, and at a social distance.

Physical contact between dancers, and between dancers and teachers, is still out of the question, however. Doesn’t this make the correcting of positions, for example, impossible? Not so, says Sharon. It just takes a huge amount of in-depth knowledge and teaching skill.

“What you have to be able to do now is take the sensation, take the emotions, take the physical feel of what it is that you want to translate, and talk about it.

“And to be able to say that whilst you’re educating 20, 30 young people in front of you is a big task. But that’s exactly what we expect our tutors to be able to do.

“You have to almost imagine that physically, yourself, to be able to articulate it well enough that a student can understand it.

“It really is a skill.”

Tutors counselling students at, or near, the end of their courses need to dig deeper still into their reserves of empathy and imagination. Carving a career in the performing arts is hard enough in the good times, after all – but in a pandemic? Dancers are trained to be tough, says Sharon. And they are great at finding opportunities.

“The conversations that we are having with our students is around making sure that they feel secure around what they’ve got. Depression can set in for someone that’s looking at the industry, at what’s going on in the world today, and thinking, ‘Well, what’s the point? Is there a future?’

“The one thing I will say to the students is, ‘Absolutely – we are the future.’ What we have to offer is going to be something that will be needed. Art and culture has been one of the areas I believe that we have relied on during lockdown. I always talk about the humanity of people. And the culture is the thing that helps us to connect, to stay in tune with each other emotionally, mentally, physically. And it deserves more respect than I think we’re getting at the moment. It’s important for the students to understand that it’s not over; the game is definitely not over.

“We don’t have a magic wand. And I have to make sure that they will understand how they operate in the real world. Dancers have a very, very tough journey through their education, through their training. And that resilience is transferable – they can train themselves to deal with knocks, to deal with the challenges.”

Student Mirabel Huang: each year the school commissions exciting guest choreographers to make new work for students

They must also nurture “that creativity within them that says, ‘Actually, if I look across the way, what do I see? What am I able to engage with that’s a bit different?

How can I offer my services, as someone who’s creative, to actually help a community group with my choreography? What wouldn’t I do before that I can actually do now?’

“We encourage our students to really think about spreading their wings and disappearing and having an international career. We’re not saying that that’s not possible. But right now, what happens at home?
What do we do collectively together at home, where we’ve got spaces that are empty? Where can your show happen? There’s a lot of empty shop windows. I went to my first performance recently, which was on the back of a truck in the south of Leeds. It was phenomenal.

“Creativity enables you to go into places and spaces that you ordinarily wouldn’t think about. So let’s just open that up and explore that.”

For every dancer planning a show in a shop window, of course, there’s an MP or newspaper columnist complaining that you just can’t get a plumber these days. Or suggesting that arts funding, and arts degrees, are merely ‘nice-to-haves’, and an indulgence in today’s economy.

Sharon is frustrated at this political mindset, the idea that has been gathering pace in Westminster for years that if it’s not STEM it’s not worth bothering with.

“It’s infuriating; it really is infuriating,” she says, pointing out that most MPs visit the theatre several times and year and that, when dignitaries visit these shores, “We don’t take them to the pub. We don’t take them to the best shops. We take them to see our culture.”

NSCD’s own illustrious alumni, it should be pointed out, include internationally celebrated dancers and choreographers Akram Khan, Tamsin Fitzgerald and Carlos Pons Guerra.

“It’s not an area that can be digitalised, or taken over by robots. It’s the one thing that requires the human form. And they need to invest in that, because culture is the thing that keeps us alive. The fact that, actually, we spend many, many years perfecting our art is not something that happens overnight. So the respect needs to be there. The government really does need to stop, check and find out. I mean, I don’t know what they’re against. I really don’t, but they want the great orchestra. They want the great pianist and various others – that comes with hard work and investment.”

So if we had Gavin Williamson on this Zoom call, right now, what would she say to him?

Sharon doesn’t hesitate: “Gavin, you’re missing an absolute trick. I think your economy needs us. And we know why you need us. And if you’re not awake to that, then spend some time talking to the people that actually deliver it, experience it, have knowledge about it, and can help to educate you and your team about it. But don’t ignore us.”

The education minister would certainly be hard pushed to find anyone who better understands the process and the transformative power of a performing arts education. A Leeds native herself, Sharon was once a student at the institute she now runs. Her first dance lesson, aged nine, was with the founding principal of the NSCD, Nadine Senior MBE, then a local PE teacher (“She was able to have dance put down on the curriculum. Government, there’s a note for you.”). A photo of Sharon as a student at the entrance to NSCD in 1996 shows her on the brink of a highly successful career as a dancer and choreographer, but with little inkling of what would come after that.

“My mother did say to me, ‘Don’t you remember saying once, Sharon, you’d really like that job?’ And I said, ‘I do, mum, but you just say it, and you just carry on with life.’ Sixteen years later, this opportunity has been afforded to me. So yeah, maybe it was in my subconscious at that time.

“I’ve always felt that I wanted to contribute on a senior level in terms of management. I’ve had a very successful performance career. But I’ve always seen the other side of actually managing and trying to help to change the system. I came back here as a lecturer and realised that there were probably things here that could be done differently, that would impact our sector and give our students a broader opportunity.”

The Sharon Watson story – from student to dancer, to choreographer, to artistic director of award-winning Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre, to leader of the institute where it all began – and the way it interlinks with that of the school, itself set up to nurture the talents of local young people, is important for the students to know, she says.

What you have to be able to do is take the sensation, the emotions, the physical feel of what it is that you want to translate, and talk about it.

Does she ever find herself reminiscing aloud about what it was like when she was the one being taught here?

“I definitely don’t do that! I’ve only just met my students. I need to stay in the background to see how they’re operating currently in this environment, what it is that they need, how they communicate, and how we’re getting through Covid.

“They will get ‘back in the day’ at some point. But in the context of knowing how important it is to understand that you can have a performance career and come through and do other things as well.”

Like the school’s founder, Sharon is determined to help demolish the barriers preventing certain groups from entering performing arts education. And as one of a tiny minority of black people working in senior roles within higher education – Hesa statistics in January revealed that the number of black academics in the most senior leadership roles had fallen from an estimated five in 2017–18 to possibly zero in the last academic year – she also has a message for her peers.

It is “alarming”, she says, that since the Race Equality Charter for higher education was introduced in 2012, at the last count, just 66 universities have signed up.

“We have a lot of policies around everything, and I don’t understand why race equality action is something that is not deemed necessary, or essential. And it makes me question the leadership around that. It’s about the accountability.

The papers and the policies that sit on our desks are only as useful as the action that comes with them.
“And I’m not sure why there’s a resistance. That’s what I would question. ‘Where do you see the problem? Where do you feel that you actually are justified in not addressing this area of your work? And what does that say to the wider sector? What does that say to people like me?’ You’re compounding the problem of inequalities around diversity. It ain’t good enough.”

Diversity is vital within governance, she says. “If we don’t have a board at least 50% diverse, then we’re not going to get the job done.”

For all the strains and frustrations involved in being a senior figure in the higher education world in 2020, Sharon insists she does not miss dancing.

“I also knew that there was a part of me that was an educator. And I could always feel that fight between saying, ‘OK, I love my performance career, I’m good at it, I can deliver.’ But, actually, there’s something about being able to look at another student, another peer and say ‘if you did X, Y and Z, that would be so much better’.”

I don’t know what the government is against. I really don’t. But they want the great orchestra, they want the great pianist, and various others – that comes with hard work and investment.

Right now, Sharon’s working on the NSCD’s strategy for the next five years. “We remain absolutely committed to our locality. But, also, we’ve got an international reach that we need to maintain. And to continue to be able to be visible in both areas is the job that I need to do – and bring others with me.

“We’re in the heart of a place called Chapeltown. Primarily black, just round the corner is primarily Asian, and we’ve got Polish – we are in an area that is really saturated with rich culture. And I do believe also it’s been a little neglected by our council here.

“The school was built here for a specific reason, to be able to blend with our community. I’m looking at the footprint extending into the community even more; looking at how we bring the community into our spaces.”

It takes exceptional vision and stamina to map out ambitious expansion plans when your own, personal space feels like it’s shrinking (as we go to print, the country’s second lockdown has begun). What keeps Sharon going in challenging times like these?

“I’m inspired by music. I’ve started downloading audio books. I tend to walk quite a bit. And I have a family that keeps me very, very real, and keeps my feet on the ground. The real world is part of what I think keeps me going.”

And then, of course, there’s the dancing.

“I can leave my desk and I can take a walk up the stairs, and watch the students working in the studio having class.

“I can go into the theatre and see a piece of work being rehearsed, and really contribute to that.

“We’ve had a lot of time on Zoom, but to just be able to take hold of the environment where we operate is a real blessing. It’s inspiring. It brings me back to my desk with new ideas.”

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