A new TV documentary series bringing people from Yorkshire towns together to dance in the street starts this week. Chris Bond finds out more.
Amos Dewhurst is the first to admit he’s not a natural dancer.
So when the 62 year-old farmer from Skipton was approached by a team of producers working on a new BBC TV series bringing together local people to dance through the streets of their town, he was a little bit sceptical. “I said did they realise that most farmers have two left feet or a wooden leg...” he says, jokingly.
Amos has been a farmer all his working life and is among those who danced their way through the streets of the North Yorkshire market town for Our Dancing Town, which starts on Tuesday night.
Last summer, residents from Skipton, Barnsley and Huddersfield celebrated their history and heritage in a series of one-off dance spectacles that took place through each town’s streets. These are captured in five, one-hour, episodes that culminate in a grand finale dance in York city centre featuring more than 500 people, including some of those from the other towns taking part.
Amos, who has a farm in Winterburn, near Skipton, got involved after a friend at a local farm shop heard about the show and contacted him. “He rang me and asked me if I wanted to get involved and I thought it wouldn’t do any harm. I’m quite public spirited and I think they wanted someone who knew the farming community here,” he says.
“I turned up for a meeting and there were people from all walks of life. The Lord Mayor was there and there were trades people and dance groups. I came away and I said to my wife, ‘I’ve not been to a meeting for years where everyone has been so upbeat and wanting a bit of the action.’”
Amos managed to drum up some more support and was joined on the day of filming by 10 other farmers and together with more than 200 other locals they made their way through the streets of Skipton. “Everyone enjoyed it and if nothing else comes of it we’ve made some friends because you end up talking to people you wouldn’t normally associate with.”
Skipton doesn’t often get much attention from the outside world and Amos believes a documentary like this can help boost the town’s image.
Another reason he got involved was to try to promote another of his passions – sheepdog training. He’s opened a sheepdog training clinic in the hope of prolonging what he fears is a dwindling craft. “If we don’t get some new blood in then it could just disappear but I thought if we could get some non-farming members interested it could be beneficial.”
And when he took part in the finale in York he was taken aback by the level of interest. “I couldn’t believe how many people came over to talk to me and stroke my two dogs and they really were interested. Farmers are often quite isolated and I think something like this can help start to build a bridge between the town and country.”
Michaela Robinson and her daughter Jade were among those who took part in the dance through York. Mother and daughter spent much of last year volunteering to help victims of the devastating floods that hit the city at the end of 2015.
The pair were lent a van from which they handed out free hot food and drinks first to the emergency services and then flood victims and later on the contractors tasked with repairing all the damage.
They were affectionately dubbed ‘Fossy’s Flossys’ and when the documentary team arrived they were asked to get involved. “I can’t dance and the only time I do is when I’m on a night out with the girls but being part of this was amazing, it really brought the community together,” says Michaela.
“Each group did their own little performance and when it came to the finale with everyone taking part I didn’t want it to stop.”
It was a boost for the flood victims, some of whom still haven’t been able to return home yet. “They joined in and it gave them something else to focus on,” she says.
For Michaela, it was a chance to take part in a community event. “I’m proud and honoured to have been asked to be part of it and I think all the other dance teams feel the same.”
Steve Elias was the man tasked with choreographing a unique dance parade for each of the towns. He’s an acclaimed West End performer and choreographer who has performed in some of Britain’s best-known musicals, but this was an altogether different challenge.
He took his cue from the memorable opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics which set the tone for the sporting triumphs that followed. “It showed what makes the UK great and what can happen when you bring people together,” he says.
Steve spent some time in each place getting to know people before starting the routines. “I knew that each town should have a different sound, so in Barnsley I thought the focus should be on brass bands and in Huddersfield I wanted it to be the rhythm of the looms because of the cloth mills, but I also wanted to incorporate its cultural diversity through bhangra and Sikh rhythms, and with Skipton I wanted to create a more pastoral feel.”
He and his team had just three months to devise the routines, get people involved, rehearse them and then film them on the day. This meant speaking to as many people as possible and using them to galvanise local support. “Once they were on board with it they were incredible, I couldn’t have asked for any more.”
Not that it was straightforward. As well as having to contend with the unpredictability of a British summer, at one point he was simultaneously trying to juggle three pieces of music and choreography for 1,300 people.
But he found the whole experience inspiring and believes all the hard work paid off. “It’s not about trying to create dance professionals and it’s not about me – it’s about the people in these communities celebrating their towns and celebrating Yorkshire,” he says.
“It can sound pretentious talking about the transformative powers of dance. But if you get a lot of people together who’ve never danced before in one room who laugh together, make mistakes together and learn together it can be inspiring – it’s about empowerment not embarrassment.
“I met a lady called Joan in Skipton and it turned out she hadn’t danced in 25 years since her husband died. I persuaded her to dance a little bit in the performance in Skipton and she’s now made new friends and goes dancing three times a week.
“When you see her in York it’s like you’re looking at a different person, she looks 10 or 15 years younger, she was a revelation.”
Steve says this was just one of numerous stories that came out of the filming. “A lot of people said they didn’t expect to take on something new or make new friends but that’s what dance, and performance in general, can do.”
Our Dancing Town starts on BBC Two, tomorrow at 9pm.
Putting best foot forward
Steve Elias is used to working with dance professionals rather than enthusiastic amateurs, but he found the challenge of encouraging ordinary people to dance an inspiring one.
In the first episode, he begins his Yorkshire odyssey in Barnsley, delving into its rich industrial past, as he attempts to recruit a cast of hundreds. On his mission to get Barnsley dancing, Steve encounters ex-miners keen to commemorate their camaraderie, taps into the town’s thriving Northern Soul scene and unearths hidden talent in the local chippie.
But can he unite them, and convince them to join his ambitious dance parade, which will be captured with one camera, in one, continuous, unedited take?