The girls of Dance Academy

Way back in 2013, one of my earliest posts on No Award was a look at the boys of Dance Academy. (Part 1Part 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.)

Continue reading “The girls of Dance Academy”

Dance Academy and the (re)/(de)construction of Australian masculinities (part 1)

[Note the first: This essay got way out of hand.  I’m up to 3000 words, and I’ve only covered two characters.  Hence my breaking it up into parts.]

[Note the second: Sadly there are no resources for Dance Academy transcripts online, and those quote lists and gifsets that do exist are often inaccurate.  A lot of the fandom is based in non-Anglophone countries, and Australian accents tend to throw people.  So most of the dialogue in this post is more of a paraphrasing from memory.  I wanted to go through the episodes and get proper quotes myself, but I’m working with a sprained wrist here, and decided to save my transcription-fu for work.  Think of it as, uh, an extra layer of spoiler protection if you go on to watch the series.]

[Note the third: This post totally contains spoilers.]

It’s set at, you know, a dance academy

Dance Academy is an Australian TV series set at a prestigious ballet school in Sydney.  It’s aimed at tween girls and the export market.  All the cliches are there: loving footage of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, the naive heroine, the goofy best friend, the mean girl.  The love triangle.  The dreamy love interest, the troubled bad boy and the sweet nerd.

The cast of Dance Academy: a posed photo of attractive dancers. All but one are white; five girls, four boys.
The season 2 cast of Dance Academy. Left to right: Abigail, Ethan, Ben, Tara, Sammy (seated), Christian, Grace, Kat.

What makes Dance Academy notable is the way its writers — who include such seasoned YA novelists as Melina Marchetta — subvert the cliches without straying too far from the (audience friendly) boundaries of the genre.  The mean girl learns to cope with failure.  The goofy best friend recognises her own self-sabotage.  The naive heroine faces reality.

What I find interesting about Dance Academy is its treatment of male characters.  This is, remember, a show aimed at young girls.  And while I don’t want to take media aimed at women and make it all about the men, I am always quite interested in the way men are portrayed in fiction aimed at teens.  There’s an element of “sauce for the gander” in the way Edward Cullen is blatantly a wish fulfilment fantasy, but that type of character is so two-dimensional it’s uncomfortable.  (Maybe I’d feel differently if it was my wishes being fulfilled?)  Dance Academy‘s male characters are familiar types, but they’re also thrust into a ballet school, an extremely feminine space, and the show deals with that in ways which are both subversive of stereotypes and problematic.

Problematic because, particularly in the half of the first season, much emphasis is placed on the masculinity and heterosexuality of the male ballet students.  The only queer male we see is a teacher, and he is replaced in the second season by a straight man of about the same age.  (This is for plot reasons — a student falsely accuses him of molesting her, a storyline which has issues for different reasons, but also organically from the student’s own background and behaviour — but it’s still a shame to lose a gay male role model.)

The male students are essentially defensive about their masculinity.  “They act like we’re not athletes,” complains Ethan when the school is forced to share space with a football team, and Christian is criticised for lacking the core strength to complete a move.  (I should note that the girls are also seen worrying about their strength and fitness, but in their cases it’s often coupled with concerns about weight.  That’s not a criticism of the series; it feels quite realistic, given the setting.)  

Half a dozen footballers (in ballet costumes) stand opposite the ballet students.  A male teacher stands in the middle.

A screenshot from “Best and Fairest”, with the football players in costume and the ballet dancers in civvies. Patrick, the gay teacher who appeared only in season 1, stands in the centre.

There are slow changes in the way the boys approach masculinity, though.  In the first few episodes, Sammy, the nice, nerdy friend-who-is-a-boy, is told that he has weak ankles, and that he needs to strengthen them by dancing in pointe shoes.  At first this is a source of much hilarity, and Sammy, who has already had his male identity undermined when a clerical error has him rooming with a girl, is quite put out.  But after a few weeks, the only person who finds it funny is an outsider, a non-dancer.  Everyone else knows that pointe work made Sammy a stronger, better dancer.  

Let me just talk about Sammy Leiberman for a while

Athletic white male captured mid-leap, against a dark background.
Publicity portrait of Tom Green as Sammy.

Sammy is an interesting character, and Tom Green’s performance was without doubt one of the highlights of the first two seasons.  Samuel Lieberman has an ambitious father who wants his son to follow him into medicine.  (“I know we don’t like to talk about it, but your grandfather was only a dermatologist.”)  He comes from a conservative Jewish family, has a close relationship with his Yiddish-speaking grandfather, and is acutely aware that he’s letting the family down by pursuing dance instead of his considerable academic potential.

He’s also aware that ballet is perceived as a “feminine” pursuit.  His little brother Ari — who’s into games and, from memory, martial arts — makes sure no one ever forgets it. Because what else are little brothers for, right?  But it’s awkward for Sammy, as he’s trying to persuade his father that he could have a future in ballet, and that it’s not just the easy (feminine) option.  

Sammy eventually comes to terms with the fact that he’s never going to be an alpha male, and over the course of two seasons, his father makes peace with his chosen profession.  But then there’s another wrinkle in his identity: his sexuality.

The episode with the rugby players ends with one of these manly young athletes asking Sammy out.  This in itself is amazing:  football plays a big part in Australian culture, and our various footy codes (we have, like, five) are all notably homophobic at every level.  There are no openly gay football players in Australia.  When I was younger, the sport(s) began to make a concerted push against the institutionalised racism that dominated football.  That work is still ongoing, but the culture of homophobia and misogyny also needs addressing.  To portray an openly gay footballer, even at the junior level, is a big deal for an Australian drama.  Let alone a series aimed at viewers in their early teens.

Sammy is taken aback by the invitation; he’s so befuddled he admits he’s not available.  And thus his secret relationship with Abigail becomes joyously public.  Happiness all around.  If you weren’t paying attention, you’d hardly notice Sammy’s words.  Not, “I’m straight,” but, “I’m taken.”

So it shouldn’t be such a shock that Sammy realises towards the end of the first season that (a) he’s also same-sex attracted, and (b) he’s attracted to Christian, his roommate and best mate.  (No one should ever be surprised when someone is attracted to Christian.  He’s basically a human magnet.)

What follows is a coming out story that’s both familiar and unusual.  Familiar, because “boy falls in love with boy and grapples with his sexuality” stories are a dime a dozen these days, and unusual because, miracle of miracles, Dance Academy acknowledges that bisexuality exists.

“I have these feelings for Christian, and I don’t know if these feelings mean I’m gay,” Sammy says, although the actual dialogue goes, “I have these muffins for mouse ears, and I don’t know if these muffins will make me a labrador,” because it’s easier to talk about scary issues via metaphor.  Sammy thinks he has to choose between losing his identity as a totally straight guy, and losing his best friend.  

This turns out to be a false choice, of course, because Sammy’s identity has always been more complex than mere sexuality, and because even though Christian doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, the honesty between them makes their friendship stronger.

Cut to the second half of season two, and Sammy’s being tutored by Ollie, a third-year student.  Their competitive relationship turns romantic, and Ollie, whose ego far exceeds his respect for boundaries, outs Sammy by telling everyone they’re dating.  

Tara’s reaction to Sammy’s coming out is to hug him and squeal, “I always wanted a gay friend!”  This is adorable, but also problematic, and framed as such:  Sammy responds awkwardly, “But … I’m not…”

Sammy spends the rest of the episode fighting two perceptions:  that he’s attracted to men only, and that being same-sex attracted makes him feminine.  The first perception is imposed externally, by his social circle.  The second is internal, a reflection of the society in which Sammy has been raised.  He himself doesn’t suggest there’s anything negative about being female or feminine, but he’s part of a culture that associates male homo or bisexuality with being effeminate.  Sammy has already come up against the stigma attached to male dancers; now he’s trying to reassert his identity in a society that wants to replace it with a stereotype.

That battle over, there is … his father.  Who is coming to terms with Sammy’s career, but how is this conservative, middle-class Jewish doctor going to cope with his son having a boyfriend?  

Sammy is a really lovely character who tries very hard to do the right thing, but when he stuffs up, wow, he stuffs up.  In fact, he asks Abigail to pretend to be his girlfriend, offending her and Ollie.  And when it’s all made up and everyone’s reconciled, his father doesn’t even care.  He glimpses Sammy and Ollie holding hands, and he smiles, introduces himself, and it’s just a really sweet, positive scene.

And that’s great, because shortly afterwards, Sammy dies.  

I have a lot of feelings about this.  Like, I tear up just thinking about it.  And the cliche of the gay or bisexual character dying is terrible, and should have been beneath the show.

On the other hand, I can see why they had to do it.  Tom Green was leaving — he has changed the spelling of his name to Thom, and can be seen in the lead role in Halo: Forward Unto Dawn and a major role in NBC’s Camp (along with about two-thirds of the Dance Academy cast — but Green is the one making the critics stand up and pay attention).  And Sammy was not a character you could simply write out.  His entire motivation was to be with his friends and dance.  It would have been drastically out of character for him to change his mind and, say, transfer to another ballet school.

What reconciles me, somewhat, is that Ollie has taken Sammy’s place as a regular.  Yes, we’ve replaced a bisexual character with a gay one, and I hate that, but at least the cast hasn’t become 100% heterosexual.  

Even better, though, we’re four episodes into the third season, and Sammy’s presence is still a big part of the show.  His friends are mourning him, examining his legacy and slowly adjusting to a world without him.  He’s gone, but not forgotten.  

Meanwhile, Christian

An athletic young Asian man captured mid-leap on a black background.
Jordan Rodrigues as Christian

Oh, Christian.  Christian, Christian, Christian.

He’s the Bad Boy Love Interest, the Troubled Young Man With A Past.  His mother is dead; his father left when he was young; partway through the first season he’s arrested for an armed robbery.  He’s trouble, but he’s a talented enough dancer that the school keeps giving him second chances.  He’s also the boyfriend Tara can’t quite let go of, although she’s doing a good job so far in season three.

I love him madly.

True confession: the entire reason I started watching Dance Academy was because of Christian.  I was in a cafe, and the series was playing on the TV behind the bar.  No sound, just attractive teens, dance montages, Sydney scenery, and actor Jordan Rodrigues.

Secondary true confession:  the reason Christian caught my eye was because he bears a passing resemblance to Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender, and despite my love for Dev Patel and his giant ears, I will never stop being bitter that The Last Airbender was a terrible, racist adaptation that didn’t have Jordan Rodrigues as Zuko.  

Oh yeah, the show’s primary love interest?  A young Asian-Australian.

Now, Australian TV is pretty damn white.  Some shows make a concerted effort to combat that, but they’re generally your gritty, adult dramas.  So while Dance Academy is very, very pale, it’s notable that not one but two prominent love interests are men of colour.  (But more on Ollie later.)

(The overwhelming whiteness of the school is probably an accurate reflection of a prestigious ballet school’s demographics, but should accuracy really be a priority here?  The first season featured an extra, a black girl who could occasionally be seen stretching in the backgrounds — while wearing pyjamas and Ugg boots in one episode — and the second and third seasons feature a clique of juniors led by a brilliantly prissy Asian dancer.  But these are far from prominent characters.)

(But I was talking about Christian.)

Now, Christian represents a whole bundle of cliches, not all of them positive.  It’s pretty dodgy, in my opinion, that the lone Asian cast member is the one who gets in trouble with the law.  (For context, Australia has cliches of gang violence associated with Asian youths.  For example, back in 2007, when I told a co-worker I was moving to Melbourne, he asked if I had felt there was a lack of Vietnamese gangs in my life.  I once mentioned my reservations about Christian’s criminal background to a fellow Australian who was unfamiliar with the series, and her response suggested she was picturing a character who was involved with organised crime.  I was a bit like, It’s ABC3, not Underbelly.)

Christian is also the only character representing the urban poor.  Tara’s family are strapped for cash, but they own a farm, and the rest of the cast are solidly middle class.  Upper middle-class, in some cases.  Christian’s a scholarship kid who grew up in Housing Commission Flats.  Public housing, in other words.  In fact, his class probably has more of an impact on his characterisation than his race, which no doubt stems from Australia’s general reluctance to discuss racial issues.  (‘Cos it’s racist, hey?)

Christian acts as an inter-class ambassador for his peers.  He introduces Ethan to street dancers, saving Ethan’s hip hop choreography assignment from the stigma of inauthenticity.  (I’d argue that there’s still a heavy dose of appropriation in the final product, but appropriation + research, in my opinion, is better than appropriation with no research at all.  It also reflects the show on a meta level — if you’re familiar with the nuances of Australian accents and inflection, most of the working class kids are quite obviously being played by products of the middle class drama school industry.)

Later, when Kat decides to mentor a talented, underprivileged dancer, it’s Christian who warns her that a working class kid is for life, not just for Christmas.  That is to say, she can’t just sweep in with all her privilege and play Lady Bountiful until she gets bored.  Kat’s eventual recognition of her privileges form a big part of her story, although it’s never heavy-handed, and Christian is the first person to call her out.  

Dealing with adults, though, Christian’s background is a liability rather than an asset.  The teachers and authority figures in his life sometimes seem confused by him: why can’t he just accept their help, and trust them and get along?  This is sometimes echoed by the fandom itself: why can’t he just get over it?  

Why, the unspoken litany goes, can’t he just be middle class?

(I am reminded of Legend of Korra fandom’s reaction to Mako, a similarly divisive brooding love interest.  Long before Mako finds himself caring for two girls at the same time, the fandom was complaining he was way too interested in money.  On account of how he was, you know, a former street kid turned professional athlete in an era where “professionals” are being exploited by the industry.  While I’m impressed by the way fandom for once turned on the problematic male rather than the female characters, the tide started turning for Mako when he started talking about money.)

(Classism and fandom: it’s just really interesting, okay?  And I’m quite new to the middle class, so I guess I see it more than others?)

This need for Christian to be a nice, middle class boy tends to be particularly strong when he’s called on to articulate his feelings.  There’s the masculine ideal of the taciturn working class bloke, of course, who only cries when his beer runs out.  But that doesn’t suit the school board and choreographers.  Several times, Christian has been asked to express his feelings verbally, as if these powerful adults want to really get their teeth into his psyche.  Since Christian expresses himself more through action and dance, this never ends well.  The voyeuristic interest in his emotions makes him defensive, as well it might.  “You’ve experienced more than your peers,” they seem to say.  “Let us live vicariously through you.  But let us also judge you.”

…I’m just saying, if there was a Dance Academy vampire AU, the school board would be bloodsuckers.

A young Asian man practices ballet, an older white man looking on from the background.
Christian in training.

Season two marks Christian’s reunion with his absentee father.  The deadbeat Asian dad isn’t an archetype we see very often, although Reed Senior isn’t so much deadbeat as chronically irresponsible.  He lives on the northern coast of New South Wales — it’s never said, but Australians regard that region as the type where everyone is either a hippie stoner artist or a meth head — and handcrafts surfboards.  

The rebuilding of their relationship is a familiar story, executed without any remarkable characteristics.  I like Christian’s dad as a character, but he doesn’t excite me (and the actor is sadly prone to Aussie Soap Acting).  But it’s interesting that this real Aussie bloke demonstrates nothing but mild interest and a bit of pride in his son’s ballet career.  Anything else would be a retread of Sammy’s storyline, of course, but it’s a small subversion of the usual rural Australian male stereotype.  (By contrast, Christian bonds with Tara’s dad over cars.)

A conclusion … FOR NOW

One thing that I think Dance Academy does really well is its portrayal of adolescence as a time for learning one’s boundaries, not just sexually, but emotionally, even professionally.  For the boys, raised in a culture with fairly restrictive concepts of masculinity, this means developing an understanding of their identities as young men, and as young men entering a profession heavily dominated by women.  That’s not to say that the girls aren’t also negotiating with concepts of femininity and feminism, but those stories are often told in media aimed at tweens and teens.  

For me, it’s more remarkable that Dance Academy addresses issues of masculinity in so many ways, but rarely with a misogynistic subtext.  (I will have my Ben rant soon, I promise.)  The stories I’ve discussed above come in addition to, not at the expense of, the stories about the girls.  And, in the context of a series that’s primarily aimed at a female audience, their inclusion is interesting.  There’s a fine line between demonstrating that boys, too, struggle with the patriarchy, and giving their struggles precedence over those of women.  Dance Academy, I think, does unusually well in balancing the two.  

Next week!  Ethan, Ollie and Ben!