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August 17, 2012
The first time Laureus met Michelle she was teaching world-famous football legend Bobby Charlton how to street-dance at Manchester United’s former first team training ground.
Alongside the United legend, she was performing in front of a crowd of over 100 people who had gathered to see the Laureus Urban Stars Manchester project at work last August.
By the next morning, her exploits had seen her featured alongside Bobby, pictured below next to one of Michelle's fellow dancers, in one of Britain’s biggest national newspapers.
But despite the larger-than-life performance she gave the audience that day, the 21-year-old strikes quite a different figure away from the spotlight.
Softly spoken, and slightly guarded when asked about her own life, one wonders whether discussing her own achievements is of any interest to her at all or whether she might in fact be more comfortable letting her dancing do the talking.
But chatting to Michelle for just a few minutes, you quickly come to understand why this might be the case.
In the UK, the ‘care system’ takes responsibility for children who, for whatever reason, are no longer able to remain living with their own parents. Michelle has been in the ‘care-system’ for much of her teenage life, an effect of which was her being moved, in her words, “from children’s home to children’s home to foster home without much stability.”
But having also learnt that Michelle is a young mother herself, one begins to appreciate how protecting those closest to her is the greater priority over promoting her own good works and experiences.
Michelle has been taking part in street-dance activities at the Laureus Urban Stars Manchester project for over a year now. And it is here, sat alongside a group of other participants at the project’s base in Salford that she begins to open up about the road that has brought her here today.
She says: “I was messed up in school and ended up just getting kicked out. In the end I didn’t really have anything to fall back on.”
She goes on: “I was always in trouble with the police. I had eight [entries] in my criminal record and was in with the wrong crowd.”
Laureus support for the Urban Stars project here in Salford has allowed fun and rewarding opportunities like Michelle’s much-loved street-dancing to reach more and more of the young people in the area who need them most.
And with Salford being the site of much development and regeneration, the future is looking bright for a city that was once synonymous with poverty and hardship.
Talking openly about the area in which she has lived all her life, however, Michelle admits it has not always been the easiest place in which to grow up. She says: “It’s quite difficult, and full of underprivileged people. There are so many estates, I can’t even explain it, and some people, especially in Salford, are still growing up around drugs and violence.”
And it was a lack of opportunities and support for some young people in her home city, something that is all too often the case across the country in these difficult economic times, which made the work of Urban Stars so attractive to her.
Securing opportunities for young mothers is increasingly important an objective for communities throughout the country. Research has shown that negative outcomes of early childbearing can include educational failure, unemployment and low self-esteem. And giving insight into the tortuous dilemma Michelle faced herself as a young mother looking to make the most of herself whilst doing right by her young son, she says: “There’s nothing for young people round here. I was sat at home bored. And, being a full-time mum, I just didn’t have the chance to get a full-time job.
“I wanted to do something that didn’t take all my time away from [my son]. And then I found street-dance here. But having taken part in youth leadership projects, worked toward qualifications and met such different people, I’ve ended up getting so much more out of it than just that.”
One of these new people is fellow street-dancer Beth.
For both Beth and Michelle, the opportunity to street-dance with Urban Stars, though it might sound like little more than just a bit of fun, has ended up being a life-enhancing experience.
Michelle, at 21, would normally be coming to the end of her time with the project, for instance, but her progression as a leader figure has been so great that project organisers are encouraging both her and Beth to lead their own street-dancing group with the project in the future.
And this personal growth is exemplified perfectly in the words of her friends at Urban Stars. Having admitted to mistakes in her past, her peers are now vocal about how well she has taken to her new position of responsibility.
One of her fellow participants at Urban Stars says: “She shows real responsibility, especially being a full-time mum. Even though she has all that other responsibility, she still keeps doing what she is doing.”
And one of the youth workers at Urban Stars is equally keen to voice his praise. He says: “When Michelle first came here, we heard about some of her negative experiences. But when I first actually met her I was really surprised, and compared to the stories we heard, it’s now completely different.”
Asking her directly about what she thinks of being considered a role model to other young female project members, however, Michelle once again puts on an air of coyness; a coyness that borders almost on the stoic.
She says: “I suppose other young kids feel they can come and talk to me, confide in me. They didn’t used to do that, but I’m happy that they do.”
In the short-term, Michelle looks forward to continuing her work with Urban Stars helping the next generation of young women through her and Beth’s own street-dancing group. But this certainly isn’t where she sees her work helping young people ending.
Talking about where she hopes to see herself in five or ten years’ time, she doesn’t need to think long before offering a determined response.
She says: “If it wasn’t for [the project] I’d probably just be sat about, drinking, smoking weed. But now I know I want to be a youth worker myself one day.”