Regional Hero: Caring steps in 'Shep'
The large town of Shepparton, located nearly 200 km north of Melbourne in Victoria, has been hit especially hard by the pandemic. This year it has been a main source of high Covid-19 numbers and as a result has had to endure the same stringent lockdown restrictions as the metropolitan region. During the time this article took to write, the local UCanDance school went from having just returned to the studio to back into lockdown in response to yet another outbreak.
It was the school’s care and commitment towards the students during the pandemic that led one parent to commend it to Dance Australia. “The care they have for each student is outstanding and very comforting as a parent. The lengths UCanDance went to for our kids to still dance throughout the first lockdown was phenomenal by offering zoom classes. What was even more outstanding is that even though each child was at home learning the crew routines, when they were able to be all together, the routine came together incredibly well…”
UCanDance was established in 2001 by Aleisha Spence and is right in the middle of town – upstairs in the main shopping mall. It is a large enterprise with about 300 pupils and a staff of six, offering classes in a wide range of genres, to tots to adults. Exams are offered in the Australian Teachers of Dance syllabus.
Lockdowns have been tough, but the school has adapted. Pupils missed out on their exams last year, but this year they managed to complete them, and were informed by ATOD that they had made history by being the first regional dance school to do exams by Zoom. “We decided to give it a go via Zoom,” Spence says. “I’m so glad we did; they went so well. We were lucky, we could come back into the studio, and the examiner zoomed in and watched them on her screen.
“I was very wary about going down that path, but everyone loved the experience.”
Competitions are not a big part of the school’s focus, but nonetheless some students did manage to compete in a couple of local eisteddfods (those that were still running). “We had one just yesterday, two little girls went to Wangaratta, they got to perform in front of the judge, no audience, everyone had to watch through a glass window, outside! But we got that in. We did a couple of on-line competitions as well.”
Spence grew up in Cobram, close to the NSW border, moving to Shepparton to live at about the age of fifteen. As soon as she finished school, she knew she wanted to teach dance. Having experienced herself the limited opportunities to learn dance in the country, she was determined to fill the gap. “That was one thing that helped me decide how I wanted to run my dance studio. We are a recreational school, open to all. We offer a broad range for different abilities. We do also have some quite elite guest teachers from the city, so the kids have those contacts as well, a good stepping stone for those who want to take it further.”
The pandemic has highlighted how deeply dancing is valued by the school’s many pupils and what an important place the school holds in their lives. Students have been longing to return to the classroom and can’t wait to perform in their end-of-year concert, a highlight of their year. Spence says: “Especially for those who have been coming for a long time, dance is all they do, dance is everything for them, it’s their home. It was quite difficult the last year taking that away from them. It shows how much it does mean to them.”
Last year Spence and her team held the end-of-year performance on-line. The shape this year’s performance will take was still being determined at the time of writing. “We really hope we can make it happen this year. The kids are really looking forward to it. They really miss it.”
- KAREN VAN ULZEN
This article was first published in the Oct/Nov/Dec 2021 issue of Dance Australia in the Regional Heroes issue. Have you nominated a teacher you know? Just go here and let us know about about them.