A bump in the road wakes me, flinging a group of us into the air along with our camping gear, which is packed into the back of the car. I try to stretch my stiff legs, careful not to kick any of the still sleeping bodies with limbs strewn across each other.
There is still singing coming loudly from the front seats, accompanied by the rattly speakers. Our headlights peer into the darkness ahead, lighting a circle of dirt road and scrub. My face is against the back window, where I can faintly see the scrublands retreating, shrouded in a cloud of dust stained red by our tail lights.
We were on our way to the Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival, arguably the biggest Aboriginal dance festival in northern Australia, in support of the dancers from our communities. The small township of Laura is about a 10 hour drive from the NPA, (Northern Peninsula Area, located at the very tip of North Queensland) and we were pressed to do the journey in one leg as we had the tents for the dancers on our roof.
Arriving at the campgrounds in the dark, we were met by the dancers and supporters from our communities who had travelled down earlier in the day. By headlights we set up the tents in a mini city and finally crawled into our swags.
The festival was three days of traditional dancing, showcasing dance groups from across the state, and even guests from New Zealand. We had three of our five communities involved, from Injinoo, Umagico and New Mapoon. In other years the festival was held as a competition, with one group named the winner based on the act’s aesthetic style and cultural fidelity, however last year communities came together as one, in the spirit of unity, to dance and share their culture rather than compete.
There were many newcomers, including our own New Mapoon troupe, a group of youngsters who only the week before were shy to dance in front of their community. Then suddenly, there they were alongside elders, adults, youths and children from clans across the state, representing their own bloodlines and community.
After the first performance we couldn’t get them to stop! If they were moving, they were dancing. The campsites would fill with dust as the children practised their ‘shake a leg’, dodging smacks and yells from the adults who were opposed to having dust in their tents and cooking.
Their new found sense of pride spread like wildfire. They were part of a community, a representative body carrying on their shoulders the stories and history of their people.
What a thing to be part of.
As the photographer for our troupes, I spent my time wandering back and forth between the dancing grounds (a small stage for singers and elders, with a dusty circle surrounded by watching crowds) and our campsites. During the day I sat with the children in the crowd or with some other photographers by the stage, returning to the camp as our dancers were getting ready; hand made grass skirts and clay body paint. When our troupes danced I was there, with the singers and elders in the circle, watching them as they kicked up clouds of dust to the sound of the drum.
Arms spread wide, bodies painted with age old markings, the dust swells through the dance grounds, up through the branches of the trees and is carried away by the breeze. They tell stories of bush tucker and animals, of dreamtime, devils and history. They tell it with the movement of their feet, their legs, their arms, bodies and souls. They tell it through the sound of singing and the drums.
At night our tent cities would come alive with campfires, fluro lights and the smell of food cooking. “This is how we do it,” Aunty Nandy would tell me, teaching me to make island scones or cook enough rice and yam for a horde of hungry dancers. She would tell me to practise or I would forget the way.
I guess that’s why these festivals, these celebrations of culture are so important. It too needs to be practiced, else we forget the way.
Author’s note: A big thank you to Northern Peninsula Area Regional Council for funding the three NPA troupes, supporters and myself to attend Laura Dance Festival 2013. Thank you to the communities for taking me in as one of your own, and finally thanks to Brook Mitchell for your photography tips. Look here for more images.
Read more of the Red Dust series here.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.
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