Why ‘diversity in the arts’ doesn’t make sense to me...
It’s a big issue, I get that. Of course I do. But… really? Is this how we are supposed to ‘make it right’? To have meetings planning how to get more BME kids into our colleges and then into the profession?
Look. Turn it round. Does the opposite make sense? Does it make sense to say ‘we shouldn’t have all sorts of people involved in the arts’. Of course it doesn’t. So what are we talking about?
Let me share a little bit about where I’m coming from here.
My late mother, Leonie Urdang, left South Africa as a young woman. Like many at that time in the sixties, she was appalled by the racism she saw all around her.
Her dad, my grandfather, was a solicitor representing coloured people in Cape Town. The system was stacked against them, of course. It was hard for my grandfather to get justice for the people he helped.
My mother couldn’t stand that. She left and she never wanted to go back.
Then when she moved to the UK, my mother saw that black people here were treated unfairly. That they didn’t get the opportunities they should. I think it kind of shocked her – she thought she had left all that behind. But of course she hadn’t. Of course there was – and is – racism here. It just wasn’t as obvious as it was in South Africa.
My mother lived to find and support great dancers. It was always all about the talent with her. The things she experienced growing up in apartheid South Africa informed her sense of what was right and wrong. And another sensibility my mother brought with her to the UK was that African sense of hospitality – that everyone in your house is family.
That was the beginning of the Urdang Academy and the ethos we have always had: we’re about supporting and training talent from all backgrounds and breaking down cultural barriers. My mother just didn't know any other way to run her school – and neither do I.
That ethos has meant that we have always attracted great talent regardless of whether they had the privilege of being exposed to pre-vocational dance training or not. My mother wanted to find raw talent and give it a chance. Black, white. Big, small. It didn’t matter to her. It shouldn’t matter to anyone.
And that is why Urdang raises approximately £500,000 every year to help all our students who need financial support through events such as weddings, space rental as well as fundraising activities. Why we have the highest ‘diversity intake’ compared to other colleges providing a similar curriculum. Why 92% of our 2015 non-white graduates were in employment within six months of graduation – something we’re very proud of and which shows we’re training people who go on to work in the sector. Why we nurture talent in every possible way so we are the one-stop feeder college for casting directors looking for diverse talent for West End productions, UK tours and commercial dance.
Things have developed since my mother started Urdang. We are not only about ballet and dance – in fact we are now one of the leading musical theatre colleges in the UK. But the ethos has never changed.
We don’t have to ‘add diversity’ to what we do because it’s already who we are. We don’t wonder how we will support our students, because ‘in our house’ really means ‘family’. This is bred in the bone. It’s who I am. It’s what Urdang is and what it always will be.
Pictured above - The late Desmond Harris with Diana, Princess of Wales.