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Sing a Dance—Dance a Song1: The Relationship between Two Types of Formalized Movements and Music among the Tiwi of Melville and Bathurst Islands, North Australia2

Andrée Grau


The English word 'dance' cannot always be translated on a one-to-one basis. It is ethnocentric and culture-specific, being based on concepts prevalent in some cultures but not necessarily in all. It is not always effective in translation from one language to another because it is at once too general and too specific. The Tiwi, for example, generally translated the word yoi into English as 'dance,' but 'dance' is too narrow to encompass all the concepts included in yoi. Yoi is defined by the Tiwi not only as the dance, to dance, and the social event (that includes danc[ing]), but also as the songs used for danc[ing], the rhythm of these songs, and to sing for [a] dance. Thus yoi denotes the whole event, the act of dancing, the music associated with [a] dance, and the performance of that music.

     What is universal, then, is some kind of special behavior that we recognize as dance and that seems to occur in all human societies. One can say that 'dance' is universal but that the ethno-semantic domain of 'dance' does not exist in every society or at least is bounded differently in different societies.

     The distinction between dance and non-dance must be equivocal, because it depends upon culturally shaped as well as universally objective components. At this stage we do not know what these universally objective components are, but it is possible to find out the culturally relative answers by isolating the appropriate ethno-domains. In this paper I explore ethno-domains surrounding behavioral phenomena of the Tiwi of Melville and Bathurst Islands which I personally have identified as 'dance.' By so doing, I hope to contribute to a better cross-cultural understanding of the interrelationships between conceptual and behavioral aspects of the apparently universal human activity of 'dance.'

Tiwi Music and Dance

I have chosen to look at two types of culturally patterned formalized movements that are performed by the Tiwi and accompanied by music. They could be described by the ethnographer as 'dance,' but the Tiwi classify one as 'dance' and the other as 'sing.'

     I am concerned primarily with technical attributes that the Tiwi assign to dance performances; to what they say differentiates a dance movement from a non-dance movement in terms of movement rather than in terms of symbolic significance and meaning. Although the symbolic, ritual, or religious content of the dance is crucial for performance, it will be taken for granted in this paper.

     Tiwi music is vocal music. With the exception of the occasional beating with sticks on corrugated iron sheets, cans, pieces of wood, or whatever is available at the time as an accompaniment to the dance, and the use of clapsticks to accompany particular types of songs, the Tiwi use no instruments. The didgeridu common in Arnhem Land is absent on Melville and Bathurst Islands. I could not find a generic term equivalent to the English word 'music' either in the dictionaries compiled by a number of linguists or during my fieldwork. Instead I collected different terms equivalent to the English 'to sing.'

     Tiwi music/dance is divided into two broad categories: kuruwala and yoi. To describe what they do when they perform songs belonging to the first category, the Tiwi use the verb kuruwala, which is equivalent to the English verb 'to sing.' To describe what they do when they perform the songs belonging to the second category they use the verb yoi which is generally translated as 'to dance.' They never use the English verb 'to sing' to describe their action when performing this latter type of song. Thus yoi can be translated as 'to sing as an accompaniment to dance' as well as 'to dance' and kuruwala can be translated as 'to sing' in its ordinary English use. Yoi implies dance, kuruwala often implies accompanying movements, but these movements are not perceived by the Tiwi as 'dance,' they are an integral part of the songs, just as yoi songs are an integral part of the dance.

The Kuruwala Songs and Song Gestures

The kuruwala songs are in verse form with a regular meter. Each verse is repeated a number of times. Before a new verse is introduced, there is often an interval during which the singer hums. The Tiwi say that the singer is "straightening the words." The songs have from three to about ten verses each.

     Each kuruwala song is composed and performed by an individual. It is his property and no one else is allowed to perform it unless permission has been given. The words of the songs are usually thought out carefully beforehand, but they can sometimes be composed on the spot. They may bring prestige to their creators, as audiences appreciate a clever use of metaphors, allegories, and poetic images, as well as a good voice and good accompanying movements. There are a number of kuruwala types:

     1. The kulama style used during the annual kulama yam ceremony. It is sung by the men in the ceremonial circle and 'followed up' by the women in an echo-like fashion, outside the ceremonial area. Songs in the kulama style are accompanied by the clapping of sticks, performed either opposite the sternum or, more often, with the left hand on the left ear, or at ear level, and the right forearm across the head. Such a posture is said to give the singer "a good voice." Some singers clap the sticks at the beginning of each verse, while others beat them throughout. The singer performs a slow walk, usually moving in a counter-clockwise circle around the ceremonial area (see Figure 1 and Example 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1. Micky Geranium Warlapini of Pularumpi, Melville Island, performing a kulama song (photograph by Dominique Bernard).

The text of a kulama song composed by Joe Puruntatameri is given below:

People from Nguiu tell me "you have no brother here we do not know where he has gone"

How come the jungle fowl is calling in the morning? I can only hear the jungle fowl and not my brother

I do not know where my brother has gone

I can hear the owls at Loporanapi, they have taken him away

Maybe he went to Maranga and he lives over there.

(translated by Anita Pangarimini)

Example 1
Example 1. Movements accompanying the kulama songs. 3

     2. The amparu style is sung either by men or women when a spouse or potential spouse has died. The Tiwi use the verb pitukweya to describe this style. This type of song can be used in the context of the mortuary ritual, especially when the relatives of the deceased gather around the body before the burial ceremony, or parallel to the activities being enacted during the other stages of the mortuary ritual, or at any other time to show grief.

     Again the song is accompanied by a slow walk, but unlike the walk of the kulama song, the singer walks up and down rather than in a circle, stops at times with the feet apart and shifts the weight from one foot to the other. Often too, while walking, the singer lifts the arms from hanging down along the body up to shoulder level. The movements accompanying the amparu songs have sexual connotations for the Tiwi (see Figure 2 and Example 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Ruby Puruntatameri of Milikapiti, Melville Island, performing an amparu song (photograph by Dominique Bernard).

     The following is the text of an amparu song composed by Dorrie Tipaklipa:

I [deceased] was told by the kookaburra 'your brother and sister are on their way' [to attend your mortuary rituals]

I answered 'thank you for telling me that they are on their way.'

(translated by Anita Pangarimini)

Example 2
Example 2. Movements accompanying the amparu songs.4

     3. The mamanikuni are another type of sorrow song, songs of farewell or welcome, and name-giving songs. Because these songs are not accompanied by specific movements and are usually performed sitting down I will not elaborate on them here.

The Yoi Songs and Dances

The movements of the feet for both men and women tend to be the same throughout the whole Tiwi dance repertoire, except for a few dances which have characteristic feet movements. Dances are differentiated essentially by their arm movements. All dances are very short and rarely last more than one minute or so.

     The yoi songs and dances can be composed by both men and women, but few women create them. I saw women perform them only on rare occasions. The women were always fairly old and very knowledgeable about ritual matters. Their songs were as well received as the men's. As with the kuruwala songs, yoi songs are the property of their composers.

     Each yoi song contains only one verse, which is repeated over and over as long as needed for the dance performance. Often the composer sings a succession of songs using the same theme, so that one may think of one song with a number of verses, accompanied by a number of dance performances. The Tiwi, however, think of them as separate songs. A singer can add to another composer's song, following the story.

     Before starting a new song the composer usually begins by dancing for a little while the dance appropriate to the time of performance; he or she then stops and begins singing. When the rest of the performers have picked up the words, they start clapping hands or slapping their buttocks with open hands, and begin to sing with the composer. Once they have mastered the song they take over and the composer usually stops singing and starts dancing. At times composers went on singing while dancing, but only a few had the skill and stamina to do so.

     All yoi songs are essentially of one style. However, they differ according to whether they accompany men's dancing or women's dancing. If a song accompanies the dance of a man it starts at a fairly slow pace, then the tempo increases, sometimes until it is too fast for the singing to continue and only the clapping and beating go on. The dance reaches its climax with an accent, when both music and dance stop. If a yoi song accompanies the dance of a woman the tempo remains constant.

     All yoi songs are accompanied by dancing. There is a vast number of dances and they are classified by the Tiwi into groups.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Patty Johnson of Milikapiti, performing the Buffalo dance (photograph by Dominique Bernard ).

     Although men and women share the same dance repertoire and a few stylistic characteristics in their dancing (the body is always relaxed, the knees have a slightly bouncing action, the head never goes up and down but always stays at the same level) there are nevertheless two distinguishable styles, one for the men, one for the women. Women dance with parallel feet, with the head slightly bent down, or the eyes looking towards the ground, and one foot completely flexed back away from the ground on the beat. They use a regular tempo throughout their dance performance (see Figure 3 and Example 3). Men dance with their knee slightly turned out, with the head straight or slightly bent back, and with both feet on the ground on the beat. They increase the tempo, almost doubling it towards the end of their performance (see Example 4).

Example 3
Example 3. Women's dancing style.


Example 4
Example 4. Men's dancing style.

The Tiwi recognise these two major types of yoi. They talk about the alanawinz yoz arrimi or slow dance (women's dance), and the mirati yoi arrimz or fast dance (men's dance).

     In all dance performances there is also a 'main' dance and an 'accompanying' dance. The songs are composed by and for those who perform the main dance, solo or in small groups, in the centre of the dancing area. I shall refer to these dancers as the 'soloists.' When they perform in a small group and a dance is being choreographed, one dancer is usually in charge of the choreography, but the others may add variations which may or may not be taken up by the rest of the group. These soloists are helped by their close relatives, especially their spouses or potential spouses, who usually accompany them with another type of dance performed at the side of the dancing area, starting a few beats later. Every Tiwi is sometimes a soloist and at other times an accompanist. Men tend to dance alone as well as in small groups, while women prefer to dance only in small groups. Men tend to perform the accompanying dance to support their spouses, while women tend to help most of their relatives, especially children and siblings, as well as husbands.

     It is in the solo performances that the slow dance is associated with the women and is considered a feminine style, while the fast dance is associated with the men and considered a masculine style. But in the accompanying dance women may dance fast. If they are good dancers they adjust their dance step to follow the fast rhythm of the men's dances (see Example 5). If they are not sufficiently experienced, or if the music is 'too rough' (that is, too fast) they dance in half time transferring the weight from one foot to the other taking two beats instead of one. Similarly men may dance slowly when accompanying their wives.

Example 5
Example 5. Women's fast dance step.

     In their appreciation of a dance performance the Tiwi put great emphasis on precision: precision of movements, which must go clearly from one posture to the next, and precision of time keeping, the transference of weight from one foot to the other or from one foot to two feet having to coincide exactly with the beat. The first type of precision is often described as "dancing strong," the latter as "punching the ground properly." A young man's performance was criticized in the following terms: "you have good legs, but you must punch the ground harder." Another one was said "to dance like a baby" because his movements were not precise enough. The dancers are also expected to dance fully, "to throw their bodies into the dance." Someone was criticized because "he only shook his leg, not the whole body."

Figure 4
Figure 4. George Norm Purimini of Pularumpi, performing the dance of the Spirit Children (photograph by Dominique Bernard).

     The aspect of the music which is essential for dance is the rhythm. One cannot have a dance without the rhythmic accompaniment of clapping and beating, but one can have a dance without a song, as indeed often happens at the beginning of a performance. The pattern of dance performance is as follows: dance with rhythmic accompaniments—break—introduction of song—dance with rhythmic accompaniment and song—break—dance with rhythmic accom-paniment. But that does not mean that the songs are unnecessary. Together with the ritual calls which punctuate the dance event, the singing makes the performance complete.

     A good performance is a performance with precise dancing, good use of space, clear rhythmic accompaniment, good poetry, varied ritual calls, and good body paintings and decorations. Some of these elements may not be essential in the sense that a performance may exist without them, but they are essential if the participants are to enjoy a full aesthetic experience. When this combination occurs the Tiwi talk about "lovely ceremonies."


In contrasting the yoi movements and the kuruwala movements one sees that the kuruwala are slow. Using [Laban's] Effort-Shape terminology, they can be described as soft, sustained, and indirect. Although they are performed to music which follows a regular meter, they do not follow a specific rhythm: rather they float through the music.

     The yoi movements on the other hand are much sharper: they can be described as strong, quick, and direct. They follow the beating and clapping and accompany the song very closely, the transfer of weight from one foot to the other or from one foot to two feet being exactly on the beat. These are the qualities that make the movements 'dance,' or yoi, to the Tiwi.

     The differences between kuruwala and yoi movements are not only technical. There are also major social differences between the two types of movement.

     In performing the songs and movements described by the verb kuruwala, the Tiwi show their individuality. In the case of the sorrow songs the performance is either completely separate or accompanies the main ritual; in the case of the kulama songs, the performance itself is the ritual. Other people may be relevant as an audience showing their appreciation, but they are not essential. The performance is essentially about the relationship between the singer and the deceased in the sorrow songs, and about the singer and his place in the Tiwi world in the kulama songs. In these songs the performers can show their creativity and artistry fully.

     In the songs and movements described by the verb yoi, performers show individuality and creativity to a lesser degree. They perform as individuals within a group, with all its constraints, rather than parallel to and independent of it.

     It seems that, for the Tiwi, movements which are soft, sustained and indirect are more suited to accompany songs and movements which show the performer essentially as an individual, while movements which are strong, quick, and direct are suited to accompany songs and movements which show the performer as a member of a group.

     I have summarized the differences and relationships between kuruwala and yoi in the following diagram.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Relationships and differences of yoi and kuruwala. (Vertically: Tiwi perception. Horizontally: analyst's perception).


For many years dance researchers have been preoccupied with finding a definition of dance which would encompass all existing dance systems. I doubt whether such a definition is valid or even possible, and I hope that this paper has shown the problems concerning the universality of categories and working definitions. At this stage of research in ethno-choreology it seems to me that the only useful approach is to identify as 'dance' those actions in another culture which approximate to what we mean by dance, as well as to identify other systems which may be related, and then to explore the similarities and differences. For the moment we must discover the folk classifications before we can find the common denominators that will define the nature and uniqueness of dance.


1 This article first appeared in Dance Research 1(2): 32–44, 1983. Reproduced with permission of Edinburgh University Press Limited through PLSclear.

2 A version of this paper was presented at the annual conference of the Musicological Society of Australia, held in Canberra in February 1983. I wish especially to acknowledge the help of Dr. Stephen Wild, Ethnomusicology Research Officer at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, in discussing ideas for this essay.

3 Benesh Movement Notation 1954. All transcriptions are prescriptive; they must be seen as a blueprint of what may happen rather than what happens every time the movements are being performed. The approximate duration of a beat is given at the beginning of each transcription. The stage locations are given in dotted lines, because they are not specific. I wanted to indicate that the performer was making a large circle, using most of the ceremonial area.

4 The dotted pulse beats are written to indicate that it takes the performer approximately six beats to raise the arms to the side.



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