Dancers Gone Wild: The story of the Canberra Dance Development Centre

Jackie HallahanDancers seem to have a lot of important bases covered. Healthy, active lifestyle? Check. Artistic expression? Check. Fun activities as part of a team? Check. Opportunity to receive rapturous applause while wearing a leotard? Yep, got that covered as well.

Walking into the Canberra Dance Development Centre (CDDC), you get a distinct sense that you’re missing out on something. In one practice room a group of young performers are working on a new and very cool routine to the strains of T-Pain’s ‘Church.’ In another, ballet dancers are perfecting their pirouettes with expressions of rapt concentration. Meanwhile, by the reception desk, a gaggle of girls are going through their latest tap routine while they wait for their parents to pick them up. It’s enough to make you re-think the merit of all those evenings spent in front of the TV.

‘I love the expression you get out of dance,’ says seventeen-year-old Tess Feldman, one of nine CDDC students undertaking dance studies in tandem with senior secondary schoolwork. With fourteen years dance experience, Feldman undertook one of the lead roles in the CDDC’s annual production at the Canberra Theatre this August. The Wild saw each of the many CDDC dance groups and soloists perform a head-spinning array of routines in various styles and countless costumes. From very young dancers in fairy wings to more mature students taking on tap and street, everyone had their moment in the spotlight.

Feldman’s co-stars in The Wild, Grace Lee and Elaine Griffiths, both want dance to be part of their future. At the ages of fourteen and fifteen and with a total of twenty-three years in dance between them, Lee and Griffiths show no signs of burnout. Feldman, Lee and Griffiths all take a range of classes at the CDDC, and enjoy the technical challenges of ballet as much as the freedom of more contemporary styles. Unsurprisingly, their eyes light up when a certain dance-centered reality TV show is mentioned – So You Think You Can Dance is of course compulsory viewing for many at the school. The show may even have driven up enrolments, something the CDDC’s founder and co-ordinator, Jackie Hallahan, isn’t complaining about. 
{xtypo_quote_right}For me the test is to be able to start again with the next group and bring them up to a standard as high, if not higher, than the last.{/xtypo_quote_right}
Hallahan founded the CDDC in 1985 and moved it to its current premises, a former school building in Spence, in 2001. The CDDC is run as an independent business, free from the funding woes common across so much of the arts world. Supported by a team of fourteen part-time staff, Hallahan not only takes care of the business side of things but also runs three to four classes a day. Her students undergo dance assessment and participate in two performances a year, leaving very little room for downtime. Hallahan and her team of choreographers choose soundtracks, create routines and go through the process of teaching the choreography to their students. While some students attend only semi-regularly, Hallahan has a policy of including as many people in CDDC performances as possible.

The results of all this hard work were plain to see at the performance of The Wild. The production highlighted the fun side of dance (scooters on stage, anyone?) while giving the more advanced performers a chance to show off their hard-earned skills. Watching a non-professional performance also creates a greater appreciation for the difficulty of dance. Getting out there on stage, remembering the right moves and stepping in time is hard enough, but many of the performers also had moments where they touched on those more elusive qualities found in great dance performances.
Canberra Dance Development Centre
When asked where her graduates progress to in the dance world, Hallahan is quick with a dizzying list of prestigious companies. The Australian Ballet, Bangarra, Chunky Moves, Tasdance, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and even the English National Ballet are some of the companies that include dancers from the CDDC. 2008 Helpmann award winner Sara Black is also among CDDC alumni.

But Hallahan is wary of letting the school rest on its laurels. ‘For me the test is to be able to start again with the next group and bring them up to a standard as high, if not higher, than the last. That helps us feel like we’re growing all the time and challenging the students, which is what it’s all about.’ With that, she’s off to check on the next class, leaving me to wonder if I should have given up on those ballet classes so readily…


Top Right - Jackie Hallahan

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