Rise issue 12 cover

Choreographing the dance of life

Sometimes you need to dance to learn how to keep your feet on the ground. The 13 venues, 200 schools, 16,000 participants, and audience of 25,000 involved with Stage Challenge New Zealand can attest to that.

Stage Challenge started life as the Australian Rock Eisteddfod Challenge and expanded its reach to New Zealand in 1992. Since then it has become the highlight in most schools’ second term. And holding together the Kiwi component of this international programme sits Stage Challenge’s event manager, Alice Larmer.

Alice is no stranger to the rewards that Stage Challenge can bring, having taken part in it when she was at school.

“It taught me a lot about leadership,” she says. “Bringing together people from different backgrounds and age groups. I wasn’t the best dancer – I didn’t get up on stage, but I could look after all the budgeting and fundraising, so that’s what I did. And what I learnt about myself and my friends in the build-up to Stage Challenge was huge.”

Rotorua Girls High School on stage

Changing kids for the better

Encouraging students to be their best without the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco, Alice still gets to see, first-hand, how Stage Challenge changes New Zealand kids for the better.

“We have some schools who have participants sign contracts saying that they won’t take drugs or alcohol while doing Stage Challenge,” Alice explains.

And it works. Rehearsals become a safe place for honest discussion, and these discussions lead to creative ways to tackle common issues that young New Zealanders are facing. Research into the project has found that the physical activity, along with the community connection and underlying sense of positive competition, is exactly what kids need, to learn how to navigate what could be a difficult time in life – adolescence. In fact, a study by Jan Trayes indicates that after being involved with Stage Challenge, kids are 91 percent better at communicating and have 96 percent greater self-esteem.

“The benefits are huge,” she says. “I’ve had teachers come up to me who have told me that if Stage Challenge wasn’t on, [the kids] would be on the street. It’s the only reason some kids come to school.

“Each school takes on the challenge in their own way.”

In some areas, the benefits go way beyond the health aspect that Stage Challenge bases its philosophy on. “For some smaller schools, Stage Challenge means entire communities getting involved. We have members of the community who might help out by building a set. We have dads who help their daughters learn how to put nails into pieces of wood.”

Diverse students – shared experience

The participants in Stage Challenge can be just as diverse as the communities that support the schools to take part.

“There is no ‘typical’ kid who takes part in Stage Challenge,” Alice says. “You can have the entire school rugby team up on stage, dancing next to the theatre and dance kids. It’s awesome.”

The statistics speak for themselves: last year, 16,000 young people signed up to take part in Stage Challenge – and in doing so, signed up to lead a healthier life for the duration of the project.

“I think that’s what Stage Challenge teaches,” Alice finishes. “How to get a natural high without having to turn to drugs and alcohol, keeping those friendships alive, using those life skills that you’ve learned.

“It’s full on, and at the end of the challenge, students take the skills they learned about working as a team and how to deal with people, and apply them in real life.”