News came today that Stage Challenge, the national dance competition for schools, is to close after 25 years. Kristin Hall pays tribute to the touchingly earnest extra-curricular.
We are but two weeks into 2018 and already we have a definite sign that this cruel world is going to continue its speedy downward trajectory until there is nothing pure and good left. I am, of course talking about the loss of Stage Challenge.
News broke today that the institution which has seen half a million Kiwi teens kick-ball-changing to their little hearts’ content for 25 years is no more, and I’m going to tell you why that’s a bloody fist-shaking outrage.
I remember watching the Stage Challenge finals on TV when I was a dorky little theatre sproutlet. Watching kids not much older than me command a stage with no adults in sight was an absolute thrill. When the time came to choose a high school, I eschewed the fancy Catholic school famous for their high budget yearly productions, in favour of Western Heights High, a then low decile school out of my zone which just so happened to kick ass at Stage Challenge.
My first Stage Challenge was run by a 7th former named Anna. She was scary as hell and took the whole thing as seriously as a UN negotiation. At one point I’m pretty sure she assaulted one of the 1st XV boys with an umbrella. There were huge group meetings with the head choreographers where they played back videos of past performances, starting and stopping the grainy VHS to point out what worked and what didn’t. It was like being an athlete, but with more embarrassing costumes. Desperate to impress and gripped by fear of an impending umbrella attack, Heights won our division that year, and it was just about the most exciting thing that had happened in my life.
But (and I’m about to get incredibly cheesy here) it wasn’t really the winning that counted, as the next four years of runner-up placings eventually showed. The most amazing thing about Stage Challenge was the friendships, or at the very least, the mutual understandings, it forged.
There’s something about hanging out for hours every weekend in a damp school hall that smells like mandarin peels and Lynx Africa to make the most callous teens actually give a shit about each other.
Age, gender, race and coolness level barriers were broken at Stage Challenge, because otherwise it would have be an eight minute mess of tulle and limbs and terribly executed smoky eyes. Theatre geeks hung out with the rugby boys, set kids hung out with the hot costume girls. I’m telling you, Stage Challenge could have been the setting for New Zealand’s own coming of age ’80s movie. That’s how gosh darn inspirational it was.
It was a chance to get a slice of the limelight, but was also a chance to prove ourselves as organised, responsible mini humans, capable of portraying serious issues on stage in a way that made people go “maybe those millennials aren’t completely useless.” I saw incredible performances about suicide, bullying and drug abuse during those competitions. At a time when all Gen Z get to hear about themselves in the media is that they’re insecure, screen-addicted losers, Stage Challenge seems more important than ever.
I am not alone in my dewy eyed nostalgia – ask just about anyone who has ever been involved and I’ll bet you a sequin vest and jaunty cap that it was the best part of the hormonal clusterfuck that was their teenage years. It’s hard to believe, but not all New Zealand youths are interested in sport. I liked the sense of belonging during my short and comically unsuccessful stint in the girls 2nd XI but couldn’t and wouldn’t tackle because I just didn’t want the ball that badly. With its focus on teamwork, leadership and the ever elusive Spirit award, Stage Challenge was the pastime for kids who don’t want the ball but still wanted to be part of the team.
Teachers loved it too. Sonia Irwin, my former English teacher and matron of WHHS Stage Challenge for a really long time had this to say: “I loved Stage Challenge – the way that the mousy girl who was a bit alternative turned into some sort of ringmaster with the ability to control her temper about so many big issues, then lose her shit over some Year 10 in brown shorts not smiling during a run through. And the creativity and ingenious planning: ‘we need 14 pairs of wings by tomorrow, so I’m going to need three balls of wool, some curtain wire, 24 metres of mosquito netting, half a roll of toilet paper and the hot glue gun’.”
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Which is why I’m at a loss as to why something this wonderful could possibly run out of people wanting to throw cash at it. Is Peter Thiel still here? Why can’t we take some of his money? What about all those show business celebs that live here? Shania Twain? James Cameron? You can have our stunning views and our adorable accents and onion dip guilt free if YOU WILL JUST GIVE US YOUR MONEY AND LET STAGE CHALLENGE LIVE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. Then Peter Jackson and Taika Waititi could battle it out for ’80s coming of age movie rights about the little dance competition that could. Now that would be a movie worth watching.
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