Way back in 2013, one of my earliest posts on No Award was a look at the boys of Dance Academy. (Part 1 – Part 2.) I promised at the time that I would come back and write about the female characters as well … and now it’s 2017, the movie is released next week, I have a ticket to an advance screening tonight, and last night I finished my rewatch.
And let me tell you, quokkas, I have all the feelings. The female regulars of Dance Academy cover a whole lot of arcs and archetypes, from Tara’s need to be a fairy tale heroine, to Abigail’s evolution from ambitious and jealous queen bee to ambitious and highly professional queen. I love every single one of them, even Grace, who I also detest and loathe.
(This post is a lot shorter than the two I did about the boys. That’s not because they’re less interesting, or because I care about them less — I’m just much busier now than I was in 2013. Stupid real life.)
Now, I love the boys of Dance Academy a lot, but today I’m here to talk about Tara Webster and the other female characters.
Except, of course, it’s super hard to talk about Tara without bringing up boys! Bless her big, open heart, she throws herself so utterly into her romances, and the hurt that inevitably follows. But let’s try:
When I first started watching Dance Academy, I thought Tara started out as a blank slate, a generic Aussie Teen Drama Heroine to whom things happened, and that she only later developed a strong personality. She’s sweet and naive and is involved in a bunch of love triangles — the type of character that people who don’t read YA think is Every YA Heroine.
Rewatching now, I think I was wrong — she does have some generic traits — so do all the characters. But Tara is genre savvy — one of the things she has to outgrow is seeing herself as a character in a story, and expecting everything to work out accordingly. She throws herself headlong into experience, whether it’s having a crush on her best friend’s brother or being a dancer, without care for her own heart or reputation. This left her open to both heartbreak and humiliation, and incredibly vulnerable to people who didn’t have her best interests at heart.
(It also meant she sometimes alienated people who did have her best interests at heart, but who felt they were best served by slowing down — consider her reluctance to accept Miss Raine’s moratorium on pointe shoes for the first semester.)
Tara starts out as the girl who dances because it’s the closest she can get to flying. And she crashes over and over again, sometimes literally, until, by the end of the series, she has had to relearn to walk. She learns caution and self-awareness — but also balance. By season 3, as she says, she has come to know how she will self-sabotage, and avoid those pitfalls. She usually finds a new way to undermine herself instead, but at least that’s through her own actions, not other people’s.
This is not to say that Tara is not in many ways the archetypical YA heroine, or that she’s not frequently a complete train wreck of a human being, the queen of bad decisions, the character most likely to have me hiding behind a cushion so that my embarrassment squick isn’t exposed to her extremely poor life choices. But it’s easier to watch now I’ve realised how much she chose this path, including the consequences.
(There is the separate issue of how much the narrative stretches to accommodate her — she recovers from a serious knee injury and twice from a broken back. Well, the extent to which she’ll recover from her second back injury remains to be seen — is it movie time yet? But it’s a miracle that she can contemplate a second attempt at a dance career at all. I file this under Wish Fulfillment Fantasy, along with things like Ethan being a successful choreographer before the age of 25, or Abigail’s magically autotuned singing voice.)
If Tara is an archetype, all the other young female characters are designed to mirror her, and each other:
Kat is more outgoing and in some ways more confident than Tara, but she’s also more conflicted about what she wants. Whereas Tara is the naive newcomer, Kat, as the daughter of a choreographer and a principal dancer, is the ultimate insider, and it’s strongly implied that her initial acceptance to the Academy was based on nepotism and unrealised potential.
Tara has a natural talent; we’re told that Kat has similar potential, but she rarely pursues it, and when she does, her well-concealed self-doubt comes to the fore. (Even after her return to the Academy in season 2, she struggles with classical dance. This might be related to the fact that Alicia Banit is the weakest ballet dancer in the cast — we rarely ever see Kat doing serious ballet.)
Abigail stands in contrast to both Kat and Tara: singleminded where Tara is distracted, focused and certain where Kat is rebelling. But whereas Tara and Kat share generally similar values and support one another, Abigail regards Tara as a threat as soon as she recognises her talent, and acts as an antagonist into the early second season.
What makes Abigail great — and she is by far the break-out character of the series — is that, while she initially seems like a Regina George-style mean girl, she’s a different flavour of antagonist all together. She’s not mean for the sake of mean, but is instead driven by a powerful mixture of ambition, competitiveness and self-loathing.
It starts out deeply toxic, but Abigail evolves to the point where, while she’s not exactly a nice person — she still tells a four year old off for crying — she’s become a blunt, fierce ally (who will still occasionally mess with people for the sake of it).
But, no matter how well she masters her jealousy problem, she will never overcome her need to share any private files or emails she happens to find while snooping on someone else’s phone or computer. Abigail is Wikileaks in a tutu; it’s terrible, but I love her.
(My favourite scenes are the ones where Abigail turns life coach and mentor for — well, literally anyone, whether she’s helping Kat prepare to re-audition or helping Christian rediscover his love for dance at a drag cabaret.)
And then there is (dis)Grace. More talented than Tara, more brittle than Kat, more venomous than Abigail. Grace is like a figure from Greek mythology — specifically Eris, the goddess of strife and discord, and whoever the deity of gaslighting is. (It’s Zeus, right?)
Grace is an amazing character, a sweet, smiling monster who will be your very best friend until you cross her — by spending time with someone else, or prioritising study over her, or failing to treat her with the respect she thinks she deserves — at which point, she might try to ruin your life.
I love Grace, in that I hate her more than I hate any other well-written female fictional character ever, and I spend a lot of the show wanting her to end her life friendless and alone in obscurity.
Conveniently, loneliness — along with inheriting her mother’s depression — is one of her greatest fears, even though she behaves in a way that ensures she will never have close friends for very long. She is so well-written, and horribly realistic in a way you don’t often get with teen girl villains.
But her conclusion gives us a shred of hope for Grace: having come face to face with her own potential for violence, and been scared by it, and then failing to get into the company, she finally admits to herself that (a) she makes one person her whole life, then turns against them when they don’t reciprocate, and (b) she is only dancing because she feels like she should. So she walks away from ballet, and is last seen using people of colour as props for her selfies in her journey of self-discovery.
I mean, she’s Grace, she’s still terrible.
The quartet of regular (teen) female characters just work so well, separately and together. Kat and Tara are BFFs, but can’t live together; Tara and Abigail are rivals and frenemies, but share a room and eventually become real friends; Grace is BFFs with Tara and Abigail at separate points, but remains consistent in both her dislike of Kat and her need to victimise whichever classmate isn’t her BFF at the time; and Kat and Abigail were childhood best friends turned enemies turned … well, friends, but a more respectful and honest friendship than they seem to have had when they were young.
(Even Grace and Kat end up as allies, if not friends, by the end, both admitting that they want other things in life than dance.)
In short, Dance Academy has a set of really well-written girl characters. Even supporting roles, like Saskia, the principal-dancer-turned-teacher who literally breaks Tara’s back, are fascinating. Saskia embodies the worst possible future for Tara, her idealism turned to cynicism and her jealousy impeding her ability to be an effective teacher. Saskia, too, suffers a career-damaging injury, and it’s not until she decides to retire that she is able to mentor Tara.
Of all characters, it’s Miss Raine, the tough-but-fair teacher-turned-school-principal, who does the least to transcend her archetype. This is not to say she’s badly written, and truthfully, I’m okay with the older characters not taking the limelight from the teens and young adults, but she’s from a familiar role. Give her a wand and she’s Professor McGonagall. Miss Raine is great because she’s played by Tara Morice, who is magnificent.
As I type, I’m four and a half hours away from seeing the movie. In the series’ penultimate episode, David and Margaret make THE GREATEST CAMEO APPEARANCE OF THEIR LIVES, giving the cheesy dance-movie-within-a-dance-series four stars and praising it for adding something new to the genre, despite its “clunky” moments. This felt especially cheeky last night, knowing that the real movie is getting some good press. I’ve packed extra tissues and some Panadol (crying headaches are the worst), and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have put a cushion in my bag, to clutch when Tara does something humiliating.
Bring it on.