Joanne Mabin was told she had to choose between dancing and music. Her choice was not to choose, as she tells Roz Whistance.
As you enter the marquee for a wedding or a black tie event you’re struck by the girl playing the solo violin. Her authoritative playing cleverly creates a mood that is at once classy and intimate.
“I don’t want to seem like a jack of all trades,” says Joanne Mabin, when asked about her work. Now this is frankly daft. The full proverb is “Jack of all trades, Master of none”; it describes someone who dabbles. And Joanne is master of everything she chooses to do.
She’s a musician and a dancer. She is a performing violinist who teaches music to children, and she has two dance schools, one on the Island and one in London. “That’s about it,” she says. It seems quite enough.
She has been in a girl band, played in Robbie Williams’s band, and done bits on television such as Hollyoaks and the Parkinson Show. Hardly the sign of a dabbler.
“I think it was when I was told I couldn’t be both a musician and a dancer that I was determined to do both,” says JoJo, as she is known to her many friends. She is a quietly spoken young woman, chatty with a ready sense of humour, with wispy blonde hair and an easy going manner. Maybe it is this which makes her obvious determination to excel so surprising.
She won a scholarship to the Chetham School of Music in Manchester, one of Europe’s highest ranked music schools. She was twelve, and was quite aware that she was offering a bit of a challenge when she turned up for her interview wearing her ballet t-shirt – she had just been dancing with the Lewis London Ballet. One of the officials on the panel said: “You know you won’t be able to do both music and ballet. You have to choose.” Perhaps it was just as well Joanne’s mother had told her to agree with everything they said. She got her scholarship to study violin, but continued to dance.
The dancing had started when she was four, but even at that age she’d got a bit of performing experience. Her parents were entertainers in the working men’s clubs in and around Doncaster, so performing came naturally to her. “When I was two, my sister Claire got up on stage and did a solo. I didn’t see why I shouldn’t so I went up there and did the splits. The crowd just fell about, they loved it.”
She has her sister to thank, indirectly, for her choice of instrument. Claire was pianist in a children’s orchestra, and at a concerto JoJo watched the adult leader tune up the children’s instruments and hand them out. “I thought she was giving them away, and I said to my mum ‘go and get me one of those things you stick under your chin, I want one!’”
It was Father Christmas who later came up with the goods, and only years later did Joanne discover that her grandfather, who had died before she was born, was a violinist, and she hugs the family connection.
It was not easy financially for her parents, but they paid for Joanne, Claire and little brother Chris to have music and dance lessons. “Our parents have never, ever been pushy, just really supportive. They came from nothing and their parents came from nothing. They wanted to give us the tools to get out of that situation.”
So from the age of four she began dancing lessons, and at 11 had become a cabaret dance champion – the disciplines she had to master being tap, modern, song and dance.
Her elder sister was already at Chetham’s but the audition was no nepotistic push-over. Joanne had to work for her place. After a couple of years there, she clicked with a violin teacher who, exotically, was Australian and had trained in Russia.
Unusually, given the prestigious nature of Chethams, Jo chose to change schools for her A levels. But she and many of her compatriots were badly shaken when the IRA let off their bomb in Manchester, which devastated the city. “Manchester was really grim, and the bomb had frightened us.” So she moved to St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, where she was able to continue to study with her violin teacher. “He smoked a pipe during all my lessons – it wouldn’t be allowed now! I loved it, it was a comfort, like having a granddad in the room.”
For despite living away from home since the age of 12, Joanne’s family was, and still is, very important to her. She loved Edinburgh and still does, but went home every weekend. This was also the means by which she kept up her dancing. She’d be in Doncaster by 7pm and at her dance class by 7.30 until 10pm. Then she’d get up for her morning lesson at 8am. “That’s how I managed to juggle the dancing and the music.”
Her siblings were no slouches, incidentally. Sister Claire has an established career as a pianist, playing backing for live X Factor shows, and was the pianist of choice for England footballer John Terry’s wedding. Brother Chris is a singer/songwriter who has toured with Will Young, and his songs have been recorded by the likes of Alisha Dixon.
Joanna took a year out before university, but rather than back-pack to exotic places her destination was home, with her family. Resting on her laurels did not come into it, however. She travelled to London every ten days for a violin lesson, funding herself with a bit of television work, and got some more dance exams under her belt.
Middlesex University was the ideal place for her, the Performing Arts course enabling her to pursue both her disciplines. Nonetheless, she still faced opposition when she began to get professional gigs. “I heard, through my friend Shalisa, who had been in the girl band She with me, that Robbie Williams was looking for violinists for his band. The university wasn’t very supportive – you were supposed to get permission to work as a professional musician, though it was fine if you got a bit of bar work!”
The Robbie Williams thing she almost mentions in passing. It was one of those who-you-know connections that you just can’t engineer. Her friend knew Robbie Williams’ best mate’s dad, and so Joanna played at his gigs until he moved to America. She’s a life-long fan, and a Take That song is going to be the first song at her wedding reception in a few weeks time.
But a cloud hangs over Joanne’s memory of this time: Shalisa committed suicide. “She was a lovely, lovely girl,” she says sadly. Joanne doesn’t know the reason, but the pressure to succeed as a performer is likely to have taken its toll. Which is another reason why Joanna’s sheer groundedness takes you by surprise.
While at university, she and her brother Chris went on a UK tour, supporting mind-over-matter merchant Uri Geller. Press notices described them as “reminiscent of The Carpenters with a rocky edge.” Later, Joanne was offered a part in Spirit of the Dance (sequel to Riverdance) as their violinist and a dancer. After training in Las Vegas the show would go to North Carolina, and then the world. “But I was five months off completing my degree, I couldn’t defer it because the course was to change the following academic year, and with the cost of the loan it would be stupid to pack it in. So I didn’t go: I made a decision. It was really hard.”
Decisiveness is clearly part of Joanna’s makeup. At just 23, straight after university, she started a dance school in Beckton in London’s East End, which is still going strong. It seems remarkably young to take such a step, but she had no doubts about it. “I think you can do anything if you’ve got the training. I can’t do brain surgery because I haven’t been trained for it but with my dancing I always wanted to open dance school.”
Joanna travels up every Saturday to teach, and is delighted with her pupils’ progress. “We’ve got a link with a casting agency – so a lot of my kids get work for MTV, which is cool. It’s a very multicultural school so we’ve got blond haired blue eyes, Afro Caribbean, mixed race, we can provide whatever look is required. And they’re lovely.”
A year ago she opened Fusion Arts here on the Island, a dance school for ages two to adult. It is based in Ryde, but with satellite classes in Cowes, East Cowes and Newport. “I never tire of teaching dance. We teach ballet, tap, jazz, hip hop, and musical theatre. I use the Australian Teachers of Dancing for our exams, except for musical theatre, for which I use the London College of Music. A few weeks ago we had examiners come over from Australia to examine the kids – which was really cool. We’re just waiting on their results at the moment, and I’m as excited as the kids are.”
In less than two months Joanna is to be married, to solicitor Mark Willey. She has long adopted the Island as her home, but you can’t help wondering whether they’ll ever see each other. He works hard, she works hard, she’s in London at weekends, performing hither and thither at other times. She agrees she’s busy but seems ever ready to take on more. Together with Alan Tichmarsh and singer Charlotte Barton-Hoare, she’s shortly to collaborate on a project put together by the Piping Hot Doc, the bagpiper who featured recently on these pages, to make a CD in aid of the hospice.
She smiles. “I’ve always managed to come to some arrangement whereby I do everything I love.”
Fusion Arts Academy, 07786 787322, or www.fusionarts.co.uk or www.violinjo.co.uk