As he looks forward to the premiere of Footloose at the Darlington Hippodrome Theater later this month, Darrien Wright can’t help but be emotional as he reflects on a life enriched by his love of dance.
In 2006, Darrien shot to fame after winning BBC1’s Strictly Dance Fever competition alongside his partner Hollie Victoria. The prize was “a dream come true” – joining the cast of Footloose at the Novello Theater in London’s West End.
Darrien has done an incredible amount since then: traveling the world as a professional dancer; opening his own dance school; be elected as an independent city councilor; He becomes Darlington Borough Council’s first ambassador for the LGBTQI community. and dances with his idol Kylie Minogue.
Now that his life has come full circle, he is back in rehearsals for Footloose – this time as a proud member of the Darlington Operatic Society and is set to perform at the town’s Hippodrome Theatre.
“It’s a show that means so much to me,” says Darrien. “I have so many memories of the West End in 2006 and can’t wait to be part of another brilliant production in my hometown.”
Darrien is Darlington through and through. His father Paul was a butcher at the market hall, while mother Karen works at the Firthmoor Community Centre.
Paul was part of the Northern Soul scene and Darrien credits him with his dancing genes. However, it was a childhood trip with his mother to Whitley Bay to see Kylie in concert that sparked his ambitions to dance on stage.
“I was only six at the time, but I said to my mother, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I was addicted.”
Within a week he had joined dance company Eastbourne Generation – the only boy on the roster, long before the Billy Elliott film changed perceptions of North East boys wanting to dance.
“I liked it from the start,” recalls Darrien, who also regularly took part in Hurworth School talent shows.
By the time he was nine years old, he was winning dance competitions across the country.
Growing up, his greatest mentor was his Aunt Debbie, who sadly passed away when he was 13. “She always told me to dream big, and I always tried to do that,” he says.
He continued to pursue his dreams and gain experience in a variety of dance styles, including freestyle, ballroom, salsa, Latin and lyrical, until he achieved life-changing success as a 21-year-old on Strictly Dance Fever.
Hosted by Graham Norton and a panel of judges including dance legends Arlene Phillips and Wayne Sleep, Darrien and Hollie were delighted to be chosen as winners at the end of the two-month competition.
A triumphant appearance in the West End production of Footloose followed, and the producer was so impressed that he invited Darrien to tour his next show, Fame The Musical.
He then performed in various shows around the world before returning home in 2009 to open his own Dance Wright school, which is now run by two of his former students.
He later served as a district councilor for four years, with a particular focus on health and diversity.
Five years ago he got the surprise of his life when a friend invited him to dance with Kylie in Michael McIntyre’s Big Show.
That same year he joined the Darlington Operatic Society and appeared in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
After some challenging times in his personal life, he credits taking part in DOS with rekindling his love of dance, and Footloose will be his eighth show with the company.
“I have seen DOS shows and have always been very impressed. When I joined, I felt at home from the first rehearsal,” he says. “It’s the passion of so many people coming together to create shows that wouldn’t be out of place in the West End.
“I can have a bad day and then I’m on stage and I’m in my happy place, among friends.”
And DOS is just as happy to have someone of Darrien’s caliber among its members. “It is a dream for us, not only because of the professionalism he brings with his amazing talent, but also because of the sheer positivity of his attitude and his never-ending desire to help other members improve,” says chairman Julian Cound .
“It’s wonderful that its journey has come full circle, from the West End in Footloose to our production at Darlington Hippodrome.”
The unattached rehearsals coincided with Darrien’s return to training, starting a course in sport and physical training at Darlington College. The goal is to build on his dance experience and get into fitness classes.
“I love teaching and want to bring something back, not just in terms of physical fitness but also in terms of mental health – that’s hugely important to me,” he says.
Footloose runs from October 25th to November 4th at Darlington Hippodrome and Darrien has no doubt that director and choreographer Jo Hand has produced a show she can be proud of.
“It’s a fantastic cast and Jo has delivered a strong production that tells great stories from start to finish – so come and see it!”
In the run-up to Brexit I was asked by the BBC to present an Inside Out documentary and met a lovely, friendly Polish couple – Lukasz and Dominika Samek.
They were chosen for the program because they were the perfect example of integration and the benefits of multiculturalism.
They arrived in Darlington from Niepolomice, near Krakow, in 2005 and quickly immersed themselves in the local community.
Lukasz became deputy chairman of the Darlington Town Twinning Association and was a member of the Darlington Round Table and Darlington Lions.
We stayed in touch, had dinner at each other’s houses and met up from time to time.
Last week I was so sad when I found out that Lukasz (pictured below) had died suddenly at the age of 43.
Tom Nutt, chairman of the Darlington Town Twinning Association and a close friend of the couple, said: “Lukasz was a special person who added huge value to our town. He was always smiling and his loss is just a great tragedy.”
A memorial service will be held in Niepolomice on October 21, but consideration is also being given to how Lukasz can be honored in Darlington, the town that became his adopted home.
In the meantime, my thoughts are with Dominika and her beautiful little daughter Gabriela. I hope they find comfort in the outpouring of love and honors.
Rest in peace, Lukasz.