GIVING BACK: Sam McLeod has put his dance training and musical theatre experience to good use schooling others in his art. Photo John Morin

WHEN Sam McLeod returned to Whakatane in 2016, he felt like he had given up on his dreams.

Being involved with Whakatane musical theatre since the age of 14, Sam discovered a love for dance and went on to train at the Wellington Performing Arts Centre – Whitireia Performance Centre at 20 years old.

While in Wellington, Sam earned his Diploma in Commercial Dance and a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Musical Theatre, performing in shows such as Hairspray, High School Musical and Cats. He also choreographed Zomburlesque, RENT, and Bloody Broadway.

But finding paid work – and getting a foothold in a hyper-competitive industry – proved more difficult than he had anticipated. “I was hoping to have a little more of a working repertoire,” Sam says. “But that wasn’t the case. I was easily defeated and lost interest in it.”

After a short but difficult stint in Australia – and the sudden passing of his father – Sam returned home, facing an uncertain future and feeling as if he was living in a kind of “wasteland”.

His passion for dance was rekindled, though, when Sue Harris offered him the role of choreographer for Seussical the Musical in 2017. “I wasn’t even going to come back to do dancing,” he says. “It just wasn’t in my brain; I had given it up.”

Sam was quick to say yes, however, first out of his respect and love for Sue, but also because he knew he needed it for himself. “It was exactly what I had wanted while I was doing my course,” says Sam. “You know, getting my degree, coming back and giving back what I’ve learned.”

“I think the fact that it was an opportunity my past self would have wanted made me think, ‘Well, why not take it?’. If I didn’t take that opportunity, what would I have done?”

His work with Seussical led to even more opportunities: choreographing The Addams Family, directing High School Musical, and training non-professional dancers for Whakatane’s Dancing with the Stars charity event in 2018.

With a renewed sense of confidence, Sam considered how he could cultivate the type of environment in which he could best serve his community. Noticing a lack of opportunities for the members of Theatre Whakatane when it came to dance, he created a class to meet that need.

“If I couldn’t do the choreographies that I wanted to give to Theatre Whakatane – if I couldn’t do my best creatively because I didn’t have the dancers – well then, I had to make them,” Sam says.

Basing the format of his class off of his own experiences in Wellington, Sam created a two-hour class that is divided into three sections: body conditioning, jazz and ballet technique, and choreography. These progress through four classes, each with a different focus, which roll over after one month.

Sam says having a two-hour class equips dancers with the physical and mental stamina needed for musical rehearsals.

“You need to have a strong body to learn the moves you’re being taught,” Sam explains.

“I’ve tried to create something that was hard and fun. By hard, I mean something you can put work into that is going to benefit you in more ways than just being able to dance.”

“It’s fun figuring out why it is so hard, and finding the genius in the hard work,” he says.

This outlook has resulted in a vibrant, positive and close-knit community of dancers, each of whom have found their own “genius” in different ways.

Jacqui Watson, a long time performer who was recently on stage for The Sound of Music, joined Sam’s class earlier in the year. Although she had an injured Achilles at the time, Jacqui says she “absolutely loved” the class.

“When you perform, you need to be fit, and I was not fit when I first started the class,” Jacqui says, laughing. “But I keep getting better and better, building up the stamina that you need when you’re on stage.”

Having moved to Whakatane from Wellington a little over a year ago, she especially enjoys the social aspect of the class.

“You sort of feel like an outsider looking in until people welcome you,” Jacqui says. “And the theatre was one place that did that and dancing [in this class] was as well.”

“I also really love his teaching style,” she says. “I think because it caters to any level of fitness and any injuries. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, it’s still a challenge. But he’s so positive, you can’t help but be positive when you’re there.”

For Trident High School English teacher Jaime-Lee Coffey, the class has been beneficial for both her physical and mental health.

“It’s been absolutely amazing. It’s been the highlight of my week,” Jaime-Lee says. “It’s really good to go along to a place where it’s okay to make a bit of a fool of yourself, because you’re always learning and trying to do better, and to really get your mind off of stuff that’s happening in school.”

Tapping into the physicality of dance has become another tool for her to combat anxiety. “I get really anxious around people that I don’t know that well and I get anxious performing anything,” she says. “Forcing myself outside of my comfort zone has been really good in challenging the anxious thoughts that come along.”

Jaime-Lee has continued to challenge herself and even took part in a public dance performance with some other members of the class.

Although she almost talked herself out of it, she says part of what helped was Sam’s continued support and belief in her.

“Sam actually cares. And he’s also super encouraging,” she says. “Like, he will try to find the most relevant way to get you to understand something that comes to him quite naturally but, to other people, might not come as easily.”

Juls Burrup, who works at Opotiki Library, joined the class four months ago.

AT THE BARRE: Barre classes are part of Sam’s repetoire.

“I feel like since being a foster mum, I haven’t really had time to myself,” Juls says. “So this is really bringing some time back for me.”

The class has also put an emphasis on body function over looks, which has helped many with feelings surrounding body confidence.

“One of the things Sam said was, rather than thinking about what you look like, think about how your muscle felt then, where your legs are then,” Juls says. “So now, trying to get out of my head, and instead of thinking about what I look like, I’m really concentrating on the move he wants us to do.”

Seeing the growth in his students, and within himself, has been a highlight for Sam as he follows his dreams once more. “It’s made me a happier person to be creative,” he says.

“I’m helping other people and I’m spreading the love.”

Classes are held Monday and Wednesday evenings, 7.15pm to 9.15pm at Bracken Street Studio, Whakatane. To find out more, or book in for a session, visit his Facebook page, Adults Bodycon/Dance Class.

Sam is looking forward to helping more people through dance in the coming year. He also teaches Total Barre at Kathryn’s Pilates and will be choreographing the upcoming Trident High School production of Grease.