Branches Performing Arts, Julia Creek, Qld
This school really is 'outback'.
You might wonder how a dance school would fit in, even survive, in a place like Julia Creek. This tiny locality is 700 kms inland from Townsville and 250 km east of Mt Isa, and has a population that barely scrapes a thousand. Here is the true “outback”, where the main industries are cattle, beef and mining. The horizon is wide and bare and flat.
Yet the Branches Performing Arts School was embraced from when it opened six years ago in a former bank building and is now an integral part of the community.
The school's founder is Amy Tinning, who grew up on a cattle station just outside Collinsville, which is not as remote as Julia Creek but still a good 300km from Mackay. She caught the dance bug from a very young age, went on to gain her Bachelor of Performing Arts at the WA Academy of Arts in Perth, danced with Queensland Youth Ballet and toured internationally with Link (WAAPA's Graduate company). But the bush called her back.
From its beginning in Julia Creek, the school now has branches in Cloncurry, Richmond and Tinning’s present hometown of Hughenden, where she lives with her husband and two daughters a mere 262km away. “There’s a lot of travel,” she laughs. The school offers a wide variety of dance styles, Royal Academy of Dance exams and the opportunity to compete in eisteddfods on the Gold Coast and Mt Isa. She has about 160 pupils from all around North West Queensland and even further afield in the NT and WA. They are the children of farmers and big landholders and are aged mostly under 12, as they leave home and go to boarding school once they reach secondary school age.
For Tinning, the advent of Zoom classes during the pandemic has been a boon, helping her overcome the challenges of distance. “It was always something I had thought about doing,” she says. “I know the pandemic has been shattering for the industry in general, but I would have to say it has definitely strengthened my operation. We first went on-line last year with the lockdown and we saw how effective it can be.”
Because of the distances the children have to travel, they mostly can only attend classes once a week. Now Zoom will become a permanent part of the school curriculum, providing welcome supplementary classes.
For the children of the area, Branches Performing Arts has introduced a new recreational activity as well as widened their horizons as to future careers. For the broader community the school has also provided a welcome stability and consistency, having proven it is there to stay. “The population here can be very transient,” Tinning explains. “Many of the service people serve their time and leave. They might start something, like a footy club, that suits their interests, but then they go back to the city and it stops.
”I admit [establishing the school] was hard at first – what does a cattle farmer value about dance? But now they see that having the school creates a liveable community. They see it gives them, at the end of the year, a live show. It gives their children something to be involved in and belong in. I would go as far as saying we are a glue for the community. We are now part of the ecosystem – and have really changed things here culturally.”
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