The information and resources in this guide help teachers and educators embed important ideas around reconciliation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and contributions in dance subjects.
This guide is not prescriptive or exhaustive. You should consult your local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and always critically evaluate resources when using this guide.
Introduction to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Dance
'The dancing grounds are where we connect with our Ancestors, where our heritage, language and identity are passed on.’
Phillemon Mosby, Torres Strait Island regional councillor
Background and Timeline of key dates in the contemporary history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance
Background to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance
This guide focuses on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, perspectives and dance conventions since European colonisation. It is important, though, to appreciate that dance has been an integral part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures for thousands of years. It continues to play an active and important part in cultural life to this day.
The subject/learning areas of the Arts – and the subject guides that Reconciliation Australia’s Narragunnawali team have built around them – are separated into distinct Dance, Drama, Music, Media Arts and Visual Arts categories. However, traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance is ultimately based on a strong and simultaneous use of cross-arts frameworks and features such as song, drama and storytelling.
Traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance has often taken the form of a corroboree – a ceremonial amalgamation of dance, song and visual symbols or stimuli to provide a representation of the Dreaming and to pass on information about it. Corroboree dancers often use subtle yet stylised symbolic movement to support the telling of stories, including those carried through Songlines – traditional musical narratives that serve as an Aboriginal ‘voice map’ of Country, conveying important journeys made during the Dreaming. Dance customs have tended to embrace an intricate human, geographic and spiritual interrelationship.
It is important to point out that there can be great diversity in the forms or features of a traditional corroboree. ‘Corroboree’ is a very generic word that was coined by Europeans in an attempt to imitate a term from just one Aboriginal language of NSW. There is no single corroboree structure, style or story, with a number of different corroborees existing both between and within distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander linguistic-cultural groups. Miriwoong/Ngaliwurru man Chris Griffiths describes the diversity of dance-song styles in the East Kimberley region alone:
‘There are lots of different kinds of song and dance cycles … joonba, moonga-moonga, balga, janba, marndiwa, wangga and lirrga. Each style has different rhythms, different body paint, different songs, different artefacts, different instruments and different dances. These are the things that special people are given in their dreams. They’re also inspired by the Ngarranggarni (Dreaming), and the knowledge of the old people. It’s part of our tradition, and we’re holding on to it today.’
Custodianship, authority and authenticity are important to consider when it comes to the teaching and practice of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance. It is also important to appreciate distinct protocols around participation in, or attendance at, a corroboree. These protocols can depend on whether a corroboree is public and informal, or sacred and ritualised in nature, and on whether there are any culturally informed age or gender restrictions surrounding the corroboree. For these reasons, it is important to consult with your local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community when considering engaging with events and/or wider learning experiences relating to corroborees.
It is important to acknowledge the historical and continued significance of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance when researching and reflecting on how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, perspectives and dance conventions have entered into – or are represented in – more contemporary dance. As well as appreciating the ancient and continuing dance traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it is important to realise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance – like all cultural practices – is dynamic and subject to change over time. Reflect on how this evolution has been affected by ‘Western’ (mis)appropriations of First Peoples’ dance conventions.
Timeline of key dates in the contemporary history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance
This timeline chronologically lists some of the key dates in the more recent history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance, including events that bring dance and reconciliation together. .
60,000+ years ago:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia have maintained dance conventions and conceptualisations for tens of thousands of years.
- The Aboriginal Arts Board, made up of Aboriginal artists, authors and performers, is established.
- The National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) Dance College is set up under the leadership of founding director Carole Y Johnson.
- NAISDA’s student performing group, Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre (AIDT) embarks on its first international tour, with Wayne Nicol, Michael Leslie, Richard Talonga, Lillian Cromble and guest artist Roslyn Watson participating in the African and Black World Festival of Arts and Culture in Nigeria.
- NAISDA founder Carole Y Johnson, along with NAISDA graduates, and Rob Bryant and Cheryl Stone establish Bangarra Dance Theatre.
- Stephen Page is appointed artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre.
- Nunukul Watamaa Aboriginal dance troupe is selected to perform at the opening of the Sydney Olympic Games.
- Creating Pathways National Indigenous Dance Forum is held at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, leading to the 2007 Treading the Pathways initiative.
- BlakDance, a national industry organisation for First Nation contemporary dancers and choreographers is established as a direct outcome of the National Indigenous Dance Forum.
- Bangarra’s production Mathinna wins Best Ballet or Dance Work, Best Choreography in a Dance or Physical Theatre Production and Best Original Score at the Helpmann Awards.
- Wiradjuri woman Ella Havelka becomes the first Aboriginal dancer to join the 50-year-old Australian Ballet. ‘ELLA’, a documentary by Ronin Films, is released in 2016, to explore Ella Havelka’s ‘intimate and inspirational journey’.
- Taribelang woman Evie Ferris joins the Australian ballet.
- Taribelang woman Evie Ferris becomes the first First Nations person to join The Wiggles.
Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dances, dancers, companies, and other events
Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Dances
Listed below are a number of contemporary dance performances featuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander themes, or themes relating to reconciliation. The list focuses on examples that have published recordings or learning/teaching resources built around them, meaning that teachers may be able to draw on these materials in the classroom.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Dancers and Choreographers
There is a great wealth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have played – or continue to play – a key role in the field of Dance in their local communities and across Australia. Below are some sources for research and classroom learning, to provide opportunities for students to explore individuals and groups of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have contributed to the subject/learning area of Dance – in the capacity of dancers, choreographers or more broadly.
- Engage with information and resources available through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance companies/institutions mentioned on pages 8–9 of this guide. For example, the Bangarra website includes ‘Our team’ and ‘Our dancers’ sections, alongside a specific ‘Education resources’ section.
- Use the Black Book Indigenous dancers directory or the ‘Contributors’ filter within the AusStage search tool to research Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dancers and choreographers.
- Explore the information and resources included in Narragunnawali’s Drama, Music, Media Arts and Visuals Arts subject guides, given the intricate interrelationship between Dance and these other subject/learning areas.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Dance Companies/Institutions
This list includes several Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance companies or wider performing arts institutions that are either active today, or have played an active role in the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance in Australia. While music, drama and visual arts are often important features of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance, please see the Arts – Music, Arts – Drama and Arts – Visual Arts resource guides for organisational lists specific to music, drama and visual arts. On a related note, you may find that in your local area, it is actually your local art centre , language culture centre or another community organisation that acts as the main host for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance events.
- Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts
- Aboriginal Dance Theatre Redfern
- Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre
- Bangarra Dance Theatre
- Doonooch Dance Company
- Jannawi Dance Clan
- Jaran Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Dance Company
- Keriba Mabaigal Women’s Dance Company
- Kurruru Youth Performing Arts
- Malu Kiai Mura Baui Company
- NAISDA Dance College
- Ngadju Dance Group
- Nunukul Yuggera Aboriginal Troupe
- Ochre Contemporary Dance Company
- Tjapukai Dance Theatre (closed in 2020)
- Wadumbah Indigenous Dance
You could also use the ‘Organisations’ filter in the AusStage search tool to locate and read about a range of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance companies or institutions.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Dance Festivals and Celebratory Events
This list features examples of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance festivals and celebratory events.
For more information about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander festivals/celebrations relating to the Arts more broadly, you may also like to visit:
OTHER GUIDES, REFERENCE MATERIALS AND REFLECTIVE QUESTIONS
Other Online Guides and Reference Materials
- Move It Mob Style (ABC TV Education)
- Living Culture: First Nations arts participation and wellbeing (Australia Council for the Arts)
- Education Resources (Bangarra Dance Theatre)
- Schools Performances (Bangarra Dance Theatre)
- Teachers Professional Learning (Bangarra Dance Theatre)
- Knowledge Ground (Bangarra Dance Theatre)
- The Black Book Directory (Blackfella Films)
- The Orb: Living Cultures (Tasmanian Government)
Reflective questions for Dance staff and students
- How have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures influenced Australian dance, and what active role do these histories and cultures play today?
- Research and describe some of the similarities and differences between the dance traditions of two or more distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander linguistic-cultural groups. What do the similarities suggest about some of the shared elements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures? What do the differences suggest about the diversity of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures?
- What are some of the similarities and differences between non-Indigenous dance conventions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance conventions? How do or could these conventions work together in interesting and important ways?
- Can Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, perspectives and dance performance styles be adequately or appropriately represented by non-Indigenous Australians?
- How might questions of ownership, authority and authenticity be important when considering the adoption or adaptation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance conventions in the ‘Western’ theatre?
- Choose an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander dancer or choreographer to research. What is the importance of their contributions to dance arts, either on a local or (inter)national scale?
- What is the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance, and music, media, drama and/or visual arts? Why are these relationships important? How are they similar or different to non-Indigenous cross-arts collaboration, either in style or in purpose?
- If possible, organise an excursion to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance performance – this could be an on-stage performance, or a public corroboree event hosted by your local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art centre, language/culture centre or another community organisation. What messages did you receive from this performance, and how did it make you feel? How was it similar or different to non-Indigenous performances that you have been to?
- How could your school or early learning service contribute to the celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance?
- How can embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and histories into the study and practice of dance help to foster reconciliation?