The transcendent power of Dance Rites

December 19th 2018

Dance Rites Indigenous Enterprise, image by Prudence Upton

Dance Rites is a competition which takes place on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. Aunty Rhoda Roberts (Bundjalung), the head of Indigenous programming at the Opera House, led the event which celebrates the convergence of contemporary Indigenous cultures and traditional customs through dance and song.

Over the course of the weekend Dance Rites moved the audience to tears (several times), introduced us to new languages and customs, celebrated Indigenous cultures and actively filled a space with Blak people. As a Māori Grenadian woman not Indigenous to this land, there is much of this event that I will never be able to fully comprehend, but it’s important that we create stronger dialogue which recognises Indigenous excellence, so let’s talk…

Tens of thousand of years before the Sydney Opera House was constructed, Tubgowle at Bennelong Point was a site for celebration, storytelling, dance and music for the First Peoples of the land we commonly call Australia. Dance Rites transformed the Sydney Opera House forecourt into a version of its former self.

Dance Rites Djirri Djirri, image by Anna Kucera

Each competing troupe performs in 3 Heats and is invited to present a Welcome, Farewell and Wildcard dance. The competing troupes represented over 25 nations including the Dharug, Wiradjuri, Yuin, Gumbaynggirr, Djabugay, Ngarrugu, Narrungga, Wirangu, Ngarrindjeri, Adnyamathanha, Yankunytjatjara, Yidinji, Kulkalgal, Ngiyampaa, and Gomeroi; a timely reminder to those of us who are not First Peoples of this land that their cultures are varied and diverse, much more than a tokenistic ‘tick a box’ situation which we see in mainstream (and unfortunately fringe) art and performance.

As the sun set over Bennelong Point you could feel a type of magic swelling in the air. The female strong Djirri Djirri (led by Mandy Nicholson) of the Kulin Nation spoke of the important role that oral tradition plays in cultivating language, and the Pakana Kanaplila (led by Sinsa Mansell) of the Luwtrawita nation put to rest the harmful myth that there are no Indigenous people in Tasmania.

Dance Rites Pakana Kanaplila image by Anna Kucera

For me, the most mesmerising part of the event was The Gathering, the Opening Ceremony which saw all the competitors as well as invited guests Muggera, Indigenous Enterprise (Navajo Nation & Plains Cree from Treaty 6; North America), Te Rua Mauri (Te Arawa, Ngati Kahungunu, Ngati Tuwharetoa, Ngati Pikiao; Aotearoa), welcome one another and the audience to the space. It was beautiful to bear witness to such respectful intercultural connections leading me to ponder the type of relationships that Indigenous cultures around the world would have forged with one another if they were able to do so without the influence of colonisation, or rising sea waters.

On the closing night of the event judges Matthew Doyle (Muruwari), Juanita Duncan (gamilaraay), Waangenga Blanco (Pajinka wik, Meuram; Murray Island) and Libby Collins (Tiwi Islands) chose their winner; the Nunukul Yuggera group from the Nunukul, Yuggera & Yugumbir nations. The internationally acclaimed group walked away with a $20,000 cash prize and will no doubt be invited back to perform in 2019.

The runner up was the Meuram Murray Island Dance Group (Torres Strait), whose piece brought awareness to Indigenous teen suicide rates and the importance of using cultural practice to prevent this.

If you missed this year’s event, don’t play yourself again. Although an official date for Dance Rites 2019 is yet to be announced I suggest you leave the whole of November free ~ prepare yourself.



Read more from Ayeesha Ash