James Narh, street dance promoter

Profile by Bridget Osborne

November 2018

The Simon Cowell of Street Dance

When kneeling in prayer or chatting amicably after the Sunday service, I wonder how many of the congregation at Christ Church, Turnham Green realise that the tall, lanky black guy with the model’s looks is actually a game-changer in British cultural life. James Narh, who worships regularly at  the church, is credited with bringing street dance into the mainstream. Street dance only registered with the majority of the UK population as a dance genre and an expression of young urban culture when Diversity won Britain’s Got Talent in 2009. This amazing art form which has no rules, a pick’ n mix of dance moves and athleticism put together with tremendous energy, timing and joyous exuberance was suddenly the thing. Dance classes up and down the country were oversubscribed with new members, mostly young boys. James is the Simon Cowell of street dance.

Originally from Hammersmith, his first job was in science, working for the Central Vetinerary Laboratory in Weybridge, but because of his good looks he was also being offered modelling work and it was through that, hanging out with dancers, watching them muck about in rehearsals, that he came across street dance. At this stage, in the early ‘90s, street dance was, as the name implies, of the street, just something kids did, not organized, not widely known, but fun, exciting, entertaining and cool. James saw the potential to bring it to a wider audience and aged only 19 himself, set up a company, Get With It, (GWI) to manage the dancers he knew.

Photographs above: Street Dance XXL Championships

Battle of the dance crews

So many people wanted to join that it became unmanageable, so he set up a street dance competition, to accommodate all those who wanted to take part. Staged in a school hall in Battersea in 1995, the competition was a big success. James realised that street dance had the potential to be huge in popular entertainment. By performing in public the dance crews were becoming better known and the trend was developing into a movement. GWI evolved in to G Force, which he managed for 18 years from 1992 to 2010, then became Street Dance XXL, set up in 2009. The competitions grew bigger and more professional as they moved to the Fairfield Hall in Croydon, then the Hammersmith Apollo and ulimately to the Wembley Arena and the O2. The XXL UK Championships; USA v UK, Winners’ Showcase and Shooting Stars were box office and a film based on the competitions, Street Dance 3D, of which James was the associate producer, were all landmarks along the route to putting street dance on the mainstream map of British culture.

Street Dance is uniquely British. It’s American equivalent is Hip Hop but whereas in the US the dancers tended to be in the background behind a singer, in the UK the dancers were the show. The music tracks and sound effects served the dance show rather than the other way round and the performances were themed. From the outset James had big ambitions for the dancers “I didn’t want to put on shows in damp, dilapidated youth centres. I wanted the dancers to have some dignity, some respect”.

I saw street dance live for the first time in 2011 at the Southbank Centre – ‘a celebration of hip hop culture’ with performances, battles, talks, poetry and free dance workshops titled ‘Intelligent Movement’. The energy and fun quotient and the wow factor of what they were actually doing was huge. The pride felt by young dancers who were taking part that they were actually performing at the Royal Festival Hall in an event which was being televised for Channel Four was palpable, as was the pride of the many mixed race families watching in the audience. James has a quiet pride himself in being a role model for those kids and an enabler who gave them a career in dance.

“I didn’t set out to be a role model but I received so many testimonies from young people and their parents, some who have now become parents themselves, expressing their gratitude for opportunities which have become available to them through this platform. It’s humbling. The values are important – discipline, dedication, devotion – working hard at their talent and not feeling that they’re limited”.

Photographs above: IMD Legion winning performance in Street Dance XXL at Wembley, IMD Legion with Street Dance XXL Trophy backstage and moments from their winning performance. Photographs by Danny Fitzpatrick

James Narh presents Scrooge, Christmas 2018

In 2016 he left that hectic world for a quieter life. He has turned his talents to redeveloping St Albans church on South Parade, which narrowly escaped being developed as flats, raising money for it with partner Rhian Williams. Their black tie dinner and auction in May raised close to £40,000, a major contribution to the church’s new chapel room and stage.

The stage will be put to good use this Christmas when IMD Legion, who won the Street Dance XXL Championships two years running in 2014 and 2015 at the Wembley Arena, and have featured in TV shows Got To Dance and Britain’s Got Talent, will perform Scrooge. Inspired by James and choreographed by the founder of IMD Legion, Omar Ansah-Awuah, the street dance version of the Christmas classic offers a fresh interpretation. The tale follows Ebony Scrooge, a young woman from a difficult background who is now the CEO of a major corporation and part of the fortune 100 rich list. Ebony is wealthy, famous and very successful, but feared and loathed by everyone as she does whatever it takes to get her own way no matter who it hurts. Ebony has one secret, she is terrified of Christmas!

IMD Legion promise to deliver spectacular entertainment the likes of which Chiswick has never seen.

Book tickets here and enter the promo code chiswickcal to get your 20% Chiswick Calendar Club Card discount.