Wayne Sleep might seem like an unlikely inspiration for a group of young urban street dancers from Dagenham in East London. But then ballet was just as important to the 11-strong troupe who unexpectedly lifted the Britain's Got Talent crown in front of an audience of 19 million viewers on Saturday night as youth culture.
Key to the 11-strong group's win was Danielle Banjo, mother of 20-year-old choreographer, Ashley, who trained at the Royal Academy of Dance. Her influence and that of his ex-boxer father Funso, who introduced him to opera and Wayne Sleep's television shows, meant Banjo and his younger brother Jordan were steeped in dance from an early age. "I was watching routines in my pram", he says.
Growing up around Dagenham, Banjo learnt the rudiments of ballet, tap and jazz from his mother in her Rainham studio, where he was joined by a close-knit group of friends with whom he later formed his troupe. Growing older, they switched their attentions to thestreet dance of the American R&B acts which stormed the UK club scene around 1999.
The catalyst which ultimately led to their reality show triumph was the death from cancer in 2006 of Sylvie Lewis, a close friend of Mrs Banjo's who was well known to the whole group. Mounting a performance in her memory, Banjo drew together his mates and their younger brothers, calling themselves Diversity to reflect the disparities in their ages and ethnic origins. "She fought a long battle. We've seen people go through a lot, like that particular lady. That inspired us to get that routine together," Banjo said yesterday.
They certainly are diverse. The youngest is 13, the oldest 25. Some are graduates, others preparing for their GCSEs. One is a telesales operator, another a bathroom installer. Only one is involved in the music industry. But they all love dance.
"We entered the competition without any expectations, just to do our best. We're just so proud to be where we are. We've worked so hard and we're really committed to what we do," said Banjo. His mother, who is now the group's manager, has said their best is yet to come. And expectations will be high – since the R&B explosion street dance has become a burgeoning youth craze which may, riding on the back of Diversity's success, finally break into the mainstream.
Alongside them in the Britain's Got Talent final were Flawless, a street dance troupe from north London, and Aidan Davis, an 11-year-old from Birmingham who taught himself the moves by watching clips on YouTube. How Diversity sustain their success is a different matter. "I don't think a street dance group, especially from the UK, has really come as far as we have," said Banjo. "We're just a normal group of guys and if people can look up to us and say if they can do it, then we can, that's great. It's really exciting that we can try to create our own path. It's not been done before. Maybe we'll have our own show."
The answers may lie across the Atlantic. In the US, the talent show format has extended to MTV's America's Best Dance Crew, which made stars of the troupe JabbaWockeeZ. Their videos score millions of hits on YouTube and, among other enterprises, they advertise Pepsi.
British street dance choreographer Jr Timey said: "There's a huge interest. A lot of kids want to have a dance group and to perform. I'd say it's only a matter of time before there is something like America's Best Dance Crew in the UK"
Timey, who trained at the Northern Ballet School, said street dance teachers needed to be properly trained, not least to understand the risks of the acrobatics now common in the genre. "It's not like ballet in that there's no governing body, and with street dancing anything goes. It's really a mime to music," he said.
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