Villmore James started dancing 50 years ago – and hasn’t stopped since. He set up Phoenix Dance Compnay with 2 friends in Leeds in 1981 and still works as a dancer and teacher. Mally Harvey spoke to Villmore about his life in dance.
Even on Zoom, Villmore James’s enthusiasm for dance shines through. He’s danced for 50 years and is still as passionate about the art form as he was when he was a 10-year-old at Harehills Middle School. But it wasn’t as unusual for a boy to dance as we might think. “There were so many boys dancing,” he says. “It was basically the norm. There were almost more boys than girls going into that creative art at that time.” Villmore is still enthusiastic about boys’ dance. He says, “Boys’ dance is an extremely powerful thing to watch!
The performance is
the main thing. It’s always about the performer performing.
Tell me about the early years. Who first introduced you to dance at school?
The teacher was Nadine Senior – a lovely teacher, very creative. She was a P.E. teacher, but she stepped into dance when she was younger and continued in the P.E. section. We are going back 50 years now! Going back to a time when it was very new, a new activity to be brought into schools. It was taken on by not all the schools in Leeds - but by the majority. Nadine introduced us into dance and the creative world. Seeing all the guys dance was just inspirational. If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have had a career in dance. She taught us the creative aspects of the Laban type of dance, but I learned more of the technique from John Auty at Intake High School.
Were you encouraged by your family?
I think the people around me - my parents - didn’t really know any different. As far as they were concerned, we were going to school and what you learn at school, you learn at school. Dance was part of that activity. I don’t think they questioned the input of the cultural or movement arts.
What style of dance were you doing at that stage?
It was creative dance, modern dance. It was from the Laban movement, which we had begun with Nadine. Laban has a lot of technique, but we also delved into our creativity – being a flower, growing, using actions and putting it to music. And working together as males and females in one class, which, for some people, was a problem.
Everyone who was interested in dance went on to another school in Bramley – Intake High School. 7 or 8 miles on the bus. It took an hour to get to school. But that was the only school where we could continue with the performing arts. I was one of the last groups to be able to go up to that school. It stopped the year after me. Our dance teacher John Auty, he came from a different approach, more technical. He taught us to understand how our creative movements would help our performance. He taught us about weight, speed, shape and flow in dance, and the quality of the body working together. At Intake, there was more than dance: the performing arts, drama, musical plays, singing. I got my love of the stage from there.
There was a lot of trouble up there, a lot of prejudice. We had to combat that - not only from other pupils, but from teachers as well. Harehills had been mainly Black, and Intake was white middle-class, and we were coming into that area. It was hard, but as a group we were very close, and it was a good grounding, at that young age. I think it prepared us for the rest of our lives, we put up with it and got on with it.
John helped us develop the skills, creativity, understanding and technique, and we all concentrated on that. Even then, I wasn’t sure that dance was the career for me for me, I just followed my peers. At that time, I thought more about stage management.
There was a local group at the Civic Theatre who built sets and I helped there. I was going more with becoming a stage manager or stage crew.
Villmore James and Sally Owen, in Performance Ensemble’s Bus Ride (2016).
Image by Mike Pinches
You were part of setting up Phoenix Dance, weren’t you?
I left school when I was 15 or 16 and I went on a YOBS scheme at the Civic Theatre for 6 months. It was during that scheme that David Hamilton had the idea to create Phoenix. He was 3 years above me, so when I got to school at 10, he had done 2 years there. But I had met Dave when I was about 7. We all lived close by, grew up in the same area, went to Harehills School at the same time – either bumping into each other as kids or meeting them later. We all knew each other. We formed Phoenix and at that time we were very special. We were the only dance company that had never had professional training. It all came from school. We were an all-male black dance company too. We started Phoenix and things started to happen quickly. It was all coming to us!
We were mixed heritage, in the sense of a cultural heritage. We had African roots and had the Caribbean music and dance, our background and cultures. But we lived in Britain and we were mixing with our peers, listening to all the music – absorbing everything around us. And we were able to gel that in with our performances.
With Phoenix we did a lot of travelling. We were on tour for three months, over England, Scotland and Wales. In the early days we had to go to the venues by bus or train, carrying our costumes and ghetto blasters. We couldn’t drive and we didn’t have cars anyway. Then we got some Arts Council funding and got a bus and a driver. We toured in Spain, Germany, all over. And we spent 6 weeks in Australia in all sorts of venues. Into the Outback, performing in shacks. We had to adapt to suit the place where we were performing. One place was so small we could only fit 3 people on the stage at a time - so there were lots of duets, solos and trios – instead of all 5 of us being on stage at one time! I am sure lots of companies could not do that now; we had to be so versatile, we had to adapt the show. We were on the road all the time.We didn’t know what we were facing until we got there. From the largest places, down to the most minute. Schools, prisons – all kinds of places. Some venues were gigantic. We had to adapt the show when it comes to a performance. We had to get set up and in the early days we had to prepare everything before a performance. Once the technician wasn’t coming until 4pm so we had to put up our own lights and focus them – we had to do everything!
The performance is the main thing. It’s always about the performer performing. It doesn’t really matter what’s around it – the lights and all that. As long as you’ve got a clear space, the performer should be able to tell the story, without all the glitter. It’s nice to have all the lights and things to create an effect, but in the end it’s about the performance.
What have been the highlights for you? And what have you most enjoyed?
There have been lots of highlights, lots of opportunities in different places. One was the opportunity to go on the South Bank Show. But every performance was special, wherever it was. In colleges, schools - everyone was special wherever we performed. Working with primary schools, people with special needs, people in colleges. Every one of those people had a special, heartfelt experience.
As I say – it’s the performance, that’s the main thing. I do love performing and if it comes down to it, I would like to die as a performer, on stage. My heart is as a performer. I am getting older. I would like to continue performing but as I get older, there is only so much I can do. But I keep working my body, keep stretching, keep flexible, then it’ll hopefully keep healing itself. There are more constraints as you get older. But that happens because I’m not able to work my body all the time. I’d like to be 24/7 in a studio. Keep my muscles flexible, keep moving. There are so many people who’ve inspired me to keep going. So many people, too many to mention, but Tammy, Ross McCain and Nam Ron spring to mind. I admired them as dancers and how they performed.
What are you doing now?
The Performance Ensemble, a group formed specifically for older people, gives me that opportunity to do what
I love, to be creative. Things like that keep you going and if you end up doing a performance, then little things like that keep me going throughout the year. I love riding on my bike - I like it to be nice and warm though! I love walking, activities that keep me going. But performing still excites me and I benefit from it. Teaching keeps my body active. I go to the dance studio in Leeds at Mabgate, go to colleges and so forth. Just odd things to keep me going. When you’ve done something all your life, the benefits from it are not just in your body. The creativity, it still excites me. I just don’t want to throw that away. You have to change your teaching ethics to all the different groups you have. I like to move - go “bang, bang, bang”! Instead of “soft, soft, soft”. I’ve still got the energy to go for it as a dancer. But it depends where I am, how I approach my teaching.
I don’t always get there and achieve what I want to achieve - there are failures. But I think about how to do it the next time. I hope we are all lifetime learners - we can’t stop, can we, not really?
At present, I am doing an online dance/ movement psychotherapy course. It’s only the beginning of something, but it will be great to use the skills I have and adapt those skills to help people. To help people look at their bodies and how they use their bodies, then think about their mind and their bodies together.
You can’t treat one without the other. Getting them to look at their posture. Your posture, just the way you stand - it helps build confidence. Helping people understand that it all works together. Good posture can help with mental health. The mind and the body are powerful. My life’s not over yet - and I love to perform!
I have a grandson who is really keen on dancing. What advice would you give to him and to any young boys who want to dance?
The advice I would give anyone who wants to dance is enrol into a dance or creative arts school. It’s all about finding the right school. Or a dance centre to go to every week. Make sure you find the right one for him. That is important. Some of them might just do Ballet or Contemporary Dance. And some boys aren’t interested in that.
They just want to let out some energy in their movement, and go for it. We all have to move – and when boys move, it’s just as powerful as girls or women. Boys’ dance is a powerful thing to watch. Boys can interpret a lot through dance. Other boys might be scared but the ones who dance are really powerful.
What’s next for you Villmore?
Hopefully watch this space! I would love to continue in this field for the rest of my life. Over last 30 years I’ve had a stroke, a heart attack, blood clots and I am diabetic. I’ve had everything! Lots of other things have happened to me, but every time something has happened to me, I haven’t relied on my body’s collapse and gone down. I just got up, tried my hardest and got back to dance, the thing I love. That has helped a great deal. It’s important for people to know that you can help yourself. By working on your body, just keeping going. I’ve got a positive attitude and I say, “just keep moving!”
Thanks Villmore for sharing your story!
You can find out more about Phoenix Dance Theatre at www.phoenixdancetheatre.co.uk.
The company is planning to return to live performance in the Autumn.
Villmore is part of Performance Ensemble, who are always looking for creative older people to get involved.
Find out more at www.performanceensemble.com
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Older people share their memories of significant or interesting events in the history of Leeds. In partnership with Leeds Museums and Galleries.