Dance Academy and the (re)/(de)construction of Australian masculinities (part 2)

(Part 1)

This post is a lot shorter than the last one, because … well, it’s not that I don’t like Ethan and Ben, but they don’t set my world on fire.  They’re characters you can find in any media aimed at tweens.  And Ollie is a very new character, and I feel like I’m still getting a handle on him — we are in the first half of the first season, after all.

(This post features quite detailed spoilers for season three.)

Ethan Karamakov: he smells like Christmas, apparently

I’ve had some trouble writing the second half of this piece, because, well, I’m kind of dealing with two characters I don’t care for, and one I’m still getting to know.

Take Ethan, for example. Ethan is the older half-brother of Tara’s best friend Kat, and her first crush. He’s a third year, aged about seventeen; she’s a brand new fifteen year old first year with about as much common sense as a newborn lamb. I don’t hate Ethan (anymore), but I feel like he was a necessary evil — a rich, white counterpoint to Christian — and not a hugely interesting character.

Basically, when I watched the first season, I appointed myself President of the Go Away Ethan Karamakov Club. (For one thing, although actor Tim Pocock is actually quite good — if anyone actually saw Wolverine: Origins, he played a young Scott Summers, and was promptly named the Next Heath Ledger — he’s the least convincing teeenager in the cast. I presume it was difficult to find an actor who could also dance, but he looks about ten years older than everyone else. And he has an abnormally symmetrical face.)

Ethan Karamakov: handsome white guy with a quite impressive jaw.
Look at that face. It’s grotesque.

What made me grudgingly like Ethan in the second season was that he began sharing scenes with Abigail, who is scientifically proven to make everything better. She’s an overachieving, anxiety-ridden lifelong dancer who is slowly coming to terms with the fact that hard work isn’t going to overcome her lack of natural talent. She’s also incredibly blunt, and thinks being likeable is for lesser people.

Ethan has given up a place in the National Ballet Company to become a choreographer, and he approaches Abigail for his showcase piece. He wants someone who is intense and a little scary.

Okay, then. She’s interested.

I began to like Ethan, not so much for himself, but for the way he became a vehicle for Abigail to find new options. Together they become involved in musical theatre, and have a funny, sweet friendship that verges sometimes on romance. I wasn’t sorry when Ethan went to Barcelona to pursue his ambition, but I wasn’t counting down the minutes until he left, either.

The Self-Styled Benster

Ben Tickle, introduced in the second season, is a much more interesting character, even though I frequently find myself wanting to punch him in the face a bit. When he joined the cast — as a first year student promoted to second year because he was just that good — I was like, seriously, the last thing we needed was yet another white guy.

And I still feel that way, but in terms of portrayals of masculinity, Ben’s an interesting case. See, he feels he has a lot to prove, being the youngest in the group, and he starts out by putting on a display of braggadocio and masculinity. And not the positive kind of masculinity. He’s sexist, racist and homophobic. Kind of your standard stereotype of … you know.

A young, dark-haired white man captured mid-leap.
This is a guy who introduces himself as “The Benster”.

(This also leads to charming moments, like when Sammy explains that you shouldn’t use “gay” as a pejorative. I’m not usually one for didacticism in my entertainment, but Sammy is so earnest — having himself just started addressing his own sexuality — that it’s charming. And frankly, my teacher friends have to work really hard to get “gay” out of their students’ vocabularies, I feel like it really means something to have a bisexual character on kids TV explaining this.)

(Ben proves his basic likeability by apologising, and then baking rainbow cupcakes for Sammy and Christian. Because he thinks — well, at least there are cupcakes.)

Ben also gives us one of my favourite exchanges of dialogue. From memory:

Ben: Hey, Christian, do you do martial arts? There was this Asian guy at my old dance school who did martial arts. You remind me of him.
Christian: Are you saying we all look alike?
Ben: That’s pretty racist, dude.

Well, I laughed.

White teens practice ballet on the beach, the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background.
This is my very favourite picture of Ben. No, not just because you can’t see his face.

Having been called out, humiliated and initially rejected by the group, Ben settles down and becomes, you know, a nice kid. It comes out that he suffered leukemia as a child, and doesn’t want anyone to know because he fears he’ll become an object of pity and special treatment. (Tara, who has her own problems with respecting boundaries, tells everyone. I love Tara a lot, but she makes a lot of mistakes in her journey.)

Late in the second season, Ben and Tara start going out. Ben has a massive crush on Tara; she seems to care about him, but mostly she has that problem common to teenage girls where she thinks she can’t be without a boyfriend. It doesn’t last, but Ben tells Tara at the beginning of season three that, “I still ship it.” Basically.

This made me really mad at the time, because I was like, BEN, SHE’S NOT INTERESTED! HAVE SOME RESPECT! STOP ENGAGING IN BEHAVIOUR THAT BORDERS ON CREEPY NICE GUYNESS!”

Well, joke’s on me, because Tara was interested, she was just making a concerted attempt to be boyfriend-less for third year. (Good try, Tara. When I eventually do my post on the girls of Dance Academy, I am going to talk about her SO MUCH. And also the way the fandom slut shames her, because no teenager ever had three boyfriends in three years, right?)

And maybe I was reacting against Ben because, well, I’m a product of a patriarchal society too, and maybe I wasn’t comfortable seeing a male character express his feelings so openly. (I am generally drawn to the stoic types, but these preferences don’t develop in a vacuum.) Ben really likes Tara, and he’s not offended when she wants to be “just friends”. He doesn’t go off to Reddit to complain about being friendzoned, he just goes, “Yep, well, I hope one day you change your mind,” and then gets on with trying to be a good friend.

We’re in the middle of season three right now, and I have no idea where Ben’s story is going to take him. But his arc so far has been interesting. He, Tara and Grace were picked up to fill positions in the Company, and he was selected by the principal dancer, Saskia Duncan, as a protege.

Now, Saskia also appeared in season two, and I could write a whole essay about her, but it basically comes down to this: Saskia Duncan is Dolores Umbridge in pointe shoes. She literally broke Tara’s back in season two. She is so friendly, and so reasonable, how could she possibly be a bully who targets younger dancers?

One thing I really loved about Saskia was how she was a villainess who wasn’t sexualised. And then she started mentoring Ben, and they were dancing together, and she was asking him out to dinner … and she still wasn’t sexualised.

I mean, she was coming across as a sexual character, but she wasn’t being exploited, either by the script or the camera. Her behaviour bordered on inappropriate, but she seemed sincere in her belief that Ben could be the Nureyev to her Fonteyn.

She also seemed pretty sincere in the way she was using Ben to humiliate her current partner and the other adult male dancers. Who seem, on the whole, to be an unpleasant lot in general, at least in the way they treat the three student dancers.

And when Ben realised that, he did something I’m really uncomfortable with: he dropped Saskia. I mean, literally. On stage. Twice.

But was it deliberate? I actually couldn’t tell. But the way he was watching her made it plain he was enjoying her humiliation as she ran off stage. And as much as I think Saskia is a terrible person who undermines and bullies people whom she regards as threats, it wasn’t exactly fun to watch a professional woman being humiliated by a schoolboy.

(Humiliation doesn’t even look like a word anymore! But I keep coming back to it, because it’s Saskia’s main weapon.)

At this point in the series, Ben and Tara are dating, and Ben is back in school, taking the lead role in the third year tour. As much as I think I’ve been unfair to him in the past, he’s still not a character for whom I have any great love. I save that for …

Ollie: not actually a chick magnet

Ollie is introduced in season two as Sammy’s tutor turned love interest, and with Sammy’s death, he has become a regular in the third season.

I mentioned in the first post that Ollie has an ego the size of Western Australia. A lot of his character development involves learning to temper that, and work in a team. (For starters, he’s now a regular because he’s repeating third year.)

For a while, I wondered if it was, you know, problematic that one of the few regular black characters on Australian TV is defined by his arrogance, and that the narrative needs to bring him down. Taken in isolation, I think that would be highly problematic. But in the context of the series, this is something nearly every character struggles with. (Even Tara, who simultaneously struggles with the need to be something other than a human doormat. People are complicated!)

A young black male ballet dancer, captured mid-leap.
Awkward fact: it’s kind of hard to find pictures of Ollie.

Ollie is coming to grips with the idea that maybe he won’t have a brilliant career in ballet, and maybe, as he says, “I’m just another middle class kid who can’t do fractions.” This struggle forms the foundation for his friendship with Abigail, Sammy’s other love interest, and brings him into conflict with Christian, who is so talented that he can miss half a term and still keep his place and his scholarship.

Ollie’s back-up plan is commercial dance, but he’s also dabbling in pop/hip hop. For which he adopts a heterosexual persona, because it’s hard enough to succeed in the Australian music industry when you’re black, let alone black and gay. “Everyone knows you’re not into girls,” says Abigail disdainfully, but Ollie just shrugs.

He’s not exactly going back into the closet, though, if there was ever a closet that could hold him. As of the most recent episode, he’s openly flirting with a young actor who’s taking the lead in a dance movie — YES, THERE IS A DANCE MOVIE WITHIN THE DANCE SHOW, IT IS AMAZING — and if this doesn’t end with him being “discovered” and going on to achieve fame and fortune, I’ll eat one of my many hats.

In conclusion

I don’t think the creators of Dance Academy set out to create great feminist television for tweens. But I do think they set out to create good television, and that means having a wide range of interesting characters. The mere fact of the dance school setting meant that the male characters would have to address concepts of masculinity in some way, and I think it’s been executed well.

The cast of Dance Academy: seven young, attractive dancers.
The season three cast. Left to right: Ollie, Kat, Abigail, Christian, Tara, Ben, Grace
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4 thoughts on “Dance Academy and the (re)/(de)construction of Australian masculinities (part 2)

  1. Hey that whole cast picture is actually excellently not overwhelmingly white! Good job, Australian kids TV! (Hey, remember Return to Jupiter? Sorry now I’m just naming Australian kids shows with not-white protags)

    1. Well, it’s taken them three season to get there (and it may look less white than it really is because Dena Kaplan is very tan there? As far as I know, her heritage is white European via South Africa).

  2. Dena Kaplan is also Jewish, which — duh, I should have realized that before now, but I was distracted by Thom Green playing the Jewish character on the show.

    In other news, as of Episode 9 I have gone from giving Ben the side-eye to actively wanting to smack him. He’s a great dancer, but wow is he clueless and annoying when it comes to relationships.

    Also, I miss Ethan, who I found inexplicable and irritating in S1 and then suddenly interesting during the whole Choreography With Abigail arc (and though there is nothing technically wrong with Wes, I keep mentally replacing him with Ethan and thinking how much more I would have enjoyed that).

  3. Oh, this is really cool meta, I can’t wait for the post on the girls.

    As for Ollie finding fame and success in the music industry, tbqh, I’d rather he got a company contract. Or Christian. I’d be happy with either of them winning a contract. Pro ballet is such an overwhelmingly white field and it’s so disencouraging to see PoC always being the ones having to find other options. Even in the show, I don’t think we see a single non-white person in the company. The corps girls were so homogeneously blonde that even Tara stood out simply by having darker hair.

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