“No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs”
Rising up against racism!
It’s easy to forget the explicit racism of the 60’s and 70’s, whether that was in employment, housing, politics or education. Police used stop-and-search powers to target and arrest minorities. Landlords and homeowners refused home leases or sales to people of colour. And shop windows and pubs would have signs that read ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’.
While all of this was happening, a young man called Norman Murray was a dancer at the Willesden Jazz Company. It was there in the 60s where he met mum and Alison Bentley (now Beckett). The two of them were enamoured with him; he was a lovely man with incredible talent. They’d soon help Norman build a career in the performing arts.
Though you wouldn’t know it from his name, Norman was black. And though he loved London, the city at that time was not kind to people of colour. Growing up in London meant Norman read about police violence against black people, particularly black men and both witnessed and experienced the abuse that people of colour endured.
It wasn’t just the forgettable – but unforgivable – instances of prejudice that Norman remembers like being refused a drink in a pub on Baker Street. It was also more important stuff. Like turning up to rent a flat and having the door slammed in his face because he was black.
Like many people of colour Norman became resilient. He focused on what he wanted to achieve and he decided that he would not let anything stand in his way.
Thus, Namron Yarrum was born.
Yes, Norman Murray changed his name to its back-to-front version. It was an act of defiance, of rising up against the racism of the day and of reclaiming his identity for himself. In practical terms, he hoped this meant he would there would be no more wasted journeys to view flats that wouldn’t ever be let to a black man. Nobody would think he was white with a name like Namron. Nothing was going to slow him down on his journey to realising his passion: DANCE.
So when mum and Alison met Namron they were helping someone who was already firmly committed to their path. But their help was welcome. They both saw past the racism of the time; what they saw was a young, likeable black man with great talent. And they embarked on a journey with him which would lead to Namron becoming the first black dancer to be employed by a UK ballet company.
He gave up his engineering apprenticeship to study dance full-time. His parents were disappointed with this decision but he promised himself that if he couldn’t earn a living by 25, he would go back to engineering.
He never had to.
Namron and mum worked together at Willesden and he would join her for classes at Golders Green. Mum soon helped him find his first job on stage at the London Festival of Ballet, where he danced as an extra alongside some of his idols. Soon after that he received a scholarship to Rambert, which led to further opportunities and a successful, 20-year career as a dancer.
Namron tells me that mum gave so many opportunities to the under-privileged. He says she was one of those ‘special people’, particularly to a lot of black kids. Looking back on his career and how it all started, Namron says that if it wasn’t for mum pushing and inspiring him, he wouldn’t be here. It was mum who set him up for success.
Today Urdang is still all about identifying talent and helping kids from disadvantaged backgrounds make the most of what they’ve got. But talent isn’t enough; you must also be resilient. And nothing says that more than Namron’s story of defiance and commitment. We try to bring Namron’s spirit into Urdang every day, teaching our students that they have to be tough and to work hard for what you want.
…And this is a theme I am going to pick up in my next post. How we set students up for success in life and in dance.