Did your mum ever say to you it’s good to be different? Did you think that was just her way of making you feel better about yourself when you did something different than someone else? Or did you believe her?
Being different is a good thing. Doing things differently creates space to stand apart. My mother’s unconventional approach to life, work and dance was no exception. Leonie Urdang and the Urdang Academy always did stand apart.
Unconventional thinking is in our roots
Urdang’s roots go back to the 60s when my late mother moved here from South Africa. My mother couldn’t stand the apartheid system, it disgusted her and she’d had enough. She stood against the system, she uprooted her life and moved to London. Until Nelson Mandela was released, she wouldn’t go back. Her beliefs, the action she took, and her continued faith that change was possible made her a true advocate for the social change that the 60s brought in.
Although there was no apartheid system in London of course, black and white people were not treated the same. And even in the relatively liberal performing arts sector, there was what would now be called ‘institutional racism’. When my mother arrived here, there were simply no black ballet dancers in the UK.
So, when my mother created Urdang, a school that saw through colours and sizes in a laser-focused search for talent, she was choosing to resist the system and to do things differently. And being different is exactly what made Urdang stand out from the rest. People who were different but talented now had somewhere to go and train.
And I guess that our beginnings during that time of huge social upheaval has something to do with our continued approach. Urdang was founded on this bedrock of diversity and inclusion. And these different ways of thinking were embedded in me from the very beginning.
I was surrounded by ‘The Urdang’ as a child. I studied dance full-time from the age of 9, of course, and our whole life was geared around it. When I wasn’t studying dance, mum was teaching it or working to make the school great. So, I spent a lot of time at Urdang, waiting for mum or even being babysat by students and performers, including the singer Sade at one point!
I effectively grew up with Urdang. And so Urdang, the performing arts and my mum’s different approach to it all just became my normal way of thinking. This set the foundation for the MD role I would later take on at Urdang, after suddenly losing the unconventional figure who shaped it all, my mum. And it’s our unconventional roots and continued commitment to thinking differently that has helped Urdang become one of the UK’s leading performing arts schools today.
But my mum’s different way of thinking extended beyond the school and the performing arts, to the way she thought differently about her students at Urdang. She was so focused on nurturing dance talent that everything else came after that.
I remember one time we were all going camping. My mother was nowhere to be seen. We waited but then we couldn’t wait any more so we left. Two days later my mother turns up at the campsite. Two days! And she was really annoyed that we left without her. She was busy, she said. Someone had got into trouble and she had had to help them out.
Leonie Urdang pictured above. 1978, moving to Covent Garden starting to realise her dreams and being interviewed by the BBC.