New dance program en pointe for students

A new partnership between The McDonald College and Sydney Dance Company ensures students no longer need to prioritise dance training over a traditional education – they can do both.

Photo by Pedro Greig

Secondary school students in NSW with a passion for dance no longer have to choose which discipline they will focus on, thanks to a new partnership between The McDonald College and Sydney Dance Company.

To date, secondary students have had no opportunity to study elite contemporary dance training while remaining at school. Consequently, students with a passion for dance would often have to leave high school in order to focus on dance training full time, with debilitating consequences for their formal education. The McDonald College’s new Senior Contemporary Dance Program aims to change that.

‘Previously they’d head off to a full-time dance school and follow their passion for contemporary dance, and maybe try and do their academics via distance education – which to be honest is extremely difficult. They invariably end up falling several units behind; their dance takes over and the academics just falls away. Our Senior Contemporary Dance Program gives the students the opportunity to do both,’ said Maxine Kohler, Principal and Founding Member of The McDonald College.

A boutique school based in North Strathfield, in Sydney’s inner west, The McDonald College gives equal weight to both arts education and traditional academic education.

‘We’ve always been passionate about any performer – whether their focus is ballet or music or whatever – having a strong academic background to fall back on,’ Kohler said.

‘Our commitment is to keeping the students’ options open beyond school. As we know, the arts are a hard and demanding world, and to be able to maintain their academic study up to the HSC at least gives them those options beyond school.’

Caroline Spence, Director of Education and Outreach at Sydney Dance Company, stressed the importance of supporting and encouraging young dancers to develop holistically while training in dance to an elite level.

‘Completing high school to year 12 gives young people much needed time to grow socially and academically, and to cultivate personal resilience and confidence. The choice to continue both academic and creative arts study then becomes easy with Sydney Dance Company and The McDonald College bringing together exceptional academic schooling with highly sophisticated and up-to-date performing arts training. The Senior Contemporary Dance Program will support students’ holistic development into forward-thinking creative individuals,’ Spence said.

Photo by Gez Xavier Mansfield

The inaugural Senior Contemporary Dance Program at The McDonald College is open to students in Years 10 to 12 who wish to focus on the technical, creative and performance aspects of professional dance practice. 

The structure of the program will draw upon Sydney Dance Company’s established training philosophy, Spence explained.

‘Students enrolled in the McDonald College Senior Contemporary Dance Program will not only be taught by guest artists and dance educators who work with Sydney Dance Company, they will also be invited to attend Sydney Dance Company’s Pre-Professional Year workshops and masterclasses along with observing the professional ensemble in rehearsal and performances. Students will develop a greater understanding of what contemporary dance can be and how to process contemporary works as an observer and a performer,’ she said.

As well as ensuring that students have access to a wide range of choreographers and educators working a range of dance styles, the Senior Contemporary Dance Program will effectively fast-track students who wish to audition for the Sydney Dance Company Pre-Professional Year upon completion of their secondary studies.

Kohler explained: ‘They’re going to be a step ahead of their peers, really, and that was the whole purpose of the program – to give them a little leg up.’  

Spence said it would be wonderful to see more graduates from The McDonald College auditioning for and participating in the Company’s Pre-Professional Year program, ‘but what we are most excited by is directing dance training towards a greater creative outcome.’

She continued: ‘Educating the creative mind and developing rigour and athleticism goes hand in hand with a conceptual understanding of contemporary dance. The program will be designed to equip students with the technical skills and artistry to pursue a number of tertiary training opportunities and career pathways in the contemporary dance industry and creative arts environment. We’ve had a number of McDonald College graduates participate in our Pre-Professional Year already and hope to continue to see more throughout the coming years.’

Auditions for the 2019 Senior Contemporary Dance Program intake will be held on Friday 28 September 2018 at The McDonald College in North Strathfield, Sydney. Expressions of interest are now open until Tuesday 25 September.

Kohler urged students who might be considering auditioning for the inaugural intake of the Senior Contemporary Dance Program to attend with an open mind.

‘Come along and be prepared to do whatever’s asked of you and just be like a sponge – be willing to accept any advice, listen and be really open to what’s being offered. Don’t come along with a pre-conceived idea – come along being willing to experience new styles and new thoughts,’ she said.

Learn more about the Senior Contemporary Dance Program at The McDonald College in partnership with Sydney Dance Company at

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts