Every two years, there is a gathering in the Australian countryside like few you have ever seen. Out in this arid landscape under the unrelenting, ozone-piercing scrutiny of the sun, there comes a pulse. It beats steadily—like a heartbeat of the Earth—and as you get closer to the source, that pulse intensifies until it makes you feel like you are immersed in an oasis of raw spiritual energy.
This gathering is the widely known Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival in the North Queensland region of Australia. During this festival, Aboriginal groups from all over the region (and often times from around the country) get together for a weekend of heart-pounding, dirt-kicking excitement. I have to be honest here: dancing is one of my favorite activities, so when the opportunity arose for me to attend this festival, I was more excited than I can remember being in the five years that I’ve spent as a photojournalist.
Dance and Dust
At the surface, the Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival is a chance for Aboriginal Australians, or “Traditional Landowners,” to showcase the dances of their people and engage in friendly competition. Performers range from infants still clinging on to their parents to elders who are slow to move but do so with immense pride, regardless.
Each performance is accompanied by a small group of individuals who provide the music or rhythm through a masterful blend of chants and songs, often times using percussion and playing the didgeridoo. The “stage” is a large circular patch of well-trodden dirt at the center of the campgrounds, with onlookers filling in whatever space is available around the outskirts. Scattered throughout the rest of the festival grounds are food and craft vendors, as well as numerous tents where NGOs conduct outreach and educational programs (one of these amazing NGO’s is the Archer Point Indigenous Ranger Program mentioned in an earlier post).
Of course, my favorite part of the whole weekend was the dancing itself. I couldn’t take my eyes (and lens) off of the dancers as they demonstrated a blend of grace and feverish intensity that I instantly fell in love with. The dances all stem from traditional practices, spiritual beliefs, or local legends. Many of the dances are believed to have been passed down unchanged for tens of thousands of years.
As I watched group after group perform their uniquely beautiful dances, I noticed one thing they all seemed to have in common: dust. Each time a group finished their performance, there was always a plume of dust that lingered over the grounds. In between sets, this dust cloud would slowly settle only to vigorously return at the beginning of the next dance. It was … awesome! Despite the distraction of having to wipe down my camera lenses every few minutes, I found myself mesmerized by the dust. To me, it felt like the visual representation of the raw energy that emanated from the dancers, like an aura that covered everybody and everything around it. The hardest part of the whole weekend was trying to stay focused on the work and not break out into dance myself.
More Than Just an Art Form
Though it is easy to get lost in the pulse of the drums and the beauty of the movements, anybody who is paying attention will see that this festival is clearly about something much deeper. At its core, the Laura Aboriginal Festival is about the celebration of culture and humanity, despite one’s background or circumstance.
One of the many dancers that I had the privilege of meeting, Leelan Snider of the Djabugay community, gave me his tremendous insight into the importance of this festival. Snider recognizes that dancing is more than just an art form—it is a proclamation of pride and dignity by all Traditional Owners. In making this proclamation, Aboriginal groups in Australia are achieving something that has often eluded them: unity.
“If the number of tribes that are still existing today get together as one,” says Snider, “then I reckon we can make things happen for Indigenous Australia. You have all these different voices from different areas—we aren’t making the impact that we want to.”
When asked about why he comes to this event, Leelan takes a long pause. He looks down at his feet, then looks away to the cloud of dust rising from the dance grounds, then finally he turns his gaze at me and says, “I’ve been coming to this festival since I was eight years old. I’m 34 now and a lot’s changed since then. But this festival, it has always been about the next generation.”
“Because of westernization,” he continues, “there has been a lot of influences on Aboriginal people and so we are slowly disconnecting from our past. So the question arises: Do you want your great grandchildren to come to a festival like this someday? Do you want them to learn about other groups, different dances, and the diversity of Aboriginal cultures?”
This statement by Leelan reminded me of the Worldwide Voyage of Hōkūle’a and why we, as crew members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, choose to sail. Our voyage, much like this dance festival, believes in building a better future for the next generation to inherit.
As the last rays of sunlight fade behind the mountains in the western horizon, Leelan turns to go back to his camp, but before he goes, he shares one last thought with me. “My people have a saying: ‘If we don’t respect our future, we won’t care about the present. And if we don’t care about the present, we forget about our past.’ ”
Whether it’s splashing up water in the ocean or kicking up dust on land, we all have a role to play in turning this vision into a reality.