2020 has brought some huge changes in the life of dance group Diversity’s founder, Ashley Banjo. During the pandemic, the Banjo household has welcomed a new addition, and had time to reflect
Way back in 2009, the nation watched open-mouthed as dance group Diversity performed their competition-smashing routine on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent final, led by founder and creative director Ashley Banjo. Their choreography and razor-sharp movement was nothing short of spellbinding. The audience was in awe, and Diversity won the hearts and votes of millions. They’ve remained firmly in the public eye ever since.
Now, 11 years on from their landslide victory, Diversity are still going strong, with a bigger-than-ever tour lined up for 2021, and thousands of fans following their every move on social media. However, performing together has been curtailed lately, with lockdown and social distancing rules putting a stop to rehearsals.
While Diversity’s output may have temporarily slowed, life for founder Ashley Banjo, has remained full-on. In March, Ashley and his partner Francesca welcomed their beautiful son Micah to the family – a little brother for their 17-month-old daughter Rose. It’s been, he says, eye-opening.
“Any parent will tell you that the leap from one child to two is massive,” Ashley explains “With one, you’re sharing everything between you, but with two – especially when they’re both under two years old – the amount of care more than doubles. It’s just a whole new world.”
As well as welcoming a new family member, Ashley believes the months of enforced time at home during lockdown has significantly shifted his perspective on life.
“I’ve started to question and notice different things. I’m not the kind of person who usually says, ‘Let’s go sit outside, have a picnic, and chill out.’ I’m always ready to move and work. But being in this situation, and having the kids, I can now be with just them for hours, watching them play in the garden – that’s everything to me. It’s made me realise what’s really important.”
There’s a sense that the arrival of the pandemic has refocused and renewed priorities for Ashley, with his family, Diversity, and dance solidly at the centre of his universe. His voice warms instantly when conversation moves from Covid concerns to the artform that propelled him and his closest friends into the limelight more than a decade ago, and it’s clear that his passion for movement is deeply embedded in his soul.
Although their BGT victory was 11 years ago, the group has been in existence for 23 in total, and Ashley has been there for every one of those years since the age of eight. It’s easy to imagine that such longevity as a group brings with it an intensity, level of trust, and loyalty.
“Dancing together, being together every day, going through every high and low, and seeing each other grow up, it’s quite a rare thing between friends,” Ashley explains reflecting on the impact the sudden coronavirus-led halt has had for them all. “Then when you’re ripped away from each other, you can’t train, do your skill, manage your business, and see each other – and your families are growing in the meantime – it’s emotionally tough.”
Ashley says that turning to dance to elevate his mood and mind when situations are difficult is a key tool in his own mental resilience kit. He’s keen to champion its value. “The benefits of dancing are slightly overlooked in this area,” he says. “It’s proven that physical activity is massively important when it comes to your mental health and wellbeing, and that music is a mood-lifter, mood-changer, and mood-enhancer. So when you combine the two, with creativity and the opportunity to express yourself as well, dancing is a proper powerhouse for mental wellness.”
And, if there were to be a silver lining to the cloudy Covid sky, the fact that more people are engaging with dance, and receptive to moving for their mood, might just be it for Ashley. He reveals that Diversity has seen a huge surge in demand for their online dance classes, and he loves the fact that people want to move for themselves.
Being together every day, going through every high and low, and seeing each other grow up, it’s quite a rare thing between friends
TikTok, he suggests, has had a really key role to play in this societal change. “The ability to be free, create moves, dance, listen to music, all those things that bring people joy – it’s all there, and it’s a little bit raw and more real.
“I think that TikTok has been a bit of light relief, and an escape for many people. What they’re experiencing is kind of my job – that’s why I love it, and why I’ve missed it so much.”
If there was ever to be a national ambassador for the mood-enhancing benefits of dance, Ashley Banjo should be handed the title immediately. Undoubtedly, he’s already inspired thousands of children to get up and move through the many dance programmes he’s appeared in and judged on. And now it seems he’s passed on his enthusiasm and dancing DNA to his young daughter Rose.
“I haven’t had to teach her anything, she’s already started moving her hips, bless her.” he laughs. “When music comes on, she just loves it!”
Will he bring Rose into the Diversity troupe? “If you’re part of this family, you’re already in it,” he says fondly. “You can’t not be.”
A future Diversity tour with two additional Banjo members may be some way down the line, but Ashley is already thinking years ahead. “Having kids, I’m much more aware that I’m sowing the seeds for the world that they’re going to be living in,” Ashley admits.
This focus on the future has also brought new ventures for Ashley, and this spring he teamed up with Pura, the eco-friendly children’s brand, to promote their range of ‘fine to flush’ 100% plastic-free, biodegradable, and compostable baby wipes, reading the educational and entertaining Lilly and the Wipe Monster bedtime book on their Instagram account, to share the devastating and unnecessary impact of plastic on our planet.
“Before, I was using hundreds of baby wipes and adding them to landfill because most wipes are full of plastic – unlike these,” Ashley explains. “They’re as good as anything I’ve used on my babies, and they’re affordable so it’s a win-win.
“In all honesty, I can’t say that I do everything eco yet, but that’s why I like working with Pura, because it allows me to do something small and meaningful. At this moment in my life, I’m trying to be more reflective and thoughtful – and so this just fell into place.”
The idea of making small personal changes which could have a big positive impact on your own life, mood, and family, and keeping your creative passions alive, are recurring themes that come through loud and clear in conversation with Ashley. This also applies, he says, to self-care.
“What I’ve realised in the past year, is the ability to lift your mood and pick yourself up, can come from within. Even if you wouldn’t usually, get up and dance, put on that piece of music, read the book you love, take time out – self-charge that battery.
“Don’t get too caught up in the values of the world around you,” he continues. “Try to recharge from inside out, and when you do that, everything falls into place a lot easier. I call it your ‘self-worth charge’.”
Finding out what charges your batteries may be a truly personal thing, but after speaking to Ashley I’m intrigued by the thought of dancing as a way to lift my solo home-working blues. The house is quiet, the dog is asleep, and although I’ll never make it into an award-winning dance group like Diversity, it feels good to stick on my headphones and shimmy around the living room in the middle of the day.
Ashley is right, dancing is a powerful tool for mood improvement, and I’d thoroughly recommend it, too.