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I wish I’d grown up with ‘Dance Academy’, ABC’s beloved teen drama

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I wish I’d grown up with Dance Academy.

I was pretty lucky to have the Harry Potter series — the first four books were released when I was in primary school, and the final one came out in my final year of high school — but I don’t think J.K. Rowling’s gentle metaphors about prejudice and oppression shaped the way I see myself in the world the way Dance Academy might have.

SupportBadgeThe Logie-winning and Emmy-nominated series Dance Academy aired from 2010 to 2013 on the ABC, following a group of teenagers as they pursue their dreams at the fictional and prestigious Sydney-based ballet school, the National Academy of Dance. A film based on the series will be released in April.

The series covers basically every drama trope you could imagine, and the characters are all archetypes: Abigail, the intense and ruthlessly ambitious ballerina; Tara, the lovesick “natural” talent who doesn’t have spectacular technique but has the passion; Christian, the troubled bad boy with a heart of gold who finds himself through dance; and Ms. Raine, the ballet mistress who is extraordinarily tough on her students, but only because she really cares for them and wants them to succeed.

Over the course of their three years at the Academy, the students are forced to learn all kinds of life lessons — about relationships, sexuality, eating disorders, family problems, illness, and even a death which shocks and threatens to break their community (and my cynical 27-year-old heart).

Over 62 half-hour episodes, it’s not too difficult to poke holes in some of the performances, or the plotting as it unfolds. But it is surprisingly difficult to not fall head over heels for this endearing and entirely earnest teen soap.

I decided to take a chance on Dance Academy over Christmas, knowing the film was coming out and that my sister-in-law, now a doctor, had watched it all through medical school. I knew it would be entertaining, heart-warming and easy to watch, but I immediately fell for these characters.

There is plenty Dance Academy could have taught me if I’d had it during my teen years. And, as much as I try to avoid the term, the show is “empowering”.

It becomes very quickly clear, just a few episodes into the first season, how immature the main protagonist, Tara, really is. She finds herself involved in several school-wide relationship scandals due to some very silly behaviour, and in the second season decides to ignore medical advice and dance on a terrible injury.

We all make mistakes as teenagers, but Tara leaves most of us in the dust with her consistently awful choices. It turns out to be quite comforting to observe.

I’m generally pretty cynical about how much individual pieces of art and culture can fundamentally change a person. We humans tend to be fairly stubborn, and while one work might bring us joy, comfort, or the ability to better understand another person’s experience and perspective, there’s nothing much that will make us stop in our tracks and reconsider how we see ourselves.

But a TV, book or film series — a sustained work that evolves over several years and requires hours and hours of time investment — can be hugely influential if it hits at just the right point in a person’s life. The regular engagement with a group of characters who are growing as you grow can become a kind of guide to life.

Creators Samantha Strauss and Joanna Werner clearly knew this, and took great, great care with their audience, without ever patronising them.

There is plenty Dance Academy could have taught me if I’d had it during my teen years. And, as much as I try to avoid the term, the show is “empowering”. Not in any cliched or overt sense, but in the way that it reminds its viewers of the strength of listening to oneself and figuring out exactly what it is you value.

At the end of Dance Academy’s final season, most of the students have discovered ambitions which don’t involve ballet, despite training for three years for exactly that purpose. For some, it’s a tough realisation that their dreams no longer look the way they once did.

I never wanted to be a dancer, but knowing just that one thing — that it’s okay to change your mind and to change your path as you discover more about your priorities and passions — might have helped me immensely as a teenager. It’s a useful reminder even now.

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