Tributes paid to globe-trotting Leeds dancer who starred in original Broadway cast of The Lion King

Tributes have been paid to a pioneering globe-trotting dancer from Leeds who starred in the original Broadway cast of The Lion King, after her tragic death from cancer.

Tuesday, 9th November 2021, 2:26 pm

Chapeltown born Leonora Stapleton was a professional dancer for over 30 years and was revered within the industry.

Leonora was spotted as a flourishing talent at the age of 22 by American dancer and director Alvin Ailey while studying at London Contemporary Dance School.

After a huge fundraising push by friends and family, Leonora moved stateside in 1985 to star in the original Disney Broadway cast of The Lion King and went on to have an amazing career in both dancing and teaching.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Leonora Stapleton

Leonora passed away after a long fight against breast cancer at the tender age of just 58 in October 2021.

Speaking to the YEP following her death, Leonora's sister Rosemary recounted the incredible life her sister had led.

"She was passionate to the end", Rosemary said.

"She had an amazing life."

Leonora Stapleton

Born at St James's Hospital in Leeds in 1963 in an era of "overt racial prejudice" according to Rosemary, Leonora quickly established her talents for dance.

Rosemary said: "We don’t quite know if the little 3-year-old, 5-year-old, or 8-year-old black girl growing up in the family home knew that she knew that she had something to say to the world and that it would be through dance that she would express her views about life and love.

"Some of the fondest memories her siblings recall is Leonora dancing around in the living-room, big and large, with a lush of thick hair, beaming as she glided around to everyone’s delight.

"Specifically on Sundays when the family received visitors after Church, whilst the music filled the room, Leonora would entertain with dance."

Leonora Stapleton

At the age of 12, Leonora joined ‘Mara Ya Pili (the Swahili term for ‘The Second Time’) Community Dance Project’ and was credited as a founder member.

She spent her early years through to early adulthood with the project learning about her place in life and honing her craft as a talented dancer.

Rosemary said her sister would often recount her never-ending gratitude for Jan Hambley, the Director of the Mara Ya Pili Community Dance Project, who "believed in Leonora and in her talent and who held the aspirations for her to study with the ‘Alvin Ailey Dance School’ in New York, which would change Leonora’s life forever".

Leonora travelled to New York in 1985 with the support and full backing of her family, the wider black communities, as well as the dance community, Rosemary said.

Regardless of her expert dance talents and professional guile, Leonora would always compete with the challenge of not gaining the deserved opportunities because of her skin colour, as a dark-skinned black woman, Rosemary said.

"Imagine the spirit, the perseverance, the absolute guts, and grit she would have had to draw upon every day to push forward and always realise her dreams", Rosemary said.

Leonora had an "unwavering commitment to her black community" whilst her career rapidly took off.

"Leonora believed firstly that every boy and girl should have the same opportunities and more than she herself had the privilege of", Rosemary said.

"From very early in her dance career, during her teen years and onwards, Leonora continued to create opportunities for young people through community initiatives often funding projects herself to make dance and other art forms accessible to communities that would not necessarily have the choice or even think of the possibility to have a career in dance.

"This speaks of the humility and servitude we know Leonora led her life by.

"So greatly accomplished but ever eager to know of someone else’s successes or to help someone achieve their life goals and meet their potentials.

"Leonora unconditionally embraced and supported others with firm words and positive actions."

Leonora’s dance credits include performing in Memphis the London West End musical, Triad of Women, Forces of Nature and Dunia Dance.

Thereafter, Leonora became an Associate Choreographer for Disney’s theatrical production of the musical Tarzan in The Netherlands and Oberhausen and Stuttgart in Germany.

She returned to the UK in the early 2000s after spending more than 15 years in the USA and performing around the world.

In 2018, Leonora volunteered as a Trainer at the Sir Robert Ogden Macmillan Centre in Leeds.

Leonora enjoyed previous positions as a Ballet Instructor at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, and a Jazz Contemporary Tutor at Studio La Pointe.

Leonora - described as "formidable and phenomenal" by family - was unfortunately diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016.

Over the next five years determined Leonora would continue to fight the illness and manage her health while continuing to manage the businesses she had established.

"Her strength, resilience and tenacity propelled her to continually work irrespective of her deteriorating health", Rosemary said.

In a eulogy about her life, her family said: "There is no doubt we will all miss Leonora.

"Leonora’s legacy will live on.

"Thank you and God Bless.

"Spread your wings now little butterfly and soar."

A fundraiser has now been set up on GoFundMe to support Leonora's family.

To visit, click here.Support the YEP and become a subscriber today. Enjoy unlimited access to local news and the latest on Leeds United, With a digital subscription, you see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Click here to subscribe.