“I don’t need no tv, I don’t need no news, all I need is a bumping beat to bump away my blues.”
When I think of ‘Dance Fest’, as Canberra’s Youth Dance Festival is more affectionately known, the lyrics of Basement Jaax’s 2001 classic, Do Your Thing is the first thing that comes to mind before becoming lodged in my brain.
As a young person, I grew up dancing with QL2, Canberra’s youth dance ensemble. For many years we performed in ‘Live Ad’, another affectionate abbreviation for a live advertisement that opened the festival each year. Live Ads were health promotions run in collaboration with the ACT Government and were short pieces of dance exploring particular themes or issues.
Your body, your beat. Tap into water every day. Smokefree.
These are a few that I remember being part of, one of which featured that song from Basement Jaax.
My experience of Dance Fest however is fairly atypical; most people, over 45,000 to be more exact, have participated in the annual festival as part of a school group. As a student-led initiative facilitated by Ausdance ACT in conjunction with professional dancers acting as mentors, Dance Fest has provided a platform for secondary students to explore issues and ideas through dance since 1985.
After having to cancel in 2020 (a casualty of COVID-19) and then pivot to online in 2021, Dance Fest is returning to a live, in-person event this year at the Canberra Theatre Centre. This year’s theme of ‘Transience and Permanence’ encourages the students to creatively reflect on the tumultuous and unpredictable world around us.
“I am always impressed with how the theme is interpreted,” Ausdance ACT director Dr Cathy Adamek told me. “We try to keep it broad so there is room for students to interpret it in their own way.”
While working on this article I asked people to share their memories of Dance Fest. Some couldn’t remember exactly what movements they had performed, or what theme their piece of choreography had explored while others had more precise memories, especially if taking part in Dance Fest coincided with their first time performing on a stage.
What was common to each remembrance was a sense of fun and friendship.
“I have been hearing stories too,” Dr Adamek agreed. “Even from the people who work on it now, people who were inspired to take a path into theatre, not just as performers, but in technical professions as well.
“The other story that is coming through to me is one of innovation. While we curate the program and set a theme, it really is an open platform conceptually and is whatever the young people bring to the table.”
And that is the real strength of the initiative – students are free to determine their own approach to dance making. No style is off limits and participants don’t need a background in dance to take part. Everyone is welcome.
For some, performing in Dance Fest may mark the first time they step on a theatre stage, for others it may be a comfortable jump along a pathway to a career in the arts. For the majority however, taking part in the festival will be remembered as a joyous and valuable experience and as time spent being creative with friends.