Dance Academy: it's time to rediscover this lovable, refreshing TV series for teens | Cassie Tongue

As the spin-off movie hits cinemas, we celebrate the series about ballet dancers coming of age that was really about showing compassion for misfits

Dance Academy was the show with biggest heart on Australian TV – and if you missed it, you missed out. This local drama about young dancers and dreamers is celebrating the release of a send-off film in cinemas this week, making it the perfect time to revisit one of Australia’s most earnest slices of entertainment.

The ABC series aimed at teens ran from 2010 to 2013 and was set in the fictional National Academy of Dance – shot almost entirely in Sydney’s Walsh Bay, exalting in harbour views. The story follows country girl Tara (Xenia Goodwin) from the farm to the academy. She’s bursting with raw talent but not much in the way of training. The series charts her evolution as a dancer and as a young adult, trained by tough-love teacher Miss Raine (Tara Morice), distracted by boys, and finding a new family in her academy friends – dancers from all walks of life.

It’s an easy TV series to watch, employing dance-flick tropes from the likes of Fame, Flashdance and Step Up, including untrained ballet dancers impressing with their passion and hip-hop dancers from the wrong side of the tracks. The show never met a cliche it didn’t love (something the film acknowledges and lightly lampoons in a winning opening sequence). But its characters are also believable teenagers. Charming, awkward and headstrong, they make short-sighted decisions while trying to be better dancers and people. And they love each other, either platonically or romantically, with the fierceness of young hearts.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the series’ caring, refreshing take on young Australian queerness. The show tackles the issue via Sammy Lieberman (Thom Green), a teen from a wealthy, conservative Jewish family who disapprove of his dancing. Late in the first season, when Sammy develops feelings for another boy at the academy around the time he breaks up with a female dancer, he is in a panic. “It’s not that what I had with Abigail was nothing,” Sammy agonises to his friend Kat (Alicia Banit). “That was real.”

Dance Academy
The show never met a cliche it didn’t love. Photograph: StudioCanal

Kat, the academy’s wild child and free spirit, responds to Sammy’s revelations with heartening understanding. “Yeah, of course,” she says. She encourages Sammy to focus on his feelings for Christian rather than try to label himself. With that perspective, Sammy is able to explore his feelings with more ease, and his character, as well as his later romances, evolve in more complex and realistic ways as a result.

Kat’s response to Sammy’s confession is not just a relief given how much we, as viewers, want good things for our favourite characters; it’s also gently instructive to the show’s target audience. I can’t imagine a warmer reaction to the fumblings of early comings-out. Having a Sammy to relate to, a Kat to emulate, is a great gift for young people just starting to have these conversations with their friends.

Tara might be the series lead, but Sammy is the soul of the show, even as the plot takes dramatic measures with his character. His love for his friends drives many of the plot points in the film – in many ways, he embodies the values the show stands for.

Dance Academy is about care and compassion for misfits. Just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer turned the pressures of growing up into actual monsters, Dance Academy dramatises the pain and pleasure of growing up by aligning it with the relentless, and ultimately futile, pursuit of perfection in ballet. By throwing these misfits into the heightened world of an elite academy for young dancers, teen audiences – and adults who might need a reminder of some human truths – can see that difference is a good thing. That no single path is right for everyone and success can have many definitions.

Dance Academy
Dance Academy is really about care and compassion for misfits. Photograph: StudioCanal

The characters are three-dimensional and lovable, from perpetually cheery Ben (Thomas Lacey) to Type-A Abigail (Dena Kaplan) and guarded Christian (Jordan Rodrigues). And each misfit is granted the same respect on their individual paths.

This remains true for the film as it follows the gang in their post-academy, newly adult lives, scattered from Texas to New York to Sydney and beyond, and with divergent relationships to dance. What does it mean, the film asks, to exist in a punishing industry with impossibly high standards? What does it mean to pursue a meaningful life when you’re old enough to know perfection is a fallacy? And is life navigable without your chosen family, the ones who understand, challenge and cherish you?

Each character, an example of human complexity and individuality, is given consideration and time. It’s like catching up with old friends – the ones who helped you through some hard times, and reminded you that you are your own version of perfect.

That might sound cheesy, but it’s also why you should make friends with the teenagers of Dance Academy. Don’t we all need a little corny escapism in our lives? Don’t we need a reminder that wherever we are in life, we’ll be OK?

Just make sure you watch the series before seeing the film (the first two seasons are currently streaming on Stan). This a movie that can’t be separated from the journey that came before, so don’t jump in at the end. Start at the beginning. Take the scenic route.

Dance Academy is showing in cinemas around Australia from 6 April


Cassie Tongue

The GuardianTramp

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