When Abi Wightman was three she knew she wanted to be a dancer, but was advised by her family to fulfil her academic potential as a linguist. She did, but now she breathes fire too.
It’s not every day that I arrive to interview the subject of these pages and end up in a woman’s walk-in wardrobe in the section marked ‘pants’ and ‘tights’ with a feather boa tickling my nose.
I can also assure you that you can count on one finger the occasions I’ve been urged to strip off and squeeze into a leopard print leotard; you know, the skimpy onesie with the little lunchbox-hugging shorts worn by circus strongmen.
As Frankie Howerd would have said: ‘Titter ye not madam, titter ye not’.
Naturally, I made my excuses and... donned a white feather headdress proffered by Abi Wightman who was, by now, barely able to stifle those titters.
Dozens of glorious costumes twinkle out of her floor-to-ceiling wardrobe which, I should hasten to add, is in her office.
The Gosport 28-year-old is a force of nature. And to emphasise that point she also breathes fire. As you do.
By education she is a linguist; by night she’s a dancer. More importantly, she’s the owner of one of the south of England’s leading entertainment agencies.
When we meet at her St Andrew’s Road home she’s making last-minute preparations to drive to Birmingham to collect a bespoke giant Martini glass.
She’s had it made especially. It is about five feet high, has lights running through it and when it’s filled with water she will slide elegantly into it via a ladder to perform.
Naturally, it will break down into three pieces so she can get it into her Golf.
By the end of this week she will have taught burlesque, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and twerking at workshops; supplied 11 artists and that giant Martini glass to a flashy 50th birthday party in Essex and two showgirls to the PSP Southampton Boat Show launch party; performed on stilts and worked at several freshers’ events. And breathed fire.
‘I’m never satisfied. I’m a go-getter. I set myself a goal and strive to achieve it, then set myself a new goal.
‘First it was GCSEs, then college, then uni, now it’s the business.
‘Only you don’t get a nice little certificate at the end of it to say ‘‘you did great, well done’’. You take on new challenges every day and your reward is the customer coming back and saying ‘‘thanks Abi, your team were fab’’.’
We are a little over half-way through September and Abi’s business, Daze Entertainment, has so far provided stilt walkers at a shopping centre opening, a hula hooping duo in Manchester, a burlesque duo in Southampton, Vegas-style body-painted hosts on one of the Solent forts, tribal dancers in Portsmouth, entertainment at a Dirty Dancing hen party and circus performers at a black themed night in Crawley.
Abi pauses for breath – a normal one, without the flames.
‘From the age of three all I wanted to do was dance, but my family encouraged me to stick at academic work,’ says Abi who went to Bay House School, Gosport and Barton Peveril College, Eastleigh, before reading French and linguistics at the University of Southampton. The latter included a compulsory year in Paris to immerse herself in the language, which she did by dancing in clubs.
‘My mother and grandmother were both talented dancers so it was in the blood. Ballet, modern, jazz, tap – festivals, competitions, I did them all. I still attend occasional classes at Mandaleigh Dance School in Fareham. You can never get enough technique.’
So why did she not follow her heart and go to dance school? ‘The cost of a dance course at any of the top schools such as Rambert, London Studios or Laines, is phenomenal, whereas going to a local university was slightly more realistic.’
Abi adds: ‘I did study hard at school and did well in all my language classes, so everyone had it in their mind that I would become a French teacher or a translator.
‘But the longer I studied at university the more I grew to hate it. I think if you’re into creative arts stuff like dance, it’s really difficult to put it aside and be an adult.
‘I rarely look upon my work as ‘‘work’’ and going into an office to translate documents nine-to-five would have definitely been a chore.’
Abi was 20 and studying hard at university when she set up Daze Dancers in her spare time. ‘The more events I did, the more people kept asking if I had a friend who played saxophone or walked on stilts.
‘I think my clients saw that I enjoyed networking and that I was organised so they trusted me to connect them with the right people.
‘Before I knew it my little team Daze Dancers became Daze Entertainment and I was supplying all kinds of weird and wonderful acts.’
But setting up a business at 20 was not without its pitfalls. The learning curve was steep and Abi admits she made mistakes.
‘I have vivid memories of hanging around until 4am to be paid and there were a handful of times I used dancers people had recommended and when they arrived they weren’t up to scratch.
‘They’re the reasons why I road test all our artists before I send them on jobs, so I can quality control.’
Even in a recession Abi says there has been constant demand for acts despite the fact that she was the boss at such a young age.
‘I found that as a young blonde dancer people never took me that seriously. My grandparents spent years asking when I was going to get a proper job. They were still probably raw about me not becoming a translator.
‘They understand the scale of what I do now though and how much time and effort goes into every single specification – from the initial inquiry to putting quotes together, installing performance platforms, risk assessing, insurances, wardrobe, event-managing and performing.’
I wonder if she ever has time to relax. ‘Ah, the downsides,’ she smiles. ‘Taking holiday is tricky. Taking a single day off is tricky. Work e-mails ping to my Blackberry all the time so I could be sitting watching a film with my husband and a work e-mail that ‘‘just can’t wait’’ might come through. He’s very patient and very supportive. He only gets cross when he can see it’s stressing me out and that I physically need a break.’
But those moments do not appear to happen too frequently. Abi is a great believer in being in control of her own destiny.
She says: ‘I’ve heard people say they couldn’t do X, Y or Z because of this person/that job/this situation.
‘I don’t buy into that. If my business were to fail I’d only have myself to blame. I would hate to be in a job where I worried if the company might make me redundant or change my role.
‘Whereas with Daze some days I’m a fire performer, some days I’m a face painter and some day I’m just the boss in the office.’
Circus with a twist debuts at nightclub
Abi Wightman has spent the summer putting together a new show for a Portsmouth nightclub, the like of which, she believes, has not been seen in the city before.
It’s called Twisted Circus and made its debut at Tiger Tiger, Gunwharf Quays, last night.
Abi says: ‘We’re creating a genuine circus experience that people haven’t seen before where there’s something weird and wonderful going on throughout every stage of the evening.
‘It’s a big undertaking but we have some fantastic, never-before-seen-in-Portsmouth acts – acts and props which will make the night go with a bang.’
She says there are choreographed acts from aerialists to beds of nails, Martini glass dancers, clockwork ballerinas, strongmen and acrobats. ‘The entertainment will be different each week so people get a new experience each time.’
And once a month the show will be expanded beyond the nightclub experience with an earlier two-course sit-down meal and circus cabaret show before the clubbing begins.
The next show is on October 31 – Halloween.