Remembering Nadine Senior MBE

28 Jan 2021

Today marks five years since the passing of the extraordinary dance pioneer Nadine Senior MBE.

Our company was formed in 1981 by David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James whose passion for dance was inspired by the tuition they received by Nadine at Harehills Middle School. Nadine then went on to found Northern School of Contemporary Dance (now led by our former Artistic Director, Sharon Watson MBE, who was one of Nadine’s pupils at Harehills Middle School).

Nadine was the Chair of Phoenix’s Board of Trustees for six years, and we owe so much to her steadfast support of our company. She was a true trailblazer and her passion for dance inspired so many individuals – many of whom have gone on to have long and successful careers in the arts, including Neville Campbell,  David Hamilton MBE, David Hughes, Pam Johnson, Paul Liburd MBE, Colin Poole, Darshan Singh Bhuller, Sharon Watson MBE, Kathy Williams OLY and many others.

Her passion and spirit remain as a driving force within our organisation. Our thoughts today are with her family, friends, and colleagues across the industry


Image: Peter Huggins. Courtesy of NSCD


In Autumn 2017, we co-hosted a Celebration Gala in honour of Nadine Senior’s life at Leeds Playhouse (then the West Yorkshire Playhouse). You can read the excerpt of the opening note below which gives insight into Nadine’s life and legacy.

Over three decades, from the 1970s to 2001, Nadine’s inspirational teaching and her visionary, determined leadership in educational dance transformed the lives of many people she taught, across the cultural landscape of Leeds and dance in the UK.  Her pioneering work that began at Harehills Middle School, in a multi-racial, economically deprived neighbourhood, resulted in 48 of the pupils, 44 of them boys, going on to study dance at a vocational level.  

Her work in Leeds widened opportunities and served to raise the aspirations of her pupils. 

If you had been in Leeds in the 1970s and 80s you might have seen some remarkable dance performances by pupils of Harehills Middle School, which became known for the exuberant physical and expressive skills of the young boys and girls, and for their discipline and artistry. The impact was all the more impressive as the school was located in a neighbourhood of multiple deprivation with high unemployment, low household incomes, over-crowded housing and high crime rates. It also had a large ethnic immigrant population primarily from  the Asian and African-Caribbean communities. Dance proved a perfect subject for the school’s diverse pupil population and was loved by girls and boys alike.   

Nadine, born and brought up in Scarborough, had been introduced to educational dance based on Rudolf Laban’s work, while studying to be a Physical Education teacher at Lady Mabel College in South Yorkshire. She had joined the staff of Harehills Middle School in 1970 and in 1972 Head teacher Jack Bramwell, who believed in the educational value of dance for everyone, took the then radical move of making dance a compulsory part of the curriculum for all pupils. He asked Nadine to take charge of its delivery. 

The curriculum and teaching developed creativity, autonomy, commitment and discipline with the pupils gaining confidence through creating and performing together. The experience also helped them develop many other personal and life skills.  

Some of the pupils continued to dance at secondary school and at Intake High School which had a strong arts curriculum including dance. However, in order to meet the needs of others and widen opportunity in the Harehills and Chapeltown communities, Nadine became instrumental in setting up Harehills Youth Group as an

evening and weekend activity. The group built a strong reputation and went on to perform nationally.

The now internationally renowned Phoenix Dance Theatre was co-founded by three young men, David (Leo) Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James,  who had first been introduced to dance at Harehills Middle School. They toured extensively with Harehills Youth Group, establishing themselves in the sector whilst gaining recognition for their work.

A significant number of those who had started dancing with Nadine ultimately went on to become world class dancers, artistic directors, dance teachers, arts administrators, producers and leaders.  Because of the nature of the Harehills district, there is remarkable diversity in this pool of talent and a high proportion of the dancers are also male – Nadine had made dancing a ‘cool’ thing to do. Artistic journeys begun at Harehills have gone on to revolutionise the face of dance, contributing to the forming of Phoenix Dance Theatre, ACE Music and Dance, RJC Dance and to the rich diversity of dance in the city and nationally. 

Nadine’s contribution didn’t stop here…

In the late 1970s London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT) came north from its home at The Place, providing innovative educational residencies led by Artistic Director, Robert Cohan. The Harehills pupils were taken to watch this renowned American choreographer creating work with professional dancers in open sessions. They watched and listened whilst the dancers demonstrated and Cohan discussed movement technique, style and the creative process. 

Nadine also built strong links with the founder of London Contemporary Dance School (LCDS), Robin Howard, and opened up a potential progression route for the aspiring dance artists which were starting to proliferate in Leeds. At one point the city was sending more students on to LCDS for vocational training than any other local authority across the UK. Nadine saw it was a huge challenge for some youngsters to cope with life in London and felt that something more affordable should be possible in the region.  She pursued the mission to create a vocational contemporary dance school in Leeds, lobbying at all levels, and won initial funding from the Gulbenkian Foundation and the backing of Leeds City Council. 

The Northern School of Contemporary Dance (NSCD) came into being because of Nadine’s leadership and determination as well as her educational philosophy and vision. It grew out of her inspirational teaching at Harehills Middle School in Leeds.

NSCD opened in a temporary home in 1985 with an intake of just 13 students and moved to its current location, a former Synagogue in Chapeltown, the following year. NSCD was unique as the first vocational dance institution with 

public sector funding. It remains the only such institution for Contemporary Dance 

in the country outside of London. 

Appointed founding Principal, Nadine had gathered a small dedicated staff team together, including Alison Beckett who oversaw the ballet provision and Namron, a long-standing LCDT company member, providing the contemporary dance. Gurmit Hukam also a founding member, later went on to become the principal of the school.  NSCD has continued to thrive and attract both staff and students of the highest calibre. It has achieved international recognition as a centre of excellence in dance education and development while retaining its commitment to access and widening participation.

Nadine led the School until her retirement in 2001. In that time NSCD set up an Access Programme for young people, an Undergraduate Degree Programme and outreach and community provision which continues to evolve and grow.  She also worked to expand the building facility and in 1998 the then Minister of Arts, Mark Fisher, officially opened a £3.2 million redevelopment of the School.

By the time Nadine retired from the School in 2001, she had built a tremendous legacy. Alumni from the school are based all over the world working across many areas of dance, passing on Nadine’s passion to new generations of dance artists.  

This article draws from Nadine Senior’s ‘Reflections on the Dance Educational Phenomenon at Harehills Middle School’ published by Dance UK 22.03.2013