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West End Choreographer Steve Elias Has Civic Pride

As The Civic in Barnsley launches a major fundraising campaign to ‘Give The Civic Back to the People’, Steve Elias talks to Yorkshire Life about why he’s supporting their ambition to become a world class centre for the arts.

West End choreographer Steve Elias had a dream to bring dance to the streets of Yorkshire. His BBC series, Our Dancing Town, caught the newspaper headlines: “Welsh Billy Elliot who is getting miners to trip the light fantastic with inspirational dance classes”. It trended on Twitter, and it left audiences feeling warm and fuzzy.

He put Barnsley on the map, making stars out of every-day folk. Miners, majorettes, police officers, glass workers and office workers took part.

Nick had competed in ballroom and ballet at Blackpool but gave it up to work at his dad’s fish and chip shop and had lost all confidence. Joan had dreams of being a Bluebell Girl, but school work got in the way. And Danny, who worked in the offices of his dad’s haulage recruitment company, emerged as something of a star, but had also given up on dance – cue Steve Elias, entering stage left.

“I said to Danny you know what, you’re a diamond in the rough. He stepped away from dance due to bullying but I was just going, you’ve got something, where do you want to go with it? Take it further. I have opened the door, I’ve left it ajar for him to step through. And I think he could do it. He found his love again. It took an outsider. I was just working on instinct, and he had a raw talent, he has it in spades.”

73 year-old Joan told the Barnsley Chronicle, it took her four hours to do a bit of shopping because so many people wanted to hug her and talk to her about the programme.

Steve said of those who took part in Barnsley: “After a fortnight they walked taller - they gained two inches - they walked with a sense of purpose and pride.”

Belief in this transformative power of dance, mixed with his own background growing up in Carmarthen, South Wales, makes Steve an inspiring mentor.

A bear of a man, who wears his heart on his sleeve, he describes himself as built like a ‘prop forward’ (he was a rugby player till aged 18). So who inspired Steve?

“Sadly no one, I did it on my own!” he laughs. “I’d seen my brother in an amateur performance when I was six and that was the lightning bolt moment, and that’s all I ever wanted to do. I found my own way.”

Steve said he was lucky to get into the National Youth Theatre in Wales, where he met likeminded folk, before going to Middlesex Poly to study, because their style of teaching didn’t demand ‘Lycra or ballet pumps’. He knew he had to get to London.

“I didn’t know how to, so I found my own way. I graduated, I auditioned, I got a job and I literally built and found my own way through.” It’s this which inspires his mentoring.

“I love going back and trying to help people. I spent the last four years as artistic director of Carmarthen youth opera only because I didn’t have anyone helping me. Anything I can give back – it’s my mission. I was one of the lucky ones who found a way through. I’m evangelical about that.”

The Civic, an independent arts charity, where some of Our Dancing Town was filmed, is a much loved Grade II listed building that has been part of the town since 1877. A modern extension was opened in 2009, but a third of the historic building is unoccupied with its traditional front entrance and foyer on Eldon Street disconnected from the rest of the building. Their vision is to return it to its full glory, make The Civic the heart of Barnsley, and ensure Barnsley’s future as a significant cultural destination.

The renovation will include an Eldon Street box office and café, the refurbishment of three un-used floors, featuring an extended gallery and a new theatre space.

“I think anywhere like The Civic should become the hub in the middle of any town,” Steve said. “My own hometown has the Lyric and they’re in the same place as The Civic, in that they are there but haven’t managed to become the one stop shop. It should be an open door. The place where you have a coffee, look at the art gallery, and be the first thing you think ‘performing arts’ in Barnsley. That’s the only way it could survive.”

He sees Barnsley as a phoenix rising after coming through the collapse of the glass and coal industries - with its town centre re-development plans.

“If you can just see it through for another couple of years, the achievement and sense of pride will be on a different scale. It will be a destination. I think culture does that. The services I was using at The Civic are as good as any country wide - the rehearsal space, the people working there and running it - so just times that by 10 by really opening it out, it will be amazing. It really will energise the community I think.”

Steve sees the arts as a celebration of identity and community, and puts the success of Our Dancing Town to being an ‘antidote’ to the politics of our day.

“It’s a simple thing but it permeates deeper – you get a group of people sweating together, laughing together and failing together in a studio, trying to learn steps but getting them wrong, you’re collectively helping each other. Colour, creed, religion doesn’t come into it. Dance has its own vocabulary. If you look at Huddersfield, which is one of the biggest multi-cultural towns in Yorkshire, and we got the Bhangra and the Kurdish - that was a great platform to go look, these people do live side by side, they’re Yorkshire through and through. And I do feel that sense of community spirit, and bringing people together is something that the performing arts can do.”

Dance is now on trend, Steve says thanks to groups like Diversity to the Ballet Boys. The Ukrainian ballet dancer, Sergei Polunin, whose routine to Take Me To Church has had almost 19 million views, is helping make dance hot.

“He’s an enfant terrible, he has these tattoos … Young men connect to it – it’s cool and sexy to be a male dancer. I think they’ve become a bit like sex symbols - rock gods - and anything where you have male or female attention is good for the soul I think,” he laughs.

Sex symbols, like you?

Steve laughs, “I think I’m a bit over the hill now! I tick the everyman box, look, I look like a prop forward, but if I can do it! I think that’s my role – to be disarming.”

Getting people to raise money for the arts isn’t easy – a bit like getting miners to dance, but even they were behind him.

“On a personal level, I thought Barnsley was an incredible town, the people in it are open, passionate, loyal, and I was welcomed with open hearts. Even on TV where you saw a little resistance from the miners, what you didn’t’ see was they presented me with a ceramic plate as a celebration - with all the names of the mines on it - and one of the miners gave me his individual Davy lamp with his mining number still on it as a way of saying thank you and welcome to Barnsley - I know your Welsh but you’re as good as working class, Barnsley! It really touched my heart. It’s been an amazing, life changing experience.”

To support The Civic’s campaign, visit www.barnsleycivic.co.uk/supportus/connect or Join the debate #connect @BarnsleyCivic