Dorinda Duncan, who currently sits on Labour’s London regional board, is being investigated by the party over claims that her firm left families tens of thousands of pounds out of pocket, HuffPost UK can reveal.
Her agency, Connect Your Talent (CYT), is accused of taking more than £90,000 from the parents of child dancers in Scotland and the North East who had been promised trips to California that never happened. No refunds have been paid.
One parent and dance teacher, Sonya Bree, said breaking the news to her young students that they wouldn’t be going to the US after months of rehearsals and fundraising was “absolutely devastating”.
“They had worked so hard,” she said. “To tell them three weeks before we were supposed to get on a plane was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Duncan said that she had offered all the families the chance to reschedule their trips and hoped to reach a “happy ending” by working with them.
Elected to the board as part of a Momentum slate of candidates last year, Duncan is also the chair of Greenwich Momentum and describes herself as “a passionate grassroots activist supporting the fight against injustice in our society”.
But she is facing heavy criticism over the talent agency she ran with her daughter Anastasia Palikeras – another Momentum activist.
Connect Your Talent organised the California excursions with an itinerary that included specialist dance training in the Millennium Dance Complex in Los Angeles and a dance routine performance at Disneyland. The package covered hotel accommodation and flights.
HuffPost UK has seen bank statements showing parents paid into Palikeras’s bank account in monthly instalments for over two years.
The agency’s company emails had boasted of “amazing training and performance in top locations”, catering for young dancers, actors, singers and models.
But just weeks before they were due to fly out last autumn the parents discovered that no flights or hotels had been booked.
When they complained, they were told the trip had been cancelled.
Scores of children, including some studying at dance schools in Coatbridge near Glasgow and in Darlington and Newton Aycliffe in the north-east of England, found out just days beforehand that the excursion was cancelled.
Many of them burst into tears when they were told their “trip of a lifetime” would not go ahead.
Duncan and Palikeras were reported by furious parents to the City of London’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, local trading standards and Police Scotland.
Another 16-strong group of young dancers in Essex had also booked a trip to California this April. Their dance studio has been left £16,000 out of pocket after Connect Your Talent failed to pay any refunds when asked.
Following complaints, CYT said at the time it would instead try to rearrange the trips for new dates. The parents said that response was unacceptable and impractical.
The agency has since disappeared, with its website, Facebook page and email contact address all being disabled, leaving parents finding it difficult to contact Duncan or her daughter.
HuffPost UK was able to track down Duncan using a private email address, separate from the one given out to parents.
One Labour MP said: “All members have an obligation to act within the spirit and rules of the Labour Party and to do nothing that would damage it or bring it into disrepute.
“There is no question she should be suspended immediately from the party and the board pending a full investigation into these allegations, and there are serious questions to be asked as to why she hasn’t been already.”
Diane Macadam, who runs the Macadam School of Dance in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, told HuffPost UK how shocked she was at the way families were treated by Duncan.
“I don’t know how she can sleep at night, basically,” she said. “It was all the kids – they were so excited. They were supposed to be performing at Disney. They had done all the rehearsals, and we had booked it two years in advance. Telling the kids was the worst.
“We are £63,000 out of pocket. Dorinda just keeps disappearing – changing her email address, then we all individually email her, but still nothing.”
Macadam added: “We were a group of 80 going on the trip. Some of them are families of five, so they are more than £4,000 down.
“It was only because one of our parents had a baby and she contacted the hotel about a cot that we discovered there was no actual booking at the hotel they told us we were staying at. They had booked nothing – that or the flights.
“They kept trying to change it to Easter. We said: ‘What about those who can’t go? Will you give them a refund?’ and they said they wouldn’t refund anybody. We said: ‘As a group we are all demanding the refund back.’”
Macadam added: “They took people’s hard earned money. When they don’t come up with what they promised, and have left children broken-hearted, that can’t be allowed to continue. That’s why the police have got to investigate.”
In emails to Macadam, Connect Your Talent suggested the problem had in part arisen because Duncan had been unwell. “Dorinda has been ill for some time and not able to work,” one read. “She was taking care of your group and this has impacted on our normal service.”
Another email, sent to Macadam by one of Duncan’s colleagues, asked her to “tell the parents I am working on flights and have contracts for the hotels coming in, and it will all be sorted very soon. Just need time for all of the strands to come together as this is what Dorinda does normally. With her out of action we are a bit stretched!”
A later email stated that “we will not be looking at refunds” because “we will be able to accommodate everyone with a new date”.
When Macadam objected and warned that parents would be taking the matter to police and trading standards, the agency replied: “We are committed to providing you with an event and will put our case to any legal action following our terms and conditions.”
Another email stated: “As per our terms and conditions that everyone that booked onto the trip agreed to, we are within our terms to postpone an event and run at a different time.”
The families of seven young dancers from Sonya Marie Academy of Dance in Darlington had also been paying in instalments for a trip over 18 months. Sonya Bree, who runs the school, had paid £885 to go on the trip, as a teacher, with her son.
Connect Your Talent told the academy it had organised professional American dance teachers and booked a slot for a performance at Disneyland itself. But Bree discovered that no such booking had been made.
“We have families that are not that privileged and this was the trip of a lifetime,” she said.
“It’s been absolutely devastating. I told my seven students all together.”
She added: “Dorinda was the one who organised it all.”
Colin Skinner, whose daughter Natalie runs the Firebird dance studio in Coatbridge that also booked with Connect Your Talent, told HuffPost UK each family paid more than a thousand pounds. Collectively they are nearly £30,000 out of pocket.
“They met Dorinda over Facebook,” he said. “Everything seemed OK. They had started agreeing to make various payments into her account of roughly £100 a month or so.
“There were 28 parents who all paid her this sum of money. Two days before they were due to leave, my daughter was getting rather anxious – they still hadn’t got confirmed flight times or anything.”
Skinner added: “They [CYT] said that another dance school had dropped out and the trip wasn’t going to be possible and she would be moving the Firebirds trip to February.
″[My daughter] said: ‘No, everybody has taken a week’s holiday and we need to go now.’ It was as much use as a chocolate watch.
“No flights had been booked for our trip – we checked with American Airlines. And once the deal fell through there has been no contact verbally with Dorinda Duncan or Anastasia Palikeras. No offer of a refund.”
A spokesperson for Labour refused to comment but a senior source familiar with the matter said the party was investigating it.
In a statement to HuffPost UK, Duncan said: “As stated in our terms and conditions and contracts, sometimes event dates have to be rescheduled.
“We are keen to ensure all children who were booked in with us do have their time to shine in LA. We have offered the schools alternative dates and are willing to be as flexible as possible to find dates suitable to the schedules of all children involved.
“We understand and regret the unhappiness caused to anyone as a result of the postponement of the trip. We hope schools will collaborate with us to find a happy ending.”
A spokesperson for City of London Police’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau confirmed that it had a file on the case that was recorded as an “intelligence report”.
Amanda Colbecki, who runs the Bailar Dance studio in Essex, told HuffPost UK she had had similar experiences with Duncan and Connect Your Talent.
Colbecki had booked 16 children to go on a trip to California this April, but became concerned when she hadn’t received any confirmations for bookings.
“We were only halfway through making the payments when I logged into the dance teacher forum and saw the messages from Diane and Natalie who were meant to have travelled in October.
“We were in a similar situation. I had paid £16,000 through the deposit and monthly payments. Dorinda Duncan was the main contact but it was Anastasia Palikeras’s bank account details you were given.”
Colbecki arranged to meet Duncan in person in Greenwich at the beginning of November to convey her concerns.
“She said nothing was going to go wrong, and we needed to trust her and we needed to pay her and so on. I said to her I’d like proof of where my money is or I’d like proof of the reservations if indeed you have made the reservations,” she said.
“I said I’ve got 16 kids and three adults meant to be going on this trip and so far nothing is going on. I said you need to give me proof of where my kids’ money is or you need to give me solid reservation numbers that I can then phone American Airlines, the Hyatt [LA], Disney.
“She said: ‘I don’t need to give you that. You need to understand things don’t get booked in advance.’ I said that’s fine but you’ve still got that money somewhere. You need to show me the money.”
“She communicated for about a week after that and then just went absolutely silent.”
Colbecki reported the incident to the police National Fraud Reporting Centre, also citing a reference number given to Macadam’s own complaint about Connect Your Talent. She is still waiting for the police to respond to her queries as to why no action has yet been taken.
“My bank said they couldn’t do anything unless she was prosecuted for fraud,” she said. “No one can say it’s fraud unless apparently the [police] central fraud department say it’s fraud,” Colbecki said. “How are we going to stop her from doing this again and again?”
Colbecki said that, in her opinion, “to just disappear and to be taking money regularly seems like someone being fraudulent or running a scam or it’s theft –you took the money and didn’t provide me with what you said.”
HuffPost UK attempted to contact Palikeras through her mother but had no response.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.