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Drid Williams: The Australian Papers


Aboriginal Dancing

Drid Williams and Stephen Wild

Traditions of Australian Aboriginal performance mainly include ceremonial activities (sometimes of a highly secret nature), singing, and dancing. Attempts to bring them into close alignment with commonly understood conceptions of European theaters and performances are surrounded by difficulties pertaining to the nature of the European tradition itself and to the model(s) of learning and knowing that are attached to it. The 'rules of the game' in all aspects are entirely different. In Aboriginal performances, for example, all the participants are usually performers in one way or another. Paradoxically (to the Westerner), some participants may not be permitted actually to see or even hear the main part of the performance, but they are participating in a different way, even though they are removed from the actual ceremonial site.

     Performance in these contexts is less a re-presentation of events (where actors and actresses assume roles that can be different from the social roles they normally occupy) than it is a revelation of the participants' collective being-in-the-world and an affirmation of their inner identities. They are dancing 'themselves,' not enacting roles. In the central desert, the directions of ancestral tracks in relation to land and dreamings are crucial to the notions of peoples' relationships to each other and to the land. Dances and dance grounds are oriented on directional axes, for example, 'Traveling Women' dance toward the east at circumcision ceremonies, and participants in Walbiri Fire Ceremonies face north as they follow the track of 'Rat Kangaroo Man,' 'Rock Wallaby Man,' 'Budgerigar Man,' or 'Owl Man.'

     There was never an audience in a European sense. In Wanam (Western Cape York), performances mediate between the Aborigines' own past and the present—a past which is the source of life and all good things—because life and all good things come from the ancestors. The dances themselves come from the ancestors. Thus, the dances are traces of the past and signs of life. Social distinctions, too, are clearly evident in performances, for example, in the use of sets of body signs which designate kin relations. In the central desert, there is a clear demarcation between 'men's business' and 'women's business' where members of the opposite sex do not see each others' exclusive performances except, in some cases, in carefully arranged circumstances. In Cape York, the role of women—though not as clearly separated as it is in central Australia—is chiefly confined to supportive dancing.

     Apart from a very small proportion of dances which are used for corroboree occasions, dancing and singing are not done primarily for entertainment. Because of this and because Aboriginal performances have always been marked by their exclusivity (even with regard to neighboring Aboriginal peoples), it has been argued that these performance traditions are not theatrical. In this case, they have nothing to contribute to members of an international community who are interested in 'theater' and 'theatrical performance' in the broadest sense. We feel that this argument does injustice to Aboriginal cultural repertoires, nearly all of which include interesting and brilliant performances, some of which can be observed in traditionally oriented Aboriginal communities today. Some of these are slowly being adapted by Aboriginal people themselves into representational forms for performance venues which are designed for European theatrical audiences and proscenium stages.

     The recent adaptations are themselves interesting and have up to now mainly taken the form of dance festivals, where a number of different peoples congregate and perform their dances in the afternoons and evenings over two or three days. At these occasions, beside dances intended for public entertainment, one sees dances which were done as parts of initiation or other types of ritual, and which have been 'opened' to public viewing and are no longer regarded as secret. Here, the staging amounts to a cleared dance space with surrounding '(bough) shades' or places for preparation, where performance roles and actions are discussed, participants remind themselves of themes to be enacted by singing relevant songs and discussing myths; objects like necklaces, headdresses, etc., are prepared, and the bodies of the participants are decorated.     The 'shade' is private; informal visitations are not encouraged (as they often are backstage at European theaters), and it is from here that the nature of the presentation is formulated. At a festival, time is organized so that everyone has a chance to perform. In a traditional setting, time is no object. A performance may last for days, weeks or even months, consisting of shorter performances with periods of rest in between. This concept of time varies considerably from those used in Western theatrical performances.

     The physical arrangements of adapted performances (a cleared dance space, a shade where songs are sung, myths re-told, and objects and decorations prepared) are not dissimilar from those of many traditional ceremonies. Non-Aboriginal observers (should they be permitted at all) may have difficulty in perceiving the beginnings of such a ceremonial performance, although the endings of a ceremony are usually well marked. Preparations for these in some parts of Aboriginal Australia are often long and elaborate. Periods of intense negotiation may have to take place among the big men (the 'bosses' and the owners of the dances), as in western Cape York. Music, dancing, body decoration, and objects which are manufactured specifically for the occasion are all integrated by specific themes. Ceremonies, like adapted performances, are (or were) special occasions set apart from everyday life, and they sometimes included sanctions which affected everyday life, like the suspension of fighting and conflict for the duration of, say, a Wanam ceremony in Cape York. There are formal stylistic devices which mark the dances and for which special vocabularies and descriptive terms exist. Judgments are made about the excellence of individual performances. In one way of looking at them, these common elements justify the characterization of Aboriginal performances under the term 'theatrical,' but the sophisticated observer will not be satisfied with superficial appearances alone.

     First, it would be wrong to assume that all Australian Aborigines are uniformly oriented toward traditional modes of existence. The current norm of more traditionally oriented Aborigines in the more remote areas of Australia is sedentary life on a government-supported settlement or small town with satellite hamlets or 'homeland centers' (sometimes called "out-stations") in the surrounding countryside. Current Aboriginal lifestyles range from fairly traditional living on the out-stations through a working life on pastoral properties, life in small, predominantly white Australian towns, to ghetto or more integrated life in large urban centers. This range of difference in lifestyles is reflected in differing styles of Aboriginal performing arts—from traditional rituals performed in traditional settings to black theater in Sydney and much in between. One pattern which has emerged, especially since the establishment of the Aboriginal Artists Agency, is of semiprofessional or ad hoc performance troupes whose members normally reside at or near remote government settlements touring Australian country towns, schools, and cities and occasionally overseas; tours are generally organized by the agency. Sometimes, however, instead of bringing the performers to the audience, the audience is brought to the performers. The tourist industry, especially in northern Queensland, now offers airline tickets which include stopovers in remotely placed Aboriginal communities where dancing will be done for the passengers as part of the site-seeing 'package,' along with visits to crocodile farms and other local scenes of interest.

     Second, traditional Aboriginal leaders are themselves divided in their opinions about the continuation of the traditions, and these views range from "killing the dance" (which effectively means killing the traditional culture, because the dances are the manifestations of spirits, apart from being vehicles for the recounting of myths of origin) to a desire to have the dances, music, and selected parts of ceremonies recorded for the benefit of future generations. In other words, there are those who see the traditions as a set of constricting, basically outmoded ways of life which prevent younger generations from adapting to the realities of modern Australia. This view conflicts with views which see the traditions as an integral part of Aboriginal cultural identity and which advocate preservation in confrontation with forces that represent cultural annihilation.

     Third, for someone to "know dances" in traditional Aboriginal contexts is to participate in inherited kinship relationships and the inter-relational rights of (a) birth order, (b) sex/gender, (c) familial relations, and (d) initiatory status. Ceremonial (including danced) knowledge gives an Aboriginal man both authority and prestige in his own family group, and this knowledge gives him considerable political leverage with regard to inter-married families. Ceremonial knowledge, especially with regard to initiation ceremonies for men or events like the singing of a spirit of a newly deceased person and the non-public dancing which takes place immediately following a funeral, is comprised of a set of closely guarded secrets. It is knowledge that is seen as belonging specifically to the family groups involved in the latter two cases and to the most sacred knowledge of the social group with reference to initiations. A principle of exclusivity based on sex/gender differences operates in many parts of Aboriginal Australia to varying degrees. It may even prevent the recognition of the truth value of ritual knowledge possessed by anyone who does not have the right to know.

     It would be wrong to assume the folkloric view of Aboriginal dances—that they are common property (that is, 'public domain'). Individual dances are owned by social groups of varying size and extent depending upon the ceremonial status of the dance. Each group jealously guards its rights over the dances it owns. At the most general level, the largest identifiable groups collectively own the dances which form the cores of major ceremonies, such as initiation, mortuary, and cult ceremonies. In most areas, smaller groups own dances belonging to more localized rites. Ownership of localized dances, however, does not imply total control, since performance requires the presence, formal approval, and ritual management of members of other local groups, usually the children of female members of the owning group, as in Arnhem Land, who, in a patrilineal society, are members of their father's, rather than their mother's, group. The roles of ceremonial owners and managers are generally formalized and may be named.

     The conservative ideology of Aboriginal religion tends to deny individual creativity and innovation. However, there are at least two ways in which innovation is achieved within this official conservatism. First, because dancers express their own spiritual essence, innovation which is introduced may not be recognized as such; brilliant dancers are considered to be the authoritative sources of knowledge about the ancestors of which they are the incarnation. How can the dancer perform otherwise than in the way the ancestor intended? Innovation here becomes the enhancement of knowledge about the ancestor which was always available to the spiritually perceptive. Second, another avenue of newly revealed ancestral knowledge is through dreams or other less-than-fully-conscious means of revelation. The receiver of new dances (and songs, visual designs, etc.) teaches them to others who will become their new owners—sometimes the receiver himself is not one of the owners. Groups also sometimes exchange ceremonies with their relevant dances, songs, designs, and other paraphernalia; and although exchanges do not constitute innovation in the broad sense, the newly owning groups inevitably stamp the exchanged ceremonies with their own interpretations. At least one exception must be made: the Tiwi of Bathurst and Melville Islands (located off the central north coast) actively encourage individual creativity in songs and dances and do not attribute innovation to supernatural agents. They recognize two types of dances: those created by individuals who own them and pass them on to succeeding generations of their descendants and those which are believed to have always existed and are not owned individually but by the whole community.

     Traditional occasions of Aboriginal dancing, although varied in emphasis from place to place, may be classified in a general way. Public entertainments (corroborees) occur throughout Australia, consisting of music, dance, and other dramatic enactments. These are the dance occasions most commonly described, especially in the earlier literature. The dance plays an important part in rites of passage, both initiation and mortuary rites. Local clan ceremonies constitute a separate category, comprised of re-creations of ancestral acts which are specific to individual clan estates. Magical ceremonies often include dances performed for weather control, enhancement of sexual attractiveness, healing, or curing and sorcery. Cult ceremonies are region-wide and sometimes exist as variants across several regions. These constitute a central core of symbolic ritual acts and incorporate local clan ceremonies relevant to the significant land sites where they are performed. Finally, what may be termed management of conflict ceremonies include ceremonies to resolve conflict among kin and affines; ceremonies of diplomacy between groups; peace-making ceremonies; and ceremonies preparatory to warfare. These categories are not exclusive. Local clan rites may be included in rites of passage and cult ceremonies, and indeed, any category may overlap with or be incorporated in any other category of performance occasion.


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