It’s early evening on the Wincombe Business Park. The grinding noise of metalworking or the whirr of forklifts has ended for the day. Instead, those workshop sounds of repair and production have given way to performance – the sweet notes of jazz and the rhythmic beat of tap-dancing feet.
TLW Dance recently got the keys to their purpose built two-storey performing arts studios. “In the evening when people come down, everything is closed and it’s just us. They can hear the music, and the lights make us like a small lighthouse in the corner of the business park,” said TLW co-founder Tiffany Longley-Wolff.
The opening of these premises represents a new chapter in the life of this Shaftesbury resident, for whom dancing was her destiny. “I performed a lot as a child and I went to study at the London Studio Centre, where I gained a degree. I performed in some contemporary companies and on TV. But I always wanted to be a teacher. That was my passion,” said Tiffany.
“My dance teachers told me to perform first so I would learn more that I could pass on. I went to teach in Italy and I fell in love with it. At that school in Calabria I got to run a whole department. I realised how having my own school would let me help children to flourish.”
When Tiffany returned to Britain, she took on an existing local dance school, also operating from a Wincombe unit, with her business partner Lynne Stratton. Tiffany had not intended to move the business, but the list of youngsters waiting for lessons kept growing. “We were just so squashed in and so many children wanted to do extra classes. We weren’t really able to offer lessons for the community.”
Tiffany’s expansion plans proved difficult at first. Few Shaftesbury premises were suitable for what she had in mind. “You really need 3.5 metre ceilings. You don’t find that kind of space here. We have been incredibly fortunate to have our own bespoke building. People come in and say ‘this is perfect’,” she said.
Tiffany’s landlord purchased a corner plot of land and built the outer shell of the building. “It took about two years from start to finish. He built the structure and we fundraised for the interior. We’ve been saving for about five years and we paid for the floors, bars, mirrors and everything else.”
To boost the interior fittings budget, Tiffany launched an online crowd sourcing appeal. Supporters matched their words of praise with £4,300. “We are so lucky to have such an incredible dance school in Shaftesbury,” wrote Louisa, who donated £100.
The new facilities have changed TLW’s business forever. Now, with the additional floor space of two light, airy studios, simultaneous classes can be offered. And there’s a real buzz in the building. “It’s got that really great dance school atmosphere. You can hear things going on everywhere – people singing downstairs, or in the waiting area, or tapping,” said Tiffany.
And the new space means that TLW has far greater capacity. “We have 300 sessions a week. The ages ranges between 2 and 18-year-olds. Some of the children come once a week. One student does 14 lessons a week!”
As you might imagine, it can get rather loud when the classes are packed. And that’s another reason why TLW’s Wincombe base works well. “We don’t bother anyone out here,” Tiffany laughed. “We can play our music as loud as we like.”
TLW pupils can enrol as pre-schoolers at an age of 2 years and 9 months. Tiffany says children usually take ballet lessons first, to cover the basics. “We just do ballet to start off with. It’s the basis of dance. Then from the age of 4 they can do jazz and street dance. You have the ability to do different things as you get older.”
But some TLW student focus entirely on ballet. “We’ve always been a ballet school initially. The children like the discipline of ballet and the music. In our grade 7 class, we have 14 students aged 14 and 15 years of age.”
Tiffany says boys taking ballet seem to be determined to succeed. “They take it really seriously and absolutely love it. One of our 11-year-old students has just started at White Lodge at the Royal Ballet School. Only 12 boys in the whole world are accepted,” beamed Tiffany, with obvious pride.
Joshua Liddington’s ballet interest came from watching his sister through the window as she took her lessons. He asked his mum whether he could try a class. He was 7 years old at the time. A year later, Joshua passed his first exam with a distinction.
TLW is not just about dance. For pupils who hope to perform professionally, Tiffany hopes to produce all-rounders. “Our strongest thing is dance and that’s what we started with. Now in the industry you have to be able to do everything. When you go onto professional college, as many of our students want to do, or when you audition, the first thing you have to do is dance. Then you have to do a monologue, so you have to act and then you have to perform a song. You need to sing, dance and act. That’s your best chance of getting work.”
TLW has engaged some specialist tutors including, Helen Watts, who has her own theatrical company. “She has devised a special programme for our students,” said Tiffany. “Another new teacher called Emma Pike trained with us when she was younger and now she’s teaching musical theatre. We’re even teaching acrobatics, which is becoming important in the industry.”
Many youngsters want to join classes after they have viewed reality TV shows and talent contests. Tiffany says that dance competitions remain popular. “There are programmes like ‘Taking The Next Step’ and ‘Dance Mums’ that inspire children to come,” Tiffany explained.
Tiffany says that spectators can be surprised at the high quality of young performers here, considering the small size of our town. “People say you’re just in Shaftesbury, but there’s so much talent here.” And perhaps our relative isolation helps.
“Because there are not so many opportunities as there would be in London, they are really dedicated to their art. They get really far. We want to build a school for this whole community and make sure that children with talent can go on and dance professionally,” said Tiffany.
Locals would need to drive to Salisbury, Yeovil or Poole to find schools offering similar classes. And some young people in those larger towns now travel to Shaftesbury for TLW sessions. “We have people coming from Yeovil because we offer everything. We also run a dance programme for pupils aged over 8 years of age. You study between 6 and 8 hours of dance each week. We have Farnfields Solicitors as a sponsor, so they allow some of our students to access the training if they don’t have the funds. Everyone has the opportunity.”
Tiffany encourages the children to ‘dream big’ and pursue their professional performing goals. She did. “I’m so lucky to have a job that I love. I never dread coming to work and they see that,” she smiled.
Tiffany says that even if pupils spend most evenings perfecting their performing arts, it doesn’t mean that their academic work will suffer. “Amazingly, many of our students do well at school, even though they spend their entire evening here.”
Tiffany is still on a journey of learning herself. Steering the growing business through its recent growth, bureaucracy and red tape has provided a challenge. But she still considers herself a teacher rather than a businesswoman. “I teach 36 classes a week now on top of running the business. My passion is for teaching.”
For two years, Tiffany commuted to Shaftesbury from Poole but she says she moved to our town with her family when she realised how involved with the business and local life she had become. “We feel part of the community and the school has its own family community,” she said.
And with that in mind, Tiffany says she’s happy to build on what she has achieved in Shaftesbury rather than expand into adjacent areas. “We don’t want to open in other towns. We want to keep everything in one place. We have a family feel in the school. If we moved to different sites we’d lose that.”
For TLW and Tiffany, it’s all about helping her students succeed and making sure that they have a chance to shine here in Shaftesbury. “I want to be able to provide opportunities for the students. I was very fortunate as a child to attend a school that gave me so many opportunities. I feel that I want to do that for the community here.”
You can find out more about TLW at TLWDance.co.uk.