Sharon Watson principal of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance on why the pandemic has made art more valuable than ever

Leeds may not have been named City of Culture but there is a campaign under way to make sure that Leeds 2023 is a year to remember. Catherine Scott speaks to Sharon Watson, principal of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance

Sharon Watson believes in a post-pandemic world culture has never been more important. “Whether you are performing or watching the arts it is so good for your mental wellbeing,” says the CEO and Principal of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. “Mental health has never been as important as it is now and I just hope the government and other bodies recognise that.”

Watson is proud that the school survived the lockdowns, although admits it was a massive challenge for all involved.

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“I took on this role in May 2020 and two years later the world is a very different place. At one point we really didn’t know if we would come out the other side but thanks to the agile working and resilience of our staff and students we did.

Sharon Watson - copywrite David LindsSharon Watson - copywrite David Linds
Sharon Watson - copywrite David Linds

“We had 150 young people from all over the world asking us ‘what do we do?’ It was extremely challenging. Many of them were a long way from home and we started to realise quite quickly how integral the school was to their lives. Some of them lived in a box, some had no computer or the wifi wasn’t working. They normally ate lunch at the school but we were closed and so as a result we had to find other ways of supporting them. We operated a food delivery system to provide them with lunches or they came and picked it up.”

Despite everything the school kept going and the students kept being taught even if it had to be remotely for a number of months.

“We had to come up with new ways of teaching and even once students were allowed back into the school there was social distancing and masks which is hard especially for choreographers. But I am proud that we kept going and all students could do their final pieces. In most cases you didn’t realise that the dancers weren’t touching each other. The choreographers had been so resourceful.”

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It is clear that Watson sees the survival of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance as much more than just for herself, the students and her staff. It was founded by Nadine Senior MBE in 1985 – Senior is the woman that Watson credits with her own successful dance career.

Sharon WatsonSharon Watson
Sharon Watson

Watson came from a family of four girls and four boys. Her older sister Dawn began dance classes at the local Harehills Middle School, where Nadine Senior had made dance a compulsory part of the PE curriculum.

“I couldn’t wait to get to nine, and start dancing at Harehills,” remembers Watson. “When I did, it just put more fire in my belly. Nadine had a real way of capturing the imagination. She spotted mine and Dawn’s potential and was determined that nothing would stand in our way.”

When 16-year-old Watson left for London, it was Ms Senior who arranged the travel and initial accommodation, and applied for her grant . “She wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

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She enjoyed her time in London despite being so young. “We worked incredibly hard as we knew we had to to become a success,” recalls the mum of three.

“We had to put the hours in. We started at 8am and finished at 8pm so there really wasn’t much time to get up to mischief.”

After graduating, Watson landed a sponsored three-year position as apprentice dancer with Extemporary Dance Theatre. “It never occurred to me that I would come back to Leeds,” she admits.

The turning point of Watson’s career – joining Phoenix Dance Company – nearly passed her by. Founded in 1981 as an all-male company, Phoenix under Neville Campbell’s directorship decided to take on female dancers in 1989.

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“They weren’t going to call me,” says Watson. “Apparently they didn’t want to call me as I had a job in London. They approached other female dancers, including my sister, but not me.”

But then she did then get the call inviting her for a new six-month project.

“When I did get the call I was delighted to accept although I did say ‘what took you so long?’” It made her one of the first female Principal Dancers invited to join the all-male award winning Phoenix Dance Company, touring with the company from 1989 to 1997 where she choreographed Never Still and Shaded Limits. Having left Phoenix to pursue a number of other ventures including setting up her own company ABCD, Watson returned in 2009 as the new Artistic Director.

During her tenure at Phoenix Dance Theatre, Sharon received a number of awards and accolades: In 2010, she was named as one of the Cultural Leadership Programme’s ‘Women to Watch’, a list of 50 influential women working in arts and culture in the UK. She was awarded The Sue Ryder ‘Yorkshire Women of Achievement in Business Award’ and named ‘Yorkshire Woman of the Year’ in 2016. She recently received the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts’ Companionship Award from Sir Paul McCartney and was recognised as one of ‘100 faces of a vibrant economy 2017’ by Grant Thornton. Acknowledged at the 2017 Northern Power Women Awards as part of the very first ‘Top 50 Power List’, in 2018 Sharon won the First English Woman’s Award for Arts and Culture.

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She says at the time she didn’t see herself as a trailblazer for women or black dancers.

“At the time you are just busy getting on with your job and it wasn’t until people pointed it out to me.” Watson says she has always been happy to speak her mind, and point out injustices and today is a vehement about diversity and inclusion.

“I do feel as a black female I have nothing to lose by speaking out and everything to gain and I do find that approach does get me into spaces and places.”

In 2018. Northern School of Contemporary Dance presented Watson with an Honorary Fellowship and in July of 2019 she received an Honorary Doctorate from Leeds Beckett University and in October of the same year she was named the ‘Arts and Media Senior Leader of the Year’ by the Black British Business Awards.

She sits on the Leeds 2023 Board of Trustees.

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“This, as with Leeds 2023, is a moment in time that shows us all what we as a city and people are capable of. Many people aren’t aware that in NSCD we have an internationally-recognised conservatoire, training aspiring professional dancers from across the world.

“We want to demonstrate why and how Leeds is seen by those in the dance world as important, to people in neighbourhoods across Leeds, and give them something to be proud of and to even get involved in. It hasn’t been easy or without its problems but there are going to be some amazing things happening in Leeds next year at a time when people need the arts more than ever.”