Kicking up dust at DanceSite

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Dancers from Ngukurr, photo by Benjamin Bayliss

In mid-September 2015, Artback NT celebrated the third and final DanceSite festival taking place in Borroloola, approximately 1000 kilometres south-east of Darwin.

Borroloola is Yanyuwa country, the traditional land of the Yanyuwa people – one of five local dance groups taking part in what will be a joyous, energetic coming together of communities to give voice to the diverse array of traditional dance in the Northern Territory. DanceSite is an initiative that has been delivered across the NT in various locations for the past eight years as part of Artback NT’s Indigenous Traditional Dance Program (ITDP). Promoting cultural maintenance and exchange through the mediums of traditional dance and song, ITDP, DanceSite and its associated activities move to a new hosting community every three years. During these three years, the program transitions towards complete community ownership.


Flying over the sparse landscape of the NT towards Borroloola the occasional river snakes through the largely brown pattern below, providing a glisten or two amidst an otherwise dry country.

I am met equally enthusiastically by Lia, Artback NT’s Indigenous Traditional Dance Program Manager and Festival Director of DanceSite, and the hot breeze that whips around me like a dancing ribbon, before jumping in the bulldust coated car and driving 80 kilometres further east to the township of Borroloola.

I’ve missed Lia’s smiling face and infectious passion about her green smoothies so we have many a yarn driving along the Carpentaria Highway, stopping at the outstations of Devil Springs and Curtain Springs to see if anyone needs a lift into town – a car is a necessity out here, this is remote territory where the closest Woolies is an 800 kilometre drive away. We’re joined by a quietly spoken Priscilla who’s an artist and also helping at Waralungku Art Centre on DanceSite activities.

The art centre is the place to be – it’s all happening! The Bardi Bardi (elder women) are outside in their spot on the tarp under the trees sewing headpieces with Marni (a visiting lecturer from Uni of Melbourne here to conduct an evaluation of ITDP), troopies are coming and going, Josh and Eve (dedicated volunteers who can’t get enough of Artback NT and keep coming back!) are out the back papier-mâchéing a larger-than-life jabiru lantern and Chloe (Waralungku Art Centre manager) is attempting to work amidst the noise and lack of internet. The hardcore production team of Vanessa and Jason pop in quickly to organise a reccy of the festival site before jetting off with cables and leads in tow.

I hang out with deadly choreographer and DanceSite MC, Ghenoa Gela, bringing Juniper the Jabiru and Damper the Dugong to life with layers of tissue paper and lashes of flour-and-water mixture. It’s almost meditative. The arts centre is metaphorically wall-less; inside and outside are one and we shimmy from one spot to another when needed. As the days progress, we grow – photographer Ben and his son Max arrive, along with special guests The Kailani Dancers and sitting under the trees on the faithful tarp, we’re welcomed to Yanyuwa country by ITDP Cultural Events Officer, Marlene.

The days are hot, 37 degrees is the norm though the mornings are cool for a moment. Activities and rehearsals with elders are shifted around the weather, from afternoons to mornings and back again. For the very first time, men are actively engaged at the art centre, creating their costumes and joining the women for rehearsals that could almost become a mini DanceSite given the number of people dropping by to watch. There’s a crackle of excitement that’s beginning to erupt…

After long days, particularly by the production team and Lia and Marlene, we reach the first night of DanceSite. It’s a beautiful evening, slowly cooling down the way it seems to in the NT. Peppered at the front are Grey Nomads on their journeys looking enthralled to have stumbled across this festival, while kids are bouncing energetically all over the place.

Local dance groups Yanyuwa, Gurdanji, Mara, Garrwa and Wanda Ngula share their stories and Dreaming through dance and song, as does the visiting dance group from Ngukurr. Each group delivers the perfect balance of respectful revelry and special acknowledgement of culture presented with a layer of pride. The audience gives space to each group and dancer, celebrating alongside them in what really is a coming together of communities in one of the most remote places in Australia. Special guests, The Kailani Dancers, bring a hypnotic style of dance that has the crowd intrigued and captivated – hailing from Kiribati in the Pacific, we’re transported to sandy beaches and frangipani trees.

Saturday starts with a clean up and a bacon and egg sandwich eaten on the grass of the Borroloola Showgrounds where we have a moment to reflect and re-energise! The Smith Family runs children’s activities in the afternoon, yet another 37 degree day that’s unnoticeable thanks to a sweet waterslide. There’s a youthful, frenetic buzz brought on by not only the waterslide but also the mixed games of soccer, the reading, face painting and fruit eating. Borroloola Community Arts Markets set up stalls, including a small nursery, cake and bush foods – all add to the liveliness!

Borroloola's five dance groups, photo by Benjamin Bayliss

As the sun falls, Juniper the Jabiru and Damper the Dugong sway in the wind, carefully watched by more Grey Nomads who are in prime position. We enjoy the privilege witnessing an incredibly special, collaborative dance and song be unveiled featuring choreography and words put together by the five local language groups – the first time in decades this has happened. A project initiated and guided by Lia and Marlene and delivered by Ghenoa, ‘Magu Gula’ is about the impact of mining on the lands. The intention is for this new contemporary work to be passed along and performed, taking its place alongside other traditional song and dance.

Dancers from Kununurra treat us to incredible stories and performances. Strapped to dancers’ backs are Ballmarra, vibrant coloured boards giving the dancers a height at which they effortlessly glide around. Two Kununurra dancers emerge with enormous masks that look like evil rabbit type animals, telling the story of Devil Devils. Children’s screams pierce the air, a mix of both fun and fright, reminding me of how I used to hide under the reception desk of my dad’s surgery when the lion would come in and dance for Chinese New Year. The Kailani Dancers are back to entrance us once again, this time inviting the audience on stage for an impromptu dance – talk about ultimate crowd participation, it’s a joyful moment, a finding of common ground by two very different cultures who use dance and performance as cultural maintenance.

Alan Griffiths and the Bali Bali Dancers, photo by Benjamin Bayliss

DanceSite is over for another year and is the last official one for Borroloola. Dance groups pack up troopies and buses for the long journey home, buoyant from a weekend shared with familiar faces.

We just sit for a minute and wait for the dust to settle…

All images by Benjamin Bayliss. All words by Jess Ong, Artback NT’s Communications Manager.