Everyone can dance says Ashley Banjo

IMG_5905This post was originally written as a ‘live blog postcard from the beach’ in my role as beach writer at The Purple Beach Experience 2015.

Only 26 years old, Ashley Banjo has already achieved more than he could have dreamed of, but something tells you that this intelligent, thoughtful and modest young man has a very long way to go. With his positive outlook and disciplined approach to life, he gives the impression that he can achieve any goal that he sets himself.

Before his dance troupe Diversity discovered fame on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, Ashley was already taking responsibility for others. When the Executive Producer asked them to go on the show, Ashley felt the weight of trust from the boys in the group and that his job as a leader was “to steer them in the right direction”. Ashley didn’t expect to win, but simply wanted the group to be “the best we could be”. The rest is popular TV history, with Diversity beating that year’s other phenomenal act, Susan Boyle, (who had already made it onto ‘The Simpsons’!) to win the competition

The group’s first reaction was disbelief – you could see it in their faces. As they later faced a frenzied media conference of 300 people, they realised that “life was about to change forever, and they had to choose whether to embrace it or be destroyed by it.”

Coming to terms with their achievement, Ashley has since reflected that “the public are much cleverer than people give them credit for in voting shows: we were real and public responded to that.”

So how has Diversity become such a highly innovative dance troupe? “I don’t believe concepts are just from me, we still train together 6 hours a day… we store information, like bits of a puzzle in the air – someone learned a new flip, seeing something in a movie e.g. the ‘slow motion dodge’ in ‘The Matrix’. Then we put things together because everyone unites.”

Ashley tends to be at the front of the group’s creativity and knows what everyone in the group is physically capable of, but he describes Diversity as “one big think tank”: “ no matter how many ideas I come up with, the relationship with the group is the key to our creativity, I bring an idea to the table, everyone brings their experience to bring the idea to fruition” Ashley’s mantra is “be open, be honest, take on everyone’s opinion.”

The idea for ‘Secret Street Crew’ came about when Ashley told a TV producer about his belief that ‘anyone can dance’ and to give him a TV series to prove it. The idea of the show is to get people to form a street crew in secret and perform at an event, one of the best examples being a wheelchair basketball team – “Of course they can dance if they want to!”

In describing his coaching method, Ashley says he does not teach, but “gives people the ability to believe in themselves that they can do it, to harness what they have already got.” The show is all about breaking down people’s perceptions of what they think they are capable of and where they belong. “Its about me unlocking someone’s mind a bit – giving someone the confidence to believe in themselves. Breaking down barriers in people’s minds about what they actually can do – its about self belief.”

Ashley sees dance as a “further level of communication”. While describing himself as a very controlled direct person, when he dances, he believes “anything is possible.”

Although not the original leader of Diversity, he naturally became the leader due to his increasing interest in dance and choreography, based on his ambition “to be the best he can be”. As a result, his group members “started to look to me for the answers.”

Ashley also discovered financial responsibility early. At the age of 14, his mother, who ran a dance studio, damaged her knee, which meant that Ashley’s life from that point, including his choice of University (he studied Natural Sciences at UCL) revolved around the need to get home to teach the 5pm dance class.

His biggest challenges in recent years have been to maintain the trust and respect of the group, understanding that this means sometimes having to keep his distance from his best friends to “preserve trust in the interests of the bigger picture.” This gets harder as inevitably team members get older, get married have kids and have their own responsibilities. For Ashley, success is based in legacy; for people in twenty years time to know what they have done.

Commenting on his experience as a judge on “Got to Dance”, Ashley explains how he encourages people to see their so-called ‘failures’ as “steps on the root to success.”

By his own admission, Ashley is intensely critical of his own team’s performance and group members are surprised if he has no critical comments after a routine. He motivates himself by “watching mistakes over and over again”, shuddering to recall when dancer Perry fell on his head in front of the Prime Minister, but got up the next day and did the same performance perfectly.

So what does the future hold? Ashley’s view is pragmatic, to “react to what happens”. Diversity still has “whole new countries to explore” and that is very exciting.

Ashley’s overall philosophy is that “so long as each step is in right direction, we don’t have to look at the final destination… if someone had told me at 15 what I was going to achieve I would have said no way, never in a million years. It’s not about blind belief, but knowing you can achieve something if you want it.”

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