Meet the women behind Derbyshire's award-winning DaleDiva choir
PUBLISHED: 10:01 21 October 2014 | UPDATED: 10:01 21 October 2014
As local choir DaleDiva prepares to compete in next year's world championships in Las Vegas, Penelope Baddeley joins them in rehearsal
‘I want you to attack me with your energy and enthusiasm!’ shouts Ally Law, the charismatic director of the extraordinarily successful a capella singing group, DaleDiva. It’s Thursday night rehearsal at Matlock Bath Holy Trinity Church and the Divas, dressed in diamante-adorned turquoise polo shirts stand to attention on their risers.
Their crystalline pure, bright and exhilarating sound vibrates through the air. The harmonies are close and tight and chords ping and ring right up to the church rafters.
The group of 60-plus women – mothers and grandmothers - from around the county of Derbyshire are singing a Diva ditty to remind themselves where they are headed; to the bright lights of Las Vegas.
Viva Las Vegas, we will see you there!
Viva Las Vegas, inter-na-tional
Viva Dale Divas, Las Vegas!
For this American style chorus, which sings in the barbershop style of a capella, has won a place to compete in a world championship contest, to be staged next year in the entertainment capital of the world by the global singing organisation Sweet Adelines International. It’s a far cry from the country lanes of Cromford and relatively muted attractions of Matlock Bath, where many of the chorus members live.
‘It’s a momentous achievement to say we only formed the Divas seven years ago,’ said Ally, a former drill instructor for the RAF, who is now preparing her troops to present a 20-minute entertainment and showmanship package to knock the socks off the rest of the barbershop world.
‘We are going to show the world what DaleDiva is all about – our love of entertainment and love for one another. That’s the “D Factor” in DaleDiva,’ she said.
Ally aged 45, who formed and nurtured the Divas, is passionate about her craft and proud of her chorus. She was introduced to the technically difficult choral discipline of barbershop as a child. From the age of nine she sang with her mother Brenda and aunty Beryl in Derby Ladies chorus, and grew up cocooned in the company of supportive women at rehearsals.
She continued her passion when she left home and moved South by joining the Bedford-based Phoenix chorus. When she returned to her native Derbyshire with husband Simon and her daughter Grace she was desperate to form a new social and musical network – a brand new chorus for Derbyshire.
‘I wanted to recreate all those things that I valued about singing in Phoenix: the deep friendships, the support networks, and the sense of fun, the love entertaining and singing for people.’
An advertising poster reading ‘Wanted: Women Who Sing’ was planted in and around Cromford. Local newspapers and radio took up the appeal and on a cold, wet night in November 2007 Ally, her mum and aunty Beryl sat waiting inside Cromford Community Centre for the response. Eighty-seven women turned up.
‘I was ecstatic, overwhelmed at the response,’ she remembers.
Ally came up with the memorable name DaleDiva, referencing the beautiful Derbyshire Dales where she has spent much of her life, but the name is also rooted in the Diva Director’s firm belief that ‘Every woman has a diva within them.’
By the end of that first historic evening, Ally, her family and a few expert volunteers had the crowd singing ‘Da Do Ron Ron’ in four part harmony. The Divas were born.
Ally, who has sang all four barbershop parts at competitive level, stated: ‘I’m not a church goer but I do believe that someone was watching over me, getting together people to help make my mission, my goal, a reality.’
The Divas success has been sure and swift with the chorus winning medals at both national and international level. There has been a raft of radio and television performances. The Divas took part in Radio 3’s Choir of The Year, the BBC’s Last Choir Standing in 2008 and have featured twice on the BBC East Midlands Children In Need Appeal.
The chorus prides itself on being a ‘group of ordinary women who do extraordinary things’. By day they are nurses, carers, students, teachers, designers, accountants and there is even a gardener, but after a dusting of stage make-up and the donning of a sequinned dress they consistently take audiences by storm at prestigious venues, including The Sage at Gateshead and Nottingham Royal Concert Hall. Other less conventional venues have featured. A defining characteristic of their art is that they sing unaccompanied.
Ally said: ‘All we need is a pitch pipe and we can sing anywhere. And I can tell you, we have sung everywhere from open fields to motorway service station toilets!’
A key career highlight for the Divas was winning the title of Britain’s Best Show Choir in Channel Five television’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ contest.
‘It was just so exciting,’ said Ally.
‘There was some undignified screaming,’ laughs Ally’s husband and loyal supporter Simon.
The Divas sang a special arrangement of Beyonce’s Single Ladies for the television contest and were coached in choreography by Kim Gavin, who was responsible for choreography in the closing ceremony of the British Olympic Games and has worked with bands such as Take That.
The win landed them a contract at a London recording studio where they produced their second album: DaleDiva.
‘I know it’s not quite a sleepy hollow that we live in here among the beautiful Derbyshire Dales. But you don’t really expect things like this to happen to people who live here.’
For many of the women in the chorus, joining the Divas has changed their lives utterly. Countless chorus members are keen to testify how being a Diva has increased their self esteem and confidence, transforming personal and sometimes professional lives.
Ally, who also sings tenor in the award-winning Fahrenheit quartet said: ‘It’s all about empowerment. Some people have never had the chance to be heard. They do their thing at home. They are mothers and grandmothers but here they get the chance to be themselves and to be heard. When people come through that door to rehearsal they forget their troubles and channel their emotions into singing, turning any negatives into positives.’
At 24 years old, Rachel Squires from Ilkeston is the youngest member of the chorus. She plucked up courage to join the Divas after separating from her husband and has thrived in its supportive environment. She said: ‘There has been a massive amount of tears after my marriage failed but there’s always been someone here for me. I remember breaking down in tears in rehearsal after singing one particular song but then all these arms came around
Rachel recently changed her job from carer to a managerial role in a care home. She added: ‘Being a Diva has sort of changed my whole personality. I was shy and timid and didn’t want to talk to anyone. It has empowered me and has given me confidence.’
So what is the key to success for this bunch of women aged between 24 and 73 years old? How can a chorus founded on friendships and family ties – there are no less than three mother and daughter pairs – achieve so much?
Ally explains that while DaleDiva thrives on its strong friendships (a defining characteristic of the barbershop singing community), its ethos is unashamedly competitive. They are selective and hold strict auditions, to match challenging and often complex musical arrangements in the current 20-song repertoire.
Ally is single minded and steadfast. She said: ‘When I started out I said we would be award winning.
‘It doesn’t matter what we are doing, for me there should always be a goal. There’s no use going to rehearsal every Thursday night and not having a purpose of why we should get better. We want to be scored so we know if we are improving.’
Last May they scored gold in their class (mid-sized chorus) in the international Sweet Adelines competition, staged at Nottingham Royal Concert Hall. When it transpired they had become one of the top five scoring choruses (in their class) in the world, they were invited to compete in the world championships in Las Vegas, Nevada.
They will be representing the region of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Netherlands. Ally said: ‘We may be representing all of the UK when we compete next year but we are also representing Derbyshire. We are a true Derbyshire chorus and so proud to be from Derbyshire.’
About 60 members of the chorus are planning to travel to the MGM Grand in Vegas for the event. They include single mums, retirees, women on minimum wage and women with families and the pressure is on to fund themselves.
This month (October 2014) the chorus is launching a year long campaign to attempt to raise £60,000 towards costs for the trip.
‘We are hoping that Derbyshire companies and individuals will help us pay for items such as flights, accommodation, specialist vocal coaching, sheet music, costumes and makeup.’
Anyone wishing to help should visit www.dalediva.com to make contact.
Meet a Diva coach:
Zac Booles is a sign writer by day but by night he’s a specialist music coach to Dale Diva Chorus. The 28-year-old Bangor music graduate is also Director of The Grand Central Chorus based in Long Eaton, Nottinghamshire and is lead singer in Monkey Magic, the 2008 British Quartet Champions.
He’s the perfect example to illustrate the close knit nature of the barbershop community. Girlfriend Claire is a ‘diva’ and her mum Diane also sings with the chorus.
He said: ‘Barbershop may be called a hobby but it’s more of a lifestyle! You come into a community of people with a common interest and they quickly become your friends.’
Last year Zac individually coached each member of the 70 strong chorus and is currently coaching each of its four musical sections.
‘More than many other vocal music hobbies, barbershop is very big on education. They teach how to give you a voice, how to improve your voice or understand your voice better. You never stop learning and I’ve learned so much through teaching!’
Zac travels the country coaching within the barbershop fraternity but has a particular passion for the Divas.
‘There is no barbershop chorus to compete with Dale Divas. The way Ally has set it up is nothing short of genius. They stand out, especially when they are surrounded by their peers at a contest.’
‘Barbershop can be very traditional and it is easy to be held back by that but Dale Divas work a stage and do much more than barbershop. They sing a variety of artists such as Adele and a variety of songs like Halleluiah and their skill set sets them apart really.’
Meet a DaleDiva member:
Hannah Millard from Allestree always enjoyed singing at school so she was intrigued when she saw the very first Dale Divas recruitment poster in her chip shop, some seven years ago, which read ‘Wanted Women Who Sing!’
She was just 18 years old, socially isolated and virtually house bound. ‘At that point in my life I had an 18 month old baby and had left school very suddenly and hadn’t seen anyone for a while. I was a full time carer for my mum and had a difficult relationship with my baby’s dad, my ex. It was a really difficult time for me.’
During her spare hours – through the night – she studied an Open University course.
Plucking up courage, Hannah attended the first ever rehearsal of Dale Divas in November 2007 and found that joining the flamboyant singing group restored and developed her confidence. ‘I’m a shy person and can dread social situations and over the course of the first couple of years coming to the chorus really helped build my confidence.’
Hannah now aged 26, went on to study at Derby University and built up a successful wedding photography business. Ironically her thriving professional life in photography meant she was forced to taker a break for three years from Divas.
The married mother-of-three said: ‘Although my photography business went from strength to strength I found my work/life balance had gone.’
She returned to be a Diva a year ago, with the full support of husband Iwan.
‘Leaving Divas was a real wrench but I hadn’t really realised how much of a hole leaving them had left in my life until I came back. And now it’s like I’ve never been away. It’s like a family. No matter how long it is since you have seen people, you are part of their family. Once A Diva, always a Diva!’
Hannah, who sings in the lead section of the chorus, is now looking forward to competing in the world championships next year. ‘It’s amazing. I can’t believe my luck. And it’s always nice to go away with the Divas because of the social side. I know we will be singing in airports, corridors and we’ll squeeze every last drop out of it.’
Lynda Jetten joined Dale Divas six years ago after the two children she had brought up on her own, flew the nest.
The 61-year-old from Belper said: ‘If I’m being honest with myself it was empty nest syndrome. It was quite a big thing when they left. I’ve always been a provider really and didn’t do anything on my own and it was nice to do something for myself.’
Lynda, who previously sang for a choral society, became a member after taking part in a Diva for a Day workshop. She is now section leader for the basses. She said: ‘I had no idea when I joined that it would become such a big part of my life. It is a big commitment because we learn the songs at home and practice them here at rehearsal. It’s great fun and not at all ageist because we all have a common interest.’
Francine Phillips and Vivien Wheeler are one of three daughter and mother pairs at DaleDiva.
Francine aged 46, from Sheffield is a ‘newbie’ at her chorus, having recently passed her audition to join her more experienced 64-year-old mum.
Francine said: ‘My mum suggested I come along to join Divas and be on the stage together. I found it a bit scary at first to stand up in the middle of the chorus but it is just amazing to be a part of making that big sound.’
Unlike other choral disciplines which use traditional three part harmony, barbershop consists of close, four part harmony. Leads sing the melody, tenors soar above the melody line, basses sing the lowest harmonizing notes and the baritones complete the four part chord.
‘If you all sing the right notes at the right time, with the same vowel sound and the right balance of parts, the way the music is written means you can create a fifth note called an overtone,’ explains Ally.
The art form also uses choreography so barbershoppers never perform with music in front of them. Singers ‘emote’ the lyrics, which helps give animation and expression to performers’ faces. But what defines this genre of singing is that unlike other choral groups they need no accompaniment.