Dancing your way through high school
By Paul Ransom.
We all know the rules: start early, practise relentlessly, never give up.
Dance is like many things in this regard. Hard work is the bedrock of success; and while we might argue about what constitutes ‘success’ there is no doubting the nature of hard work. Perhaps this is why more and more high schools around the country are now offering young people the opportunity to study dance in a formal education setting. What better way to ally the passion of the dancer with the more defined and perhaps sensible outcomes of the school system?
Critically, studying dance at high school reduces the need for young dancers to quit school in order to chase their dream. Schools like McDonald College in Sydney, (which has specialised in performing arts since its inception in 1984), are determined to keep artistically minded students in the education mainstream.
Principal Maxine Kohler puts it simply, “kids change,” she says. “It’s one thing to want to be a ballerina at twelve but by fifteen you may have changed your mind completely … We were very concerned that young dancers were being talked into leaving school and cutting off their academic options. So we’re really keen to see that dancers and all performers have every opportunity to follow their passion whilst still getting an academic education.”
This may seem a rather obvious point to stress but for parents it is remarkably reassuring. “We try to tell students that they’re not all going to make it onto the stage and that’s the reason why they have to have their HSC [Higher School Certificate]. For children these days to be leaving school at twelve or thirteen to do full time dance is simply not necessary.”
North of the border, the Queensland Dance School of Excellence (QDSE) has at its core a similar principle of keeping young dancers in touch with the academic education system.
Graduate and former dancer turned QDSE marketing officer Gabrielle Holden expands the school’s philosophy. “It is common knowledge that a dance career is relatively short compared to other professions and there is always the possibility of obtaining an injury or illness which can end that career suddenly. That is why at QDSE talented dance students are able to pursue their dream at the same time as preparing a realistic plan B.”
But of course studying dance within the confines of the secondary education framework is not all about ‘having something to fall back on’. Plan B notwithstanding, there’s still the sweaty business of stretches and spandex to navigate.
“Great focus and commitment are required in order to juggle the physicality and intensity of the course with the additional study requirements,” Holden explains. “Fortunately, most students who have experienced the discipline of dance training from early on in their lives tend to be the type who excel in all areas and can commit whole heartedly and strive for the best, even when the pressure is on.”
Maxine Kohler elaborates the point. “Obviously, to be successful in HSC dance you need to have had a dance background but also you need to be consistent and thorough in all the components. You have to apply your intellect too and not just think, ‘oh well, I’m a good dancer so …’
Insofar as tips for prospective students; well, it’s hardly rocket science, but it is hard work. “If you want to be a dancer,” Kohler asserts, “you need to be focused and you need to work hard. You need to listen to the feedback that is given to others and not just to yourself. Be aware all the time. Be ever vigilant and always learn somebody else’s part.”
Gabrielle Holden concurs, adding, “Also, limiting your commitments outside of the dance course and allowing enough down time for your body to rest and stay injury free is imperative to keeping on track.”
Both QDSE and McDonald College are studiously careful to avoid making promises. A high school dance pass may get you a tertiary entry score but it obviously isn’t a ticket to the ballet.
“HSC dance isn’t necessarily going to get you a job,” Maxine Kohler declares, “but so too it isn’t necessarily not going to get you a job if you’re a good dancer.”
From a parent’s perspective the incorporation of dance into the school curriculum ensures that their teenage children will be kept very busy. McDonald College certainly look to engage their students in rehearsals and productions throughout the year, and as the Principal jokes, “it might be school holidays now, but all our kids are here.”
Clearly, high school dance has come a long way since prom night.