A guide to
Your interactive handbook for the song and dance of
Australia’s first nations
The Sydney Opera House honours our First Nations by fostering a shared sense of belonging for all Australians, and we acknowledge the Gadigal people, traditional custodians of Tubowgule, the land on which the Opera House stands.
Dance Rites — Australia’s First Nations dance competition — is our free, two-day celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island dance and cultures on the Sydney Opera House Forecourt each spring. Last year on Saturday 23 and Sunday 24 November, Dance Rites returned bigger than ever as we celebrated the UN International Year of Indigenous Languages and fostered the sharing of language and culture from across Australia.
Dance Rites draws together performers representing nations from across the country from The Kimberleys to Far North Queensland, the Tiwi Islands, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales.
Groups travel to Sydney to showcase their unique cultures in one of the world’s most spectacular outdoor performance spaces: Bennelong Point. Formerly known as Tubowgule, Bennelong Point has been a meeting place for ritual celebration and dance for tens of thousands of years.
Each group has the opportunity to present three dances: a welcome and a farewell dance — one of which must include a chant in local language — and a ‘wildcard’ dance of the group’s choosing. These are judged by an expert judging panel for their technical skill and engagement with language, skin-markings and traditional instruments.
A message from Rhoda Roberts, Head of First Nations Programming at Sydney Opera House:
“Particularly in the UN International Year of Indigenous Languages, we invite all sectors of the community to experience the ancient traditions of the world’s oldest living culture. By engaging with culture, we preserve and celebrate it for future generations.
"This year, we’re thrilled to welcome internationally recognised performers, Banula Marika of Yothu Yindi, rapper Nooky of Briggs’ Bad Apples Music label and Darug singer-songwriter Jacinta Tobin, who will participate in Dance Rites and fulfil their cultural obligation as song men and song woman for their respective clan groups, a testament to the deep significance of Dance Rites for the First People of Australia.
"New generation singer-songwriter Yirrmal Marika — grandson of Dr Mandawuy Yunupingu, lead singer of Yothu Yindi — will also appear at Dance Rites as part of Miku group from North East Arnhem Land.”
Meet the groups
Allkumo Malpa Paman
Location: Coen, Queensland
Our Dance team is Allkumo Malpa Paman. We come from a small remote town in the centre of Cape York Peninsula called Coen. Our dance team is made up of members from the six surrounding clan groups: Ayapathu, Lama Lama, Kaantju, Umpila, Munkaanhu and Olkola. Dance Rites gives us the opportunity to experience life in the city while sharing our traditional songs and dances. For some of our dance members, Dance Rites is the only time we get to travel out of Far North Queensland and out of our comfort zone.
Docker River Maruku Mob
Location: On the border of Northern Territory and Western Australia
We are Pitjantjatjara and Ngaaryatjarra speakers. We dance our tjukurpa (stories) the same way our ancestors did for thousands of years. We’ve recently been going out on country to practice inma (ceremony), sitting down together and learning the stories from our old people. We want to be able to pass these stories and dances onto our children just like our grandparents have passed on to us. In October we will be traveling to Mutitjulu to celebrate the closure of the Uluru climb and dancing our stories.
Location: Western Sydney
Meaning: In honour of Nanna Grace, the Muruwari matriarch
Gracie's Grannies is a coming together of interconnected families, friends and mobs who live in western Sydney, over a mutual love of culture, Country and kin.
The diversity of ages represented in our group reflects the time honoured tradition of the passing of knowledge from Elders to youth, which we believe is integral to our social and emotional health and wellbeing as Aboriginal peoples.
We respectfully acknowledge the suffering and sacrifices of our Ancestors before us, which affords us the opportunity to celebrate culture through events like Dance Rites, for which our Elders remember a time in the not-too-distant past when this would not have been possible.
Our name honours the memory of Muruwari matriarch Nanna Grace, who was denied the opportunity to share culture with her kin due to Australia’s continuing practice of the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
As the emerging generation we dedicate our lives to enacting positive social change for our mob towards a stronger, healthier and ultimately happier future.
Gumarra Aboriginal Dancers
Location: Illawarra South Coast, NSW
Formerly known as the Illawarra Flame Trees, this young group has grown and included their brothers and cousins, Mums, Aunty and Uncle to strengthen their cultural knowledge and dance performances. They are strong black women and men who want to share their stories through dance. Last year, many of the youngsters in this group suffered loss — their Fathers, Grandfather, Brother or Cousin — and had to withdraw from Dance Rites. This year they want to come back and enjoy the competition, and honour those who have passed by dancing up a storm. What better place to do it than on a national stage with other communities and talented dancers.
Jannawi Dance Clan
Meaning: ‘With me, with you’
Jannawi Dance Clan shines a light on strength, resilience and artistry of Aboriginal women, men, youth and dance culture today. They encompass modern urban and traditional Aboriginal dance styles with traditional music by songman Matthew Doyle, singing in the Sydney languages.
We perform and teach to inspire other Indigenous people to practice cultural values and identities, to be proud and show our commitment to honour and share knowledge, and encourage awareness and understanding of the world’s oldest living indigenous culture.
We’re led by Artistic Director Peta Strachan, a descendant of the Darug people of the Boorooberongal clan of NSW.
Kawadji Wimpa Dance Group
Location: Lockhart River, east coast of Cape York
We are the Lockhart River Kawadji Wimpa Dance Group, located 800 kilometres north of Cairns. We are well known as sand beach people, and we’re one of the most deadly and best dance groups in Cape York.
We have performed at Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, Laura Dance Festival, Victoria College of the Arts in Melbourne, The Winds of Zenadth Festival (‘Zenadth Kes’ being the traditional name for the Torres Straits), Port Douglas, Palm Island, Mornington Island, Hopevale, Napranum and Old Mapoon. We all come from seven tribes in the community but are united and dance as one big family.
Nation: Birri Gubba
Location: Woorabinda, QLD
Meaning: ‘Spirit dancers’
Kulgoodah Dancers won Dance Rites in 2017, and performed at Dance Rites in 2018, as well as the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony in 2018. Dance Rites has helped their community engage with youth and get them back to culture. In Woorabinda these dances represent the 52 different tribes that make up the Woorabinda community.
Kurruru & Iwiri Dance
Location: APY Lands
Kurruru will be teaming up with Iwiri Anangu Dancers for the first time this year at Dance Rites. Our dancers consist of five contemporary dancers, two Anangu singers and four Anangu dancers. Iwiri is about Anangu coming together to grow our language, culture, knowledge and community with members from across the APY Lands.
Kurruru is committed to supporting the ongoing maintenance of culture, community and identity. Kurruru Arts and Cultural Hub runs weekly workshops in the community. Our focus is on supporting and promoting arts and culture to our community with a specific focus on cultural dance, youth and the sustainability of our arts practice, in theatre, music, song and dance.
Our workshop leader and Resident Choreographer is Kaine Saltan Babij, former member of Bangarra Dance Theatre. Kaine will be choreographing a piece to an Electric Fields song composed for Kurruru called ‘The Calling’.
Meuram Murray Island Dancer
Nation: Torres Strait Islands
Location: Mundingburra, Queensland
We are of Meuram Tribe, one of eight tribes of Murray Island, Torres Strait. The Meuram Tribes are the owners of Meuram Lands on Murray Islands, also the surrounding reefs, sand cays and seas of the Murray Island District. I was brought up by culturally oriented parents, my father is a Kokem Le (Elder of Elders). I have performed publicly beginning at Mackay in the mid 70s, at about seven or eight years old. I was 12 years old when I performed at Hyde Park in Sydney where a traditional village was set up for 1-2 weeks. I am now 48 and teaching my culture to my children and grandchildren. Performing at Dance Rites last year was a highlight of my life; we came second in the competition. We are inspired by sharing and promoting our Meriam (Murray Island Culture) to the people of Australia.
Location: North East Arnhem Land, NT
Performing for the first time at Dance Rites, Miku will participate with seven members including song man Banula Marika of Indigenous-Australian rock group Yothu Yindi and new generation Indigenous Australian artist Yirrmal Marika, the grandson of Dr Mandawuy Yunupingu, lead singer of Yothu Yindi.
Miku Performing Arts is a new company based in Yirrkala and Nhulunbuy, North East Arnhem Land. They employ and train highly skilled local performance artists. The group represent Yolngu culture and people with the utmost respect, dignity and pride and through sharing and learning, they build connections and networks for future projects and ongoing collaborations which increase employment and development opportunities here and lift the profile of their region’s performing artists. Miku teaches dance and performance skills at Yirrkala School and facilitate Workshops throughout the region. Miku mentor and support local artists and run workshops open to all ages and for all community members.
Location: Panania, NSW
In 2015 Darren Compton and Jacqui Cornforth founded Muggera, a family group who prides itself on its cultural knowledge and professionalism. The members for Muggera come from a long line of cultural leaders, song men, world-class dancers and didgeridoo players with a formidable respect for culture. All members of Muggera have been performing and sharing their culture for many years and have been guided by their Elders over many decades. Muggera has ongoing support from community and family Elders, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities to share culture, establish Muggera Cultural Enterprise and set a new standard for Aboriginal cultural performance and engagement in Australia. Rapper Nooky (Corey Webster) of Briggs’ Bad Apples Music label will also perform with Muggera.
Darren Compton is the leader and song man of Muggera. Darren is a proud descendent of Yugembeh, Munanjali/Minjunbal and Gamillraay nations of the mainland, and the Mer people of the Torres Strait Islands. Born and raised in Bankstown Sydney, Daz is a proficient yiggi yiggi (didgeridoo) player, a visual artist/craftsman and a multi-skilled Indigenous performer and dancer in both traditional and hip-hop dance.
Mutitjulu Maruku Mob
Location: Central Deserts
We are a group of men and women from various families next to the iconic rock of Uluru who share tjukurpa (stories) to pass our knowledge to the younger generation We dance tjukurpa just like our ancestors did. Dance Rites has given our singers and dancers a reason to get excited for dancing again, especially the younger girls, some of which have never left the Central Deserts until now.
The younger women are very excited to be able to learn the songs from their grandmothers and are practicing their tjukurpa dance every week. They are also practising for the celebration of the climb closing here at Uluru in October.
Of Desert and Sea
Nation: Kaurna, Ngarrindjeri, Narungga, Yarliyandi, Adnyamathanha, Yankunytjatjara
Location: South Australia
Of Desert and Sea is an emerging Aboriginal contemporary cultural dance company. Made up of young women, they represent six language groups from across South Australia. They use traditional cultural elements to inform their contemporary practice, and use dance as a way of connecting with their culture.
Swan Hill Aboriginal Dance Group
Nation: Wemba Wemba
Location: North Western Victoria and South Western New South Wales
We are Wemba Wemba women. Our group is rich in culture and our primary focus is reviving our country’s traditional culture — culture that’s been oppressed since colonisation. When we perform, we connect with the spiritual, emotional and physical. To feel, to see, to hear each other. We are connecting with our ancestors and respected elders who fought to hold onto our culture.
We pass on the knowledge of storytelling and songlines, and we’re creating futures for our future generations. We hope to continue strengthening our community through traditional ways of passing our knowledge. The feeling of power when you’re getting ready to perform, and when you start putting marks on your body (or applying it on someone else) for the dance, with the ochre that we collected and prepared, starting with the eldest to the youngest — it’s overwhelming to participate.
Tal-kin-jeri Dance Group
Location: Findon, South Australia
Tal-Kin-Jeri Dance Group was founded in 1997 by Major and Loretta Sumner to showcase Aboriginal dance, stories, music, art, language and culture. We provide education and training to promote a better understanding of Aboriginal culture and in particular Ngarrindjeri culture. We provide performance, workshops and ceremonies to keep our culture strong.
Tiwi SisterGALS (Gay and Lesbian Society)
Nation: Yarti - Ratuwarti
Location: Tiwi Islands, NT
As a transgender group from the Tiwi Islands. we have always faced discrimination and hardship. After fifteen Sistergirl suicides, the Tiwi Elders and the Sistergirls worked together, and an agreement was made in 2004 to allow the Sistergirls to perform traditional women’s dances. A documentary was made on the first ceremony the Sistergirls performed. It’s been a long fight for acceptance within our community; it has created resilience, and the Sistergirls have become an advocacy group for LGBTIA people in remote communities and across the First Nations.
Dance Rites is a platform for the Sistergirls to reach out to other LGBTIA people, particularly in First Nations communities. We’re able to showcase our culture and language to the broader Australian audience, to show that we still have our culture. We also want to show other young First Nations LGBTIA people that we are in support of their struggle.
Location: Blue Mountains, Central West, NSW
Under the direction of Wiradjuri dancer and choreographer Jo Clancy, Wagana perform contemporary and traditional Aboriginal dances inspired by the landscape and creation stories of the Blue Mountains and Central West country in New South Wales.
They honour and respect the Darug, Gundungurra & Wiradjuri peoples as the traditional custodians of the lands they dance on and aim to show their love of sharing culture through dance, music and storytelling. Wagana are blessed to have Jacinta Tobin as their songwoman.
Yiiliwiyaygundi Gundi Yuludarla
Location: Mid-North Coast of NSW
Meaning: ‘Dances the stories’
For the past five years we’ve been meeting at cultural camps, learning dance, songs, language, story, weaving, reviving old dances and songs, and developing new ones. Most of our dancers are students from five high schools in Macksville, Nambucca Heads, Bowraville, Bellingen and Toormina. The young people are joined by older community members and we are led by our dance teachers Gloria Mercy, Steven Donovan and Troy Robinson, and by storyteller, language and songman Michael Jarrett.
Coming to Dance Rites is a great opportunity for our young people to express their passion and love of culture. They have become a group that cares for each other as they learn from their elders and cultural knowledge holders. In 2018 we came to watch Dance Rites, and our young people decided that they wanted to commit to learning dances and songs and participate this year.
Photo: Anna Kucera
Photo: Anna Kucera
Listen An Eora word that has become part of Australia’s identity. It describes a place of ceremony and creative expression, a transformative gathering for New South Wales.
Listen A term used by Aboriginal people to refer to the land to which they belong and their place of Dreaming. Use of the word ‘country’ in Aboriginal language is much broader than standard English.
Listen A person charged with maintaining and passing on particular elements of cultural significance including: knowledge, stories, song, dances, language, ritual and imagery.
Listen A family of hollow, wooden instruments connected to Yolngu Law and ceremony in song, dance, visual art and narrative. The word ‘didgeridoo’ is an introduced, generic term that lacks the significance and precision of the diverse names for this instrument.
Listen ("Missions") Areas originally set up and governed by different religious denominations for Aboriginal people to live. Missions implemented government policies. Aboriginal people associate the term with trauma suffered from forced living conditions and abuse, rarely with positive memories.
Listen Homelands, territories, and estates are located on Aboriginal ancestral lands with cultural and spiritual significance to the First Nations people who live there. Complex connections to land include cultural, spiritual and environmental obligations, including obligations for the protection of sacred sites.
Listen The Torres Straight Islands' traditional drums are used for celebrations, island dancing and singing. The drum is carved and hollowed from driftwood. Goanna skin is stretched over the drum and held in place with a split bamboo holding ring sealed with beeswax.
Listen The importance of all relationships, and of being related to and belonging to the land. It’s a complex system that determines how people relate to each other and their roles, responsibilities and obligations in relation to one another, ceremonial business and land.
Listen Skin names are divided into two groups, ‘sun side’ and ‘shade side’, exists across regions. Most language groups also use a section or subsection system with four to eight ‘skin names’. An individual gains a skin name upon birth based on the skin names of their parents, to indicate the section / subsection that they belong to.
Listen The distinctive traditional dance and ceremonial headdress of the Torres Strait. The dancer's headdress is the main symbol on the flag for the Torres Strait region and represents unity for the people.
Listen The key go-to person within Aboriginal communities, respected and consulted due to their experience, wisdom, knowledge, background and insight. Often described as the ‘custodians of knowledge’ or the ‘libraries’ of a community. ‘Elder’ does not necessarily equate with age.
In Australian First Nations culture, language is more than just a means to communicate—it is inherently connected with the land and has deep spiritual significance. Each language came to the ancestral Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people during the Dreamtime; it's through these unique languages that communities maintain their connection with their ancestors, land, law and culture.
Below is a glossary of important words commonly used to discuss community life, connection to Country, song, dance and cultural lore. There are over 120 surviving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in Australia, many with unique spellings and pronunciations. We’ve included common meanings for these words here along with audio samples voiced by Rhoda Roberts as a guide.
Place and land
Acknowledgement of Country
An Acknowledgement of Country is a way of recognising the traditional custodians' ongoing connection with the land, and of respecting Aboriginal culture and heritage. It can be given by persons of any background.
Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands.
An Eora word that has become part of Australia’s identity. It describes a place of ceremony and creative expression, a transformative gathering for New South Wales.
A term used by Aboriginal people to refer to the land to which they belong and their place of Dreaming. Use of the word ‘country’ in Aboriginal language is much broader than standard English.
The Dreaming can be seen as an embodiment of Aboriginal creation which gives meaning to everything. It establishes the rules governing relationships between the people, the land and all things for Aboriginal people. The word itself has different meanings for different Aboriginal groups.
Homelands (also territories, estates) are located on Aboriginal ancestral lands with cultural and spiritual significance to the First Nations people who live there. Complex connections to land include cultural, spiritual and environmental obligations, including obligations for the protection of sacred sites.
Native to a place or area, originating in and characterising a particular region or country, also including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. ‘Indigenous Australians’ is a term used to refer to the original inhabitants of Australia; it is always capitalised. Many Aboriginal people don’t like the term to be used to refer to them.
(“Missions”) Areas originally set up and governed by different religious denominations for Aboriginal people to live. Missions implemented government policies. Aboriginal people associate the term with trauma suffered from forced living conditions and abuse, rarely with positive memories.
A group of Aboriginal people who share an area of land, river and sea that is their traditional land. A nation has a number of clan or language groups.
A central Australian word for Dreaming.
People and community
Aboriginal and First Nations
Usually refers to the First Peoples of mainland Australia and other countries such as Canada and Taiwan.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Note that this abbreviation is not liked by many Aboriginal people due to its use in discriminating contexts.
Connected to Dreaming and Traditional lores, they carry the knowledge for a particular song, dance and story of landscape ancestors.
Many Aboriginal nations are broken into clan groups with their own unique language, dialects and borders. Some clan members cannot marry one another under kinship.
A community includes many important elements: country, family ties and shared experience. Community is about connection and belonging, and is central to Aboriginality. Aboriginal people may belong to more than one community.
A person charged with maintaining and passing on particular elements of cultural significance including: knowledge, stories, song, dances, language, ritual and imagery.
The key go-to person within Aboriginal communities, respected and consulted due to their experience, wisdom, knowledge, background and insight. Often described as the ‘custodians of knowledge’ or the ‘libraries’ of a community. ‘Elder’ does not necessarily equate with age.
The term First Peoples is often used synonymously with 'Aboriginal people' or 'Indigenous people'.
The importance of all relationships, and of being related to and belonging to the land. It’s a complex system that determines how people relate to each other and their roles, responsibilities and obligations in relation to one another, ceremonial business and land.
Colloquial term used by Aboriginal people to refer to a group of people they belong to.
Skin names are divided into two groups, ‘sun side’ and ‘shade side’, and exist across regions. Most language groups also use a section or subsection system with four to eight skin names. An individual gains a skin name upon birth based on the skin names of their parents, to indicate the section / subsection that they belong to.
Torres Strait Islanders
Refers to the First Peoples of the Torres Strait region (as compared to the mainland people).
Photo: Prudence Upton
Photo: Prudence Upton
Song and dance
A north Australian (Yolngu) word describing a song with dance, or ceremonial dance performance.
The distinctive traditional dance and ceremonial headdress of the Torres Strait. The dancer's headdress is the main symbol on the flag for the Torres Strait region and represents unity for the people.
In Anangu culture, the art of dance is reserved for a very small number of special events and is therefore rarely seen. This dance is called an ‘inma’. Every move and sound is rich with ancient meaning.
The Torres Strait Islands' traditional drum are used for celebrations, island dancing and singing. The drum is carved and hollowed from driftwood. Goanna skin is stretched over the drum and held in place with a split bamboo holding ring sealed with beeswax.
A family of hollow, wooden instruments connected to Yolngu Law and ceremony in song, dance, visual art and narrative. The word ‘didgeridoo’ is an introduced, generic term that lacks the significance and precision of the diverse names for this instrument.
Photo: Anna Kucera
Photo: Anna Kucera
Law and culture
Any object made or modified by Aboriginal people, often stone tools or wooden objects. A group of artefacts (especially stone tools) located on the ground surface is referred to as ‘artefact scatter’.
A 19th century idea that Aboriginal people should become white, convert to Christianity and learn how to work and live as Europeans. From the 1930s assimilation became Australian government policy. With many living under what was known as the Aborigines Protection Act, in 1969 it became known as the Aborigines Act and was repealed in 1983.
The accepted and traditionally patterned ways of behaving, and a set of common understandings shared by members of a group or community. Includes land, language, spirituality, ways of living and working, artistic expression, relationships, and identity.
Based on traditions and customs of a particular group in a specific region. Also referred to as ‘lore’.
Describes the ending of colonisation and the liberation of those who were colonised. The process includes dismantling the colonial state and its laws. The ultimate goal is the self-determination of those who were colonised. Those pursuing decolonisation start by reconnecting with kin and country, and disengaging with the colonial system.
Language is linked to particular geographical areas. The term ‘language group’ is often used in preference to the term ‘tribe’, and many Aboriginal people identify themselves through their language group.
The learning and transmission of cultural heritage. See also: ‘customary law’.
Denotes a domestic treaty between the Commonwealth government and Aboriginal people. It comes from a word in the Yolngu language meaning coming together after a struggle, facing the facts of wrongs and living again in peace.
A message stick is a form of communication used by groups entering other clan and nation boundaries. Message sticks were incised and carved passed between different clans and language groups to establish information and transmit messages and walk across country on invitation and safe passage.
Originally a Danish word, now used for a large heap of shell and other food remains left by Aboriginal people at camp sites which build up over an extended period of time. Middens are often found near rock platforms and in proximity of fresh water.
A songline (also known as a ‘Dreaming Track’ or ‘Trade Routes’ ) is a path across the land which marks the journey of creator-beings as they created the lakes, rivers, plants, land formations and living creatures during the Dreaming. Songlines are recorded in traditional songs, stories, dance, and painting.
An English expression mostly adopted from mainland Aboriginal people to refer to a period of cultural practices and protocols associated with death. The most widespread ceremonies of Sorry Business are conducted around the bereavement and funerals for a deceased person.
The ultimate power, authority or jurisdiction over a people and a territory. No other person, group, tribe or state can tell a sovereign entity what to do with its land or people. A sovereign entity can decide and administer its own laws, determine the use of its land and do pretty much as it pleases, free of external influence—within the limitations of international law. Sovereignty is a more precise term than ‘self-determination’.
A wooden device used to throw spears. The woomera is held in one hand while the other hand places the butt of the spear on the woomera's hook. From the Dharug Language of Sydney and the Blue Mountains.
A very special thank you to Yuwaalaraay artist Lucy Simpson for the creation of the 2019 Dance Rites artwork.
Thank you to our donors for their commitment and ongoing generosity to the Dance Rites Travel Fund.
Founding Dance Rites Donors
Michael and Janie Austin, Ryissa Fogarty, Jane Kift, Regal Health Group, Bronwyn Simons, Sue Spencer
Sydney Opera House Idealists
Jane Kift, Alexandra Martin, Crispin Rice
Dance Rites Donors
Shar Adams, 33 Creative, Linda Herd, James & Claire Kirby Family Fund, Jean McPherson
Justin Tam, Dominic Ellis
Rhoda Roberts, Francesca Hughes
SOH Creative Studio
Justin Tam, Jacob Burkett
Web design & development
Dominic Ellis, Justin Tam
Anna Kucera, Prudence Upton
Susie Anderson, Hannah Worrall, Esther Crowley, Francesca Breen, Neil Simpson
Thanks to all the participants
in Dance Rites
Thanks to the performers
Dobby, Indigenous Enterprise, The Narli Ensemble by Tura Music, Nunukul Yuggera, Oka