“People do say to me, ‘hip hop? Are you sure?’ They think that I take 50 huge gangster rappers into a care home.”
Charlie Blair has gone being homeless to running a unique social enterprise. Thanks to support from William Morris Big Local, this 24-year-old breakdancer from East London is taking hip hop to a brand new audience...
“The Blair Academy is a hip hop dance company. Our main priorities are combating loneliness, strengthening communities and bridging gaps, be it social or generational. So, we try to work with people who wouldn’t otherwise do a hip hop class.
“I’d like to think we breathe new life into a care home. We’ve worked with three ladies who are over 100. I bet they never thought they would be learning something new at that age! Touch wood we haven’t been into any home and failed to get a repeat booking. We’ve worked with over 4,000 people through over 200 bookings and events.
“We surveyed all of our care homes and one of the things they’ve consistently said is that a key reason for booking us is that this is an innovative programme. It also gives the residents something different and unique to look forward to. It is also about mental well-being. For people with dementia, it is important to try something new.
“We went to Holland and did some work with a movement therapist called Christina Martinez and she was in disbelief at how slow the UK has been in using movement as a therapy and how it can help people.
I’m a breakdancer. I went to the University of East London and got a degree in Urban Practice. Before that, I left school with As and A*. I’d done everything that was expected of me. But I didn’t want to be a performer; I wanted to get other people dancing.
Then I fell out with my mum when I was 19. I was in an abusive relationship and she was trying to intervene but I pushed back.
The only place I had to go was to stay with my partner and that, of course, didn’t work out. Then I was sofa surfing for six weeks until a place at the YMCA became available.
It humbled me and knocked me down a peg. You’re not allowed visitors, and when I stayed there you didn’t have TV or cooking appliances. All your belongings are put into a metal cage. It’s not a suitable environment for a 19-year-old girl to be in.
I realised I had to dictate the situation. I got a job working in a call centre for nine hours a day, seven days a week to save up a deposit. But what also kept me going was that they had a dance studio attached to the YMCA. That was my form of escape.
For years I didn’t want to talk about what had happened because I don’t want anyone to think of my mum in a negative way. She’s been incredible, the one constant positive figure in my life. I'm so happy that what happened didn’t affect our relationship. But I also understood that it was a massive part of my story.
Fast forward a couple of years and my nan was diagnosed with lung cancer. I became her carer, and that changed my view on who I was as a person and what was important.
I trained to become a full-time carer, but the whole time I was doing the job I thought ‘I’m not doing enough, I’m rushing through a whole list of tasks and I’m the only person some people will have seen all week’. The things they were telling me about feeling lonely and isolated were the same things I felt when I was 19. There was this lightbulb moment I had to do something.
I thought to myself ‘if hip hop is the voice of young people, and I'm trying to bridge a gap between young and old, what a great medium to use! Hip hop comes from marginalisation, it comes from people that were oppressed, who didn’t feel they had a voice in society and a lot of the groups that I work with are marginalised.
I started to ring around different places and said I wanted to try something new. A lot were taken aback. They thought I’d dialled the wrong number and said ‘you do know we’re a care home?’ But a couple said ‘yeah, we’ll give it a try’.
For me, it was really important to solidify our place in Walthamstow. It’s where I grew up. It’s my community.
I was walking through Walthamstow Market and was given a flyer for an event that UnLtd - an organisation that finds, funds and supports social entrepreneurs - was holding which said ‘Have you got a business idea? But the event was happening that day.
So I called and arranged a meeting to pitch my idea. That was when I met Gabriel Edwards from William Morris Big Local who was on the panel. He then introduced me to (WMBL Chair) Chrys Christy. We now meet up to share ideas.
I try to get involved in anything that Big Local is doing and they’ve signposted me to other opportunities or other pots of funding. I’m also applying for a grant with St James St Big Local, which is also in East London.
If I take an idea to Gabriel and it’s not quite right he won’t dismiss it. He’s always constructive in his thinking.
We also recently held a business breakfast networking event that sold out in three days. So I'm shifting from the Blair Academy to support other local business owners from my own experience. I think the idea and perception of what an entrepreneur looks like has changed in recent years and I want to be part of that.
We’ve had bookings as far afield as Macclesfield and I got to speak in Parliament last year. When BBC News covered us we got bookings immediately. I also won a business competition at my former Uni and received £6,000 in start-up money from NatWest.
To begin with, I had imposter syndrome when I started talking about the business. People would ask me ‘what is your elevator pitch?’ and I thought ‘I don’t know!’
It took a mentor to say ‘it’s about what your customers want, not always what you want.’ I never had to justify myself to anyone before that.
But also to work with organisations like Big Local and UnLtd, that gives you validation. It means somebody else believes in my idea and they believe in it enough to back me with financial support. It was really powerful and help to affirm my belief in myself. It’s good to know they’re in my corner.
I’ve gone from being homeless to being self-employed to owning a business. I have an intern and a volunteer and we’ve finalised our accreditation process for our teachers and have just put out of advert to say ‘we’re hiring’.
People do say to me, ‘hip hop? Are you sure?’ They assume that I take 50 huge gangster rappers into a care home! That’s the kind of look I get. But the culture can be so beneficial when it preaches peach, love, unity and having fun. We could certainly do with more of that!”