It’s 17 years since Darrien Wright performed in a West End production of Footloose after winning a TV dance competition. Now, he’s about to star in the same show in his hometown. PETER BARRON reports

AS he looks forward to the opening night of Footloose at Darlington Hippodrome Theatre later this month, Darrien Wright can’t help feeling emotional as he reflects on a life that’s been enriched by his love of dance.

Back in 2006, Darrien shot to fame after winning BBC1’s Strictly Dance Fever competition with partner Hollie Victoria. The prize was “a dream come true” – to become part of the cast of Footloose, at the Novello Theatre, in London’s West End.

Darrien has crammed in an awful lot since then: travelling the world as a professional dancer; opening his own dance school; being elected as an independent councillor; becoming Darlington Borough Council’s first ambassador for the LGBTQI community; and dancing with his idol, Kylie Minogue.

Now, with his life dancing full circle, he’s in rehearsals for Footloose again – this time as a proud member of Darlington Operatic Society, and due to perform at the town’s Hippodrome Theatre.

“It’s a show that means so much to me,” says Darrien. “I’ve got so many memories from the West End in 2006, and I can’t wait to be part of another brilliant production in my hometown.”

Darrien is Darlington through and through. His dad, Paul, was a butcher in the covered market, while mum, Karen, works at Firthmoor Community Centre.

Paul was part of the Northern Soul scene, and Darrien attributes his dancing genes to him. However, it was a childhood trip to Whitley Bay, with his mum, to see Kylie in concert that inspired his ambitions to dance on stage.

“I was only six at the time, but I told my mum ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I was hooked.”

Within a week, he’d joined the Eastbourne Generation dance company – the only boy on the books, long before the Billy Elliott movie changed perceptions of North-East lads who wanted to dance.

“I loved it from the start,” recalls Darrien, who was also a regular in talent shows at Hurworth School.

By the time he was nine, he was winning dance competitions around the country.

His biggest mentor when he was growing up was his Auntie Debbie, who sadly passed away when he was 13. “She always told me to dream big, and that's what I've always tried to do,” he says.

He continued to follow his dreams, building his experience in a wide range of dance styles, including freestyle, ballroom, salsa, Latin, and lyrical, until his life-changing success came as a 21-year-old in Strictly Dance Fever. 

The Northern Echo:

Hosted by Graham Norton, with a judging panel that included dancing legends, Arlene Phillips and Wayne Sleep, Darrien and Hollie were thrilled to be chosen as winners at the end of the two-month contest.

A triumphant stint in the West End production of Footloose followed, and the producer was so impressed that he invited Darrien to tour with his next show, Fame The Musical.

He went on to perform in a variety of shows worldwide before he returned home in 2009 to open his own Dance Wright school, which is now run by two of his former students.

He later spent four years as a borough councillor, with a special focus on health and diversity.

Five years ago, he got the surprise of his life when he was set up by a friend to dance with Kylie on Michael McIntyre's Big Show.

It was the same year that he joined Darlington Operatic Society,  performing in The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

After some challenging times in his personal life, he credits being part of DOS with rekindling his love of dance, and Footloose will be his eighth show with the society.

“I’d been to see DOS shows and was always massively 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 be having a bad day, then I get on stage and I’m in my happy place, amongst friends.”

And DOS is equally happy to have someone of Darrien's calibre among the membership. "It's a dream for us, not just because of the professionalism he brings with his amazing talent, but the sheer positivity of his attitude and his never-ending desire to help other members improve," says chair, Julian Cound.

"It's wonderful that his journey has turned full circle, from the West End in Footloose, to our production at Darlington Hippodrome."

Footloose rehearsals have coincided with Darrien returning to education, embarking on a course in sports and physical training at Darlington College. The aim is to build on his dance experience and move into teaching fitness.

“I love teaching and want to put something back, not just in terms of physical fitness but mental health too – that’s hugely important to me,” he says.

Footloose runs at Darlington Hippodrome between October 25 to November 4, and Darrien has no doubt that director and choreographer, Jo Hand, has produced a show to be proud of.

"It's a fabulous cast and Jo has delivered a strong production, with great story-telling 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 programme because they were the perfect example of integration and the benefits of multi-culturalism.

They'd arrived in Darlington from Niepolomice, near Krakow, in 2005, and quickly immersed themselves in the local community.

Lukasz became vice-chairman of Darlington Town Twinning Association, as well as being part of Darlington Round Table, and Darlington Lions.

We stayed in touch, had dinner at each other's homes, and bumped into each other from time to time.

Last week, I was so sad to discover that Lukasz (pictured below) had died suddenly at 43.

The Northern Echo:

Tom Nutt, chair of Darlington Town Twinning Association, and a close friend of the couple, said: "Lukasz was a special human being, who added huge value to our town. He was always smiling and his loss is just a huge tragedy."

A funeral service takes place in Niepolomice on October 21, but thoughts are also turning to how Lukasz can be honoured in Darlington, the town that became his adopted home.

In the meantime, my thoughts are with Dominika and their beautiful little girl, Gabriela. I hope they find comfort in the outpouring of love and the tributes that have flooded in.

Rest in peace, Lukasz.