Today it was announced that Stage Challenge, the secondary schools interpretative dance competition, is no more for this world. Sam Brooks crowdsourced people’s memories of Stage Challenge, and scoured YouTube for the best of the rest.
As someone who went to a rugby-focused Catholic all-boys school, Stage Challenge was something that I’d always heard about but never participated in. It was this mythical thing where teenagers would rehearse a highly choreographed and costumed dance number based around an issue, and sometimes that number got broadcast on What Now!
So when I heard about the demise of the competition after its 25th year I didn’t really feel anything. But I happen to be friends with a lot of theatre kids, former outcasts, and people who really love Stage Challenge, so I asked them for their memories of this national competition which boldly asked teenagers to marry their creativity with a serious social issue, a piece of pop music, and a whole lot of other teenagers.
Here are the results. We’ve provided participants with anonymity, to protect them a) from the culturally inappropriate things done in their oblivious younger years, b) their mortifying teenage earnestness and c) (where requested) the high school in question.
“In 2003, Wellington College won with the theme ‘Boys Can Do Anything’. I choreographed an Indian dance to the Punjabi MC Knight Rider song. I was on stilts.”
“I remember my teacher was so excited because she’d come up with a ‘genius’ theme, which was basically: what if dinosaurs became extinct through doing bad things like smoking cigarettes and doing drugs.”
“I remember telling an Ethnic Studies professor in Hawai’i about Stage Challenge and the kind of themes that are brought up in a high-energy eight-minute dance routine and he thought I was joking. I Googled it [to show him] and the first picture that came up on Google Images was a bunch of girls in blackface.”
“My all-girls school did [the theme] ‘What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?’ The popular girls got to be models, the trained dancers got to be athletes, the vast majority of everyone else was ‘business’. I was a mad scientist.”
“Our theme was ‘Behind Closed Doors’ aka domestic violence. There was a rich Pacific Island family and a poor white family. Their lives were compared at first and the big twist was that the rich family was the abusive family with the father doing a violent dance when the poor family bursts in and stops them. All about making assumptions and not judging books by their cover but looking back on it – it’s a bit off. As a not very attractive or coordinated youth I moved the pillars. I think we came first or second, something good for a tiny Catholic school.”
“My school one year did their performance all based around sex ed including dancing chlamydia (with teased hair galore), a bunch of hip hop condoms and an epic dance battle between some sperm racing to the egg. The word on the street is a video recording of the performance is used in some high-schools sex ed classes to this day.”
“The day my school’s team won Stage Challenge was probably the most joyful day in my final year at high school. Even more so that the school show, I had never seen such a diverse group of people so happy about anything to do with the arts before that day. Stage Challenge and the school show were the two platforms that helped me develop social skills to feel as confident connecting with straight males as I was with females, and that’s because until I saw straight men whose extracurricular involvement was otherwise exclusively devoted to sports, something I didn’t feel any connection to at the time, I didn’t have many male friends.
“I think as much as I judged straight guys at high school because I was not like them, in hindsight I think they judged me too – UNTIL we participated in things like the show and Stage Challenge. My love for the arts and their love of sport and competition, combined with the fact that we won, brought us together and created some very powerful memories. Some of those guys are still among my closest friends to date. This very much is proof to me that the arts bring very different people together in what I believe to be a uniquely spiritual way. Hearing our school get called out was a very special moment. The energy in that room was so tangible and I’m not the only one there that day that was saying the same thing all these years later. I’m sad to think Stage Challenge will possibly cease to exist. There are so few things happening within the schooling system that connects people with the arts as it is.”
“Our very white school did a collection of Māori myths and legends and the lead storyteller was a red headed girl with a mōko painted on. I held two papier-mâché kowhai and moved them round. We won our heat but we’re not invited back to perform in the finals.”
“I grew up watching the taped highlights on a weekend morning and dreaming dearly of doing it myself. I directed and choreographed/did everything for it several years running at my lower decile high school – the only years the school entered the competition, due to the fact I literally personally paid for it with my childhood savings and no one in following years was dumb enough to take on the task as I had done. I had to bully and bribe students into being in it; desperately try to keep them on site and get them to actually go on stage instead of smoking out back when we finally got to the Aotea Centre, using bribery, lots of yelling and begging; and hire outside venues for rehearsals when the school didn’t feel like giving me rehearsal space. I was a terror.”
“We did one that was ‘the five stages of grief’ but based around Helen Keller.”
“I was Year 12 and the Year 13s were in charge of us and told us we had to do a serious theme if we wanted to win, for example the Holocaust won the previous year. I remember a Year 13 briefly explained what the Rwandan genocide was to us but there was a lot of confusion about whether Hutus and Tutsis were different ethnic groups or more like class distinctions. The only song I remember we used was ‘The Beautiful People’ by Marilyn Manson.”
“For my first Stage Challenge our group had to have dreadlocks, because we were playing “cavemen” (holy problematic, Batman). So we all got our hair dreaded with hair wax that was impossible to get out. Cue a lot of furious parents who had their sweet little Catholic school girls come home with dreadlocks that wouldn’t wash out. Good times.”
“That year Stage Challenge gave like an overarching theme of “choices and decisions” or something like that. WHICH NO ONE ELSE IN PALMY INCORPORATED. We came up with doing the end of the first Harry Potter book. But basically it was a story structure that gave us heaps of opportunities for sweet dances and had the right amount of rooms to correspond to the aforementioned formula.
“So it started with the Devil’s Snare room, shit loads of students in crazy plant costumes “breathing” in a massive pile together. The track was ‘Breathe’ by Prodigy because it was 2006… then Harry, Ron and Hermione (played by 3rd formers who looked vaguely like the characters) got LITERALLY THROWN like cheerleaders from the back of the stage by all these massive strong senior dudes, and caught by the pile of devil’s snare. Harry and Hermione escape and then set fire to it to release Ron. Lights all change to RED and more dancers appear who are also dressed in red with long red whip things. The song changes to ‘Firestarter’ by Prodigy because it’s 2006.
“The Chess Room! This was massive hip hop dance with the black chess pieces vs white chess pieces. Dance turns into battle. The music was ‘Counting Sheep Like Bodies To The Rhythm Of The War Drums’ by Perfect Circle, then it turned into another hip hop track once the battle started. Can’t remember how it ended. Harry, Ron and Hermione must have got involved somehow.
“So we had a tall senior playing Voldemort and to create the mirror we had this genius artist who was only in 3rd form paint onto all these separate squares a massive image. Harry and Voldemort did some kind of battle, Voldemort is defeated and Harry held up as the champion.
“That was our Stage Challenge that year. We didn’t win.”
“I dropped three subjects to focus on directing Stage Challenge in 7th form because Stage Challenge was/is life. It was the first and I believe the last time Palmy Girls High ever won, totally worth not getting university entrance!”
“Okay, so in 2008 I was involved with an extremely questionable Summer Heights High-esque Stage Challenge production, which had the concept “pollution”. The pollution was played by around 30 Year 9s wearing black tutus and swimming caps.”
In 2008 my high school achieved the pinnacle of success – NZ Stage Challenge Champion. And thank fuck because it was so hard out we held auditions on the literal second day of term one. We took out the title with ‘Behind Closed Doors’ – a dramatic dance exploration of domestic violence complete with an abusive dad hip hop segment. It had an enormous set of a house that was meticulously hand painted and a live-tableau portrait at the front with a perfect family. In turn each member stepped out of the portrait and the disheveled, teased and corn-rowed version of their inner selves did a dance. Chicago ain’t got nothing on the beaten-wife-tango that a group of privileged girls from Wellington earnestly performed.”
“Onslow College, when I was there at the start of the 2000s, was not known for winning tournaments. It was known for weed. As a theatre kid, my mates and I threw ourselves into Stage Challenge and we took that fucker out in 2001. National Champs. I was 13, and a lead rat in a Cinderella story. It was an intense point of school pride for a school that had laughably poor first XV.
“When I was in my final year, I helped my friends create a Safe Sex Stage Challenge and it was glorious. Twelve-year-olds going home to Mum and Dad excited that they were selected to be a sperm or egg or chlamydia. There’s no way in hell that concept could’ve happened with a teacher’s hand on the wheel. And that’s the beauty of Stage Challenge: a bunch of students taking full control to create something and the satisfaction at seeing it come to life when you perform against your peers. And occasionally, you win. As a teenager who struggled to kick a ball, much less a tackle, it was the perfect surrogate to teach teamwork, leadership and sportsmanship. In the social media age it’s a bloody shame to say goodbye to the ritual of looking goofy as shit trying to learn a choreographed performance when you’re all going through puberty.”
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