Pioneering Leeds dance chief receives MBE in Queen's New Year Honours

Sharon Watson MBE. Picture: Tony JohnsonSharon Watson MBE. Picture: Tony Johnson
Sharon Watson MBE. Picture: Tony Johnson
A pioneer of Leeds dance is among the city’s heroes whose achievements have been recognised in the Queen’s New Year Honours' list.

Sharon Watson, CEO and principal of the Chapeltown’s Northern School of Contemporary Dance, has been awarded an MBE for her services to dance.

The 53-year-old told the Yorkshire Evening Post she was “absolutely delighted” to have been given the honour which recognises her impressive achievements as a dancer as well as an educator and businesswoman who has also championed diversity in the industry.

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Before taking up her latest role earlier this year, Sharon was the longest-standing artistic director of Leeds’ Phoenix Dance Theatre, having joined the company as one of the first female principal dancers in what was an all-male company at the time.

She toured with them from 1989 to 1997 before returning in 2009 as the artistic director.

While in that role she was named as one of the Cultural Leadership Programme’s ‘Women to Watch’ - a list of 50 influential women working in arts and culture in the UK.

A string of accolades then followed - including being awarded the Sue Ryder ‘Yorkshire Women of Achievement in Business Award’ in 2016 and the First English Woman’s Award for Arts and Culture in 2018.

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In 2019, she received an Honorary Doctorate from Leeds Beckett University for her contribution to the Arts and has been named the Arts and Media Senior Leader of the Year by the Black Business Awards.

And in November 2020, she was also appointed West Yorkshire Deputy Lieutenant.

Sharon said the MBE has continued her streak of receiving awards mostly in recognition of what she has achieved outside of dance.

“I feel it’s not just an accolade for dance itself but also what dance can do within wider culture,” she said.

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The award has come at a poignant time for her industry which she described as having taken a “massive hit” through the coronavirus pandemic but she hopes the MBE will help to showcase its importance.

She urged the Government, when they refer to the nation’s “crown jewels” in arts and culture, to recognise dance as one of the “gems”.

“We know the dance industry connects a lot of people to a lot of things,” she said, highlighting “health and wellbeing” as one such factor and adding: "We know about emotional connectivity and people are yearning for live performances and dance delivers that with abandon.”

She said the industry needs people like herself to “be voicing the need of the activities we do”, adding: “It’s a challenging battle but a rewarding battle”.

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And the MBE, she says, provides a welcome boost as she settles into her top job at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.

“It’s lovely thing to receive and I don’t think it’s really hit me yet. I’m really pleased. In my new job it does help me to keep my feet on the ground and helps me understand that ‘yes, I am doing the right things’.”

Her current focus remains helping the school to navigate the pandemic while also maintaining its position as a leading centre for contemporary dance in the UK and one of six world-leading schools forming the Conservatoirre for Dance and Drama (CDD).

She said: “I have got a job to do in my current position in terms of making sure that our students and freelances and staff get through this pandemic.

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“Dance is such a physical form and a form that has contact so it’s about making sure that they understand what skills are needed and to have the ability to move forward in what they do.”

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