I was born in Shoreham by Sea on the south coast of England. My Dad was an electrical engineer and my Mum an artist. My sister is 20 months older than me. My parents were interested in the arts, Dad was always in a rhythm and blues band since I can remember. Mum has always painted and later in our childhood set up her own hand painted china studio where she still creates beautiful things. Dad is still gigging with his band – which is called Random Blues Company- unusually inspired by Wayne McGregor’s original company - Random Dance! Although my family all now live at least 3 hours apart we are all extremely close. I wish we lived closer.
I started ballet when I was two and a half.
Growing up we moved a lot, first to Kent then to Belgium where my sister and I went to a very small international school. We were there for two and a half years. The school was so small that my class had about 6 students in it. They didn’t want to put me up into my sisters’ group when I reached that age so I stayed in the more junior group and became almost like the teaching assistant at 6! This was my earliest experience of teaching and I loved it.
We moved back to Kent where my sister and I continued our dance lessons in ballet and we also discovered Disco and Rock n Roll (it was the 80s!). We danced with Len Goodman at many of his national championship competitions, it was a lot of fun and Len was an incredible character. I won’t be sharing any photos of me in neon lycra any time soon!
Dad secured a job in Suffolk so we relocated there when I was 10. I think this was the 5th school I started in my childhood. I had become very good at ‘fitting in’ and working out how to get along with people, which is a skill that has helped me in my career for sure.
I joined the June Glennie School of Dance and at the same time a brilliant PE teacher told me about the regional youth dance company based at Dance East in Ipswich. I was offered a spot and it was there that my love of contemporary dance began. Caroline Mummery was my teacher and she was and still is truly inspirational! I admired many qualities in Caroline, her energy, her enthusiasm, her kindness and her lack of ego. She simply wanted the best for us. When I was 15 a very tall guest choreographer rocked up looking very cool in a trendy tracksuit and big trainers. His name was Wayne McGregor. He too had a profound impact on me. His energy, positivity, down to earth ways, as well as sheer choreographic genius.
In 1995 I took up my place at Trinity Laban on their Degree programme in Dance Theatre. I was fortunate to be offered the three UK contemporary conservatoires - all brilliant schools but Laban was where I felt most at ease, it was where I felt most comfortable on the audition day and where the ethos and values sat with me best. I spent 4 very happy years there. I successfully auditioned for Transitions their resident Graduate Company. The Laban team were extremely supportive. In 1999 I had the opportunity to dance for Wayne in Germany which was a phenomenal experience.
With Transitions, we toured all over the UK and America and taught everywhere we went. My performance career was cut short when I dislocated my clavicle and damaged my shoulder pretty badly. It was at this point I had some tough decisions to make.
I really enjoy working with young people and trying to affect positive change with them and for them. So, teaching was a natural progression for me and I was appointed Head of Dance at a notoriously famous school (for all of the wrong reasons) in North London in 2000. I went on to secure senior appointments in three large challenging London state secondary schools. My last appointment was as Senior Deputy Head.
I relocated to Birmingham from London to take up my first Headship in 2010 at Elmhurst. I was 32 when I was appointed, and I didn’t think I was going to get the job (but I really wanted it!). I had, in 2009, just successfully passed my National Qualification for Headship and it was my first Headship interview. The Board put me through my paces and I was delighted when I was offered the role- and continue to be today!
I love making dance. I rarely have the chance these days but it is a craft I simply love. I was fortunate to successfully be awarded arts council funding in 1999 to create my own work. I went on to make work, predominantly, with youth companies. Most recently in 2019, I choreographed an opera in a week at The Grange Festival with professional opera singers and 80 young people.
During my 13 years at Elmhurst I have had two gorgeous children who are now 6 and 7. I love being a Mum - it’s the best and hardest thing. There is no rule book! I do find that being a parent has informed how I now try to work with parents in my role. It has given me greater empathy and understanding, whilst I recognise we are all different.
It is just the three of us at home but we also have two King Charles Cavalier Spaniels who turned 9 this year. Having elderly dogs is another new experience that I am getting to grips with!
The key things that shaped me growing up were influenced mainly by my family but also incredible individuals like Caroline and Wayne. They showed me that being passionate for something is a gift, that change is to be navigated and embraced, to stay positive, be kind, personable and importantly humble. The greatest phrase that my Mum would say to me is ‘jump and the net will appear’. Since being a Principal I have also learnt that you have to assess risk before you jump!
In the next blog I will share what I love most about Elmhurst and the key milestones of the school in our centenary year.
See podcasts and interviews with Jessica below: