Meet some real-life heroes in my series of special interviews with people who represent the spirit and heart of the North East.
Melissa Black has an extensive professional background in dance theatre, teaching, and fitness. After leading Dance as a subject leader, as well as teaching Performing Arts in a large secondary school, she created her own brand of well-being and movement-based fitness called Blackâ’s Barre, now working in a partnership at Shilling and Black.
In this interview, Melissa tells us about her work in dance, her favourite North east shops, and more…
Melissa, tell us a bit about you and your connection with the North East.
I am from the North East, so have a strong connection to the place, and feel personally invested in the movement and wellbeing community that we have built here. but this hasn’t always been the case. I spent years struggling with my connection to Newcastle and always wanted to escape and move away due to a pretty unsettled childhood which left me feeling somewhat apathetic to ‘home’. However, this changed when I settled at the coast 13 years ago and fell in love with the North East all over again.
Tell us a little about your work in dance. What is it you love most about your job?
I’ve worked in dance as a professional dancer, choreographer and teacher throughout my entire life. I mean, I have had a few other jobs to see me through university etc, but I never really lasted that long because my heart was never in them and, despite needing the money to survive uni, I was just never inspired by the environment or work.
The world of dance is not the most lucrative and doesn’t always provide a regular income, it’s definitely a vocation for most of us, we do it for the love (as cliche as that sounds, it’s absolutely true). So, after having some fantastic opportunities to travel and perform as a dancer, as well as being commissioned as a choreographer, I took on a role in a Secondary school back in 2006 to develop Performing Arts and Dance on their curriculum, whilst keeping my professional projects running alongside. I absolutely loved the challenge. It was tough, Performing Arts as a pathway faces a whole lot of stigma, which hasn’t been helped by recent campaigns undermining our industry made in parliament during the Pandemic. But what an amazing journey teaching was at the time, I worked with a fabulous team of teachers in which we all shared the same aim to inspire young people to pursue careers and study qualifications in Dance, Music, Drama and Musical Theatre. I still keep in contact with some of those now adult students who have gone on to work within the industry and feel so privileged to have been part of their journey as well as being proud of their achievements too, they were a talented bunch.
This period of time was a really inspired time for me on so many levels, but as the education system and focus of the school changed and I found myself struggling to support it’s direction I realised that I needed a new challenge. I needed to have the freedom to be as creative as I needed to be, have professional autonomy over my work and be more true to my love of movement. Because let’s face it, I really wasn’t that interested in school politics, or working for somebody else for that matter, I just wanted to share my passion for movement and joy of dance to as many people as possible, which hasn’t changed really. This is where my journey back to my freelance world began and what a leap of faith I took to be where I am today. My collaboration with Steph Shilling, (the other half of Shilling & Black), has given me the freedom to do all of the above and I haven’t looked back. The power of being able to gift the joy of movement to so many people on a daily basis, regardless of the context will always be the thing that I love most about my work as a Dance, Yoga, Barre and Movement practitioner, it’s just fantastic!
I can imagine that dance and exercise has been incredibly important for people both mentally and physically in the last year, is that an important part of your work?
We had to close our studio twice because of Covid which did mean that for so many people their escape from day-to-day life and the social hub that the studio provides had been taken away completely. It was petty emotional teaching, The Last Chance to Dance, class before we closed for the second time, it really made an already difficult situation even harder to navigate for us all. However, moving our entire schedule online did mean that people could continue to exercise and participate in class but, what has become more meaningful than exercise alone this year was the sense of community amongst the Shilling & Black followers. We reopened in May and touch wood we won’t need to close again (I’m holding on to a very large piece of wood right now). I’m not sure that I could mentally survive another stint of teaching exclusively online again, I was going str crazy not being able to dance and move with other people. It made me realise just how much I’d taken for granted that dancing with bodies in spaces had been my life for so long and the main thing that had kept me sane for the best part of my life.
Is there one place you always like to visit in the region?
Well, I’m biased about the coast because I live here, but I’m a sucker for National Trust sites like Wallington and Cragside, not only are they beautiful places to visit and get lost in for the day, but I love the wool blankets in the gift shops and can get a half-decent coffee too.
I have to agree!
What about a favourite shop or business?
Hmmm, there are so many… I love Ruby and Frank in Tynemouth for quirky clothes as well as The Cook and Baker, I tend to get all my Christmas hampers from there, I love The Wine Chambers in Tynemouth and their security garden, I’d better mention my Aunty and Uncle’s guest house in Alnwick too, West Acre House as being one of my favourite businesses. It is a beautiful house but I know how excited my Aunty will be to be featured in an article with you, Ha!!
But I have to say it’s a real treat being able to shop in Fenwicks, this Christmas. No doubt you’ll see me hovering around the Estee Lauder stand.
Some fab recommendations! There’s nothing like Fenwicks at Christmas.
It’s often said that the people and landscapes of the North East are full of ‘spirit’ and ‘heart’. Tell us, what do you love most about the region?
Being by the sea and the rugged Northumberland coastline and its wild waves in the winter is my first love of the region. There’s something so special about looking out at the vastness of water to the horizon and not feeling trapped by the land, I couldn’t bear to live in a landlocked city. Whenever Iâ€™m feeling anxious or stressed I walk to beach, take my shoes off and walk in the sand. The warmth of the Geordies too, it’s quite a happy, friendly place really, it’s real and raw and after working in a pretty diverse part of Newcastle for so long I became passionate about making a difference. I like the fact that we’re spoilt for choice as we have the best of all worlds, the beach, the beautiful Northumberland countryside, and city on our doorstep. It’s a big enough place to remain anonymous but at the same time know a lot of people and feel safe too.
Favourite North-Eastern slang? What does it mean?
Ha! Ha! I’m actually not a huge fan of Geordie slang, maybe because I really checked out of here when I was younger, but I guess if I had to choose one word, (and I’m still cringing doing so), it would be ‘howk’. I actually thought that meant, ‘to pull something up’ until I was told recently by a student that it means, ‘to scratch’, however, I do like to hear a soft Northumbrian accent especially when I’m travelling.
The North East is packed with history, myths and legends, songs and folklore. Do you have a favourite song or verse that you associate with the area?
I do like Run For Home by Lindisfarne, it does make me think of here and I used to be petrified of, The Lambton Worm.
Who are your North East heroes?
Well, you, Louise, have to be at the top of my list of inspirational women, and that admiration for you grows the more we work together. Sam Fender is another, we’ve known him since he was a teenager and he’s had a tough time so I absolutely admire his resilience and rise to success. I hugely admire an old teacher of mine too, Lee Proud, who is now a well-known musical theatre choreographer, and I loved Eric Idle too.
Thank you so much! I have to say, my admiration for you and your work is just as big. As a final note, what makes you smile?
I love to laugh so many things can tickle me easily but what really makes me smile inside and out is getting wrapped up on a cold, sunny winters day, (think winter chic), to walk along the seafront with Mars (our latest edition), then coming home to an open fire, family dinner and an amazing bottle of red wine after a day of dancing with our wonderful members in the studio. What could be better?
Thank you so much for joining me, Melissa!
Thank you to Kate Baguley for helping to coordinate these interviews.