Behind dreams and dramas of Dance Academy's move to movie

Tara Morice is amused at how her decorated career has come full circle.

"It's funny, I never expected to be in so many films about dancing!" she laughs, 25 years after starring in Australia's most iconic dance film, Strictly Ballroom.

Now the actor is returning to the big screen in Dance Academy, the hit Australian TV show being reborn as a full-length film, giving young fans the chance to fall in love with ballet all over again.

Filmed and based in Sydney, with the Opera House used as both a location and a backdrop, the show made its debut on ABC TV in 2010 and ran until 2013, developing a fierce cult following globally and airing in about 180 countries. Despite the gap in time between then and the announcement of Dance Academy: The Movie, interest hasn't waned. The film's trailer has racked up millions of views across YouTube and Facebook.

Morice's no-nonsense headmistress, Lucinda Raine, has left behind the dance school to follow her love, and academy guest teacher Marcus Kane, to Texas.

"It's really cute because Sam Strauss [writer and creator of the show and movie] was a massive Strictly Ballroom geek when she was young, and kind of thought of the name Tara because of me - and Xenia [Goodwin], who plays Tara, the film she saw that made her start dancing when was little was Strictly Ballroom," Morice says. "There's quite a few similarities."

Along with Morice, most of the cast has returned for the film, and Dena Caplan, who plays the hard-working Abigail Armstrong, says the best part is being reunited with her "family".

"It was a bit of a dream come true, really, because the characters were just so wonderful ... We'd heard rumours about it [the film] for a while but I don't think any of us really believed it was going to happen."

Like the rest of the cast, Caplan grew up with acting and dance from an early age and instantly fell in love with the idea of combining the two.

"I just remember emailing my agent saying 'I have to get this role', I just couldn't believe it. I remember watching Centre Stage and Fame and all these movies growing up and it was always my dream to be able to combine my love for dance and acting and music. Then along came this script and I was adamant I had to be in it."

The show was an instant hit, winning a Logie award for most outstanding children's program in each of its first two years, and being nominated in its third and final season.

"When I read the script, Samantha Strauss' writing blew me away. I knew that we were on to something special just in terms of it didn't seem like an ordinary children's television with themes and the writing."

The original show was heavily influenced by the writer's own experience. Strauss was a professional trained ballet dancer before a fractured back forced her to retire and switch careers - the same injury that the main character of the series, Tara Webster, suffers at the end of the final season.

Picking up 18 months after the end of the television series, we see the characters scattered across Australia and the United States, and for most of them it's hardly been smooth sailing since leaving Sydney's National Academy of Dance.

The message of finding happiness even when your goals are forced to change is clear in the film, says Alicia Banit. "It's not often that someone says they want to be something when they're younger and they end up doing that.

"The fact that those dreams change and that this story is saying that it's OK for this to happen is I think a really strong message to send, especially to young people, that if they get rejection in whatever industry they're in, it's not going to be the end of the world."

Banit plays Kat Karamov, Tara's best friend turned children's TV star in New York - but says it was her character's low points in the series that helped positively influence viewers the most.

"I've had people come to me on the street and also on social media telling me that the bulimia story that Kat had really helped them. I think it's important because it is real ... We've got an impact on young people's lives, and that's freaking cool."

The show ran for 65 episodes on the ABC, and as well as the dancing it examined themes of sexuality, death and body image. Thomas Lacey, whose character Ben Tickle has leukemia, says the show's willingness to tackle confronting issues head on is a major part of its appeal.

"Anything to do with cancer is a very touchy subject, so to have to play and portray that on screen is quite tense. I felt quite strongly about it, it was kind of a bold move ... but that's what Dance Academy is all about."

Lacey originally auditioned for the part of Sammy Lieberman, but was added to the show in season two.

"I started dancing when I was two years old ??? I guess I was one of the lucky ones, I never got bullied or anything - I always played footy, soccer, I was always into sport. I hope it's inspired kids and teenagers to go out and try it."

Kaplan echoed her co-star's sentiments. "I get a lot of messages from mums saying that their young sons have been inspired by the male characters in the show, which I think is wonderful, because there's a real lack of male dancers in the world and a real stigma attached to it to this day."

The film follows Tara's journey to the US and chronicles both her and others (namely Keiynan Lonsdale's Ollie) subjecting themselves to gruelling auditions, and tryouts for embarrassing side jobs.

"Whenever I hear people saying the words 'overnight success' or whatever, I just laugh - I think it's impossible," Kaplan says. "I don't think anyone's an overnight success. Particularly in the dance world; it really is years and years of extreme training and rejection and hard work to reach that goal."

Morice also praised the realism of the character's growth. "I think what I like about it is that it gives a sense of the reality of how difficult it is out there once you've finished training in acting or dancing. That message is really strong.

"When I travel, Australian dancers are considered some of the best in the world. When you go to New York or London, there are so many Australians who are doing brilliantly. We have a reputation around the world."

An ambiguous ending to the movie leaves the door open to the franchise living on, be it through another film or a new TV series. Banit says she'd be happy to dive back into the world of her "dream job" again if the opportunity presented.

"It's all open-ended because that's what life is like. I'm sure there could be [another sequel] it could go anywhere."

Kaplan adds: "I think I'll be like 85 and I'd still want to come back for a reunion!"

Dance Academy: The Movie opens in cinemas on April 6.

This story Behind dreams and dramas of Dance Academy's move to movie first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.