Denny Dance Academy graduates have got the world at their feet

Denny Dance Academy graduates, from left, Chloe Clarke, Kirsty McGuckin, Rachel Laird, Nicola Thomson and Sara Laird. Picture: Michael Gillen

Denny Dance Academy graduates, from left, Chloe Clarke, Kirsty McGuckin, Rachel Laird, Nicola Thomson and Sara Laird. Picture: Michael Gillen


The motto on the Denny High badge is Summa Peto - aim for the highest - and was presumably chosen by the school’s founders in 1959 for its motivational qualities.

Fast forward to 2014 and it’s the ethos that defines an extracurricular group that has achieved great success since its foundation just six years ago.

Denny Dance Academy aims to do more than simply train dancers to strut their stuff on stage. It was set up by Anne McEwan, head of the school’s physical education department, to instil a belief in its members that they should never settle for second best.

“Firstly, I wanted to get more girls active,” she said. “I saw the Academy as an opportunity to use dance as a medium to make confident individuals. Dancing gives them something to be inspired by, it gets them out of bed in the morning and makes them want to go to school. The whole ethos is that they can go on to achieve anything they want in life.”

In its short life the group has performed in New York, made annual appearances at the invitational Go Dance festival and was chosen to support Glasgow’s bid for the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics – which saw them dance in the city’s bustling Central Station.

Mrs McEwan (50), from Motherwell, was inspired to establish the Academy following the success of former Denny High pupil John Aitken. The 20-year-old has already been offered work in London’s West End after graduating from a respected studio in Cambridge.

The teacher, who is also the principal dance assessor for the Scottish Qualifications Authority, believed that others from Denny were capable of gracing the biggest stages.

She organised the first open auditions for the Academy in 2008 for pupils from local feeder primary schools in Denny, Head of Muir, Dennyloanhead, Bonnybridge, Haggs and Banknock.

But 2014 is notable as the first members of the Academy have now reached the end of sixth year and will graduate next week.

The 11 pupils – Kristie Campbell, Chloe Clarke, Ciara Dickson, Cati Johnston, Samantha Kemp, Rachel Laird, Sarah Laird, Emma Leitch, Kirsty McGuckin, Hayley Ovens and Nicola Thomson – have all earned a higher national certificate (NNC) in dance, a qualification usually earned at college level.

They are the first pupils in Scotland to achieve this benchmark while still attending school, and, in keeping with the Denny motto, they are now looking forward to tackling new challenges.

Several have earned places at prestigious dance schools in the UK and abroad, while others are going on to degree programmes, such as law and psychology, at universities.

Kirsty McGuckin (18), from Head of Muir, will leave Scotland in August to take up a place at the Steps on Broadway school in New York.

“The Academy has changed my life,” she said. “Before I auditioned I was a complete tomboy, I was the complete opposite of your typical dancer.”

Kirsty first became aware of the Broadway school when she visited with other Denny pupils last year.

“I knew when we left that I wanted to come back,” she added.

“Mrs McEwan said I should apply. If you want to do well in Broadway as a professional dancer, it’s the place to be. I have so much to thank her for.”

After auditioning via video link, Kirsty was thrilled to be offered an international student visa.

Meanwhile, Nicola Thomson (17), from Bonnybridge, has won a full scholarship to Cambridge Performing Arts School. She was one of 30 students to win a place at the school out of more than 1000 applicants, and hopes this will lead to commercial dance work.

“Before I joined the Academy I didn’t view dancing as something I could make a career from,” she said.

“Mrs McEwan is the best teacher any dancer could hope for. She’s very good at pushing you to achieve your best, she has very high standards.”

That opinion was echoed by Rachel Laird (17) who is preparing to move from her home town of Denny to Dundee, where she has secured a second year degree entry place at the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance.

A dancer since the age of three, she credits the Academy as giving its students an edge that others cannot match.

“Because we are a step ahead of other dance students, by completing our HNC in school, it means I can go straight into secord year and complete my HND,” she said. “That means I could have a degree by the time I’m 19 and auditon for professional work or start teaching. It’s crazy, I feel so priviliged.

“Mrs McEwan has already said she would have me back at the Academy helping to teach the younger ones. She’s taught me that dance has so many pathways you can follow once you leave school.”

So what does it take to become a top dancer?

“We’re looking for potential,” said Mrs McEwan. “Charisma is important, someone who has that spark. There are 20 places available for each year group, so it’s very competitive.”

Before that, Mrs McEwan and the Academy are preparing for their annual end-of-term show, which takes place tonight (Wednesday) and tomorrow at 7 p.m. in the school.

It will be an emotional farewell to the group’s first graduates for the teacher. “They have all really bonded over the years. But there’s also a sense of pride at how well they’ve done.

“They’ve set a bar that everyone will have to try and match.”

As the school badge says, Summa Peto.




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