From then ’til now
For 35 years, the Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival has been held every two years in the town of Laura on Cape York. It’s now bigger and better than ever before. WORDS: Michelle Hespe
Welcome to the party
A woman is gently applying water-sodden bandages on a young boy’s arm, layering them as she gradually creates a plaster cast. The boy looks intently at the procedure, every now and then glancing at his two mates and breaking into a giggle.
At the next table, a woman is pulling plastic human organs out of a replica human torso while speaking about the parts of the body to a group of grinning kids. Next to them, there’s a teenager with a pile of apples and a fancy peeler that cores the apple and creates a long twist of fresh fruit for the queue of children eagerly awaiting a treat. And behind it all, at a stand bursting with kids, is a quiz board about the food groups and their health benefits. If the kids get the questions right, they are given a show bag containing cartoon books about health, toothpaste, a toothbrush, and a skipping rope. And that’s just the start of one aisle of stands that I’m walking down at the Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival. There are dozens more, all promoting organisations to educate the indigenous Australians who have come together for this special celebration of aboriginal culture, heritage and dance.
Tricia Walker is of the Yidinji people, and she is here to teach children and adults how to make dilly bags (traditional gathering pouches) and sun hats woven from lomandra grass. She works for Keeping Our Culture Alive (KOCA) collaborating with master weavers to teach kids how to make things while educating them about their ancestors’ way of life. “The kids get really interested with the bag and hat making,” she says. “They love making something from nature and then we can teach them about our people and how they once lived. We have to keep our culture alive, and that comes down to educating the young ones now.”
Faye Humphries is also manning one of the stands set back from the field where dance troupes perform throughout the day. She’s from the Apunipima Cape York Health Centre, and she is a maternal and child health worker from the aboriginal community of Aurukun. “Our organisation was created 21 years ago because a group of communities came together and decided that they wanted an indigenous-run organisation. It’s for the people, by the people” she explains to me. “I work with women to increase better maternal outcomes, helping them to eat and live healthily so that we can increase birth weights,” she says. “So many babies are born in the Cape with low birth weights and then they have a lot of problems.”
The organisation now employs doctors, speech pathologists, dentists, child psychologists and a range of passionate professionals all doing their bit to assist in the wellbeing of their people.
When the festival launched over 34 years ago, the stands were not a part of the event – it was all about the dance. Waratah Nichols, a British woman who arrived in u
Cape York some 40 years ago, recalls the festival's humble beginnings with fondness, but she’s also proud of what it has become. She runs all sort of programs and workshops focusing on conservation and teaching people how to recycle, re-use, and take care of the environment.
At her stand, kids are making cool things out of festival-goers’ rubbish — every few minutes someone dropping off more useful materials. “When I first came to the festival in Laura it was all just dancing in the bush,” she says. “The army was catering for the dancers back then,” she says with a laugh. But she’s sure that the essence of the event hasn’t been lost. “Every festival is a melting pot, and so special” she says. “Families come from all over the Cape and they get to catch up and spend time together. For some of them it’s been years since seeing family members, and they get to meet their new nephews and nieces, and see the elders. They come from everywhere and stay a few days, enjoying the atmosphere and everything going on. I think Laura is really important as we need to have experiences that bring us back to earth. Society has taken us so far from what is real.”
Portraits from the past
This year, the festival attracted over 4000 people and 17 dance troupes, with other guests coming from Japan, Germany, Sweden, and other corners of the globe. In the centre of all of the stands – many of which now sell healthy food (and yes, a few ice-cream, hot chip and fast food stalls are selling their fare as well), is where the action really happens. Every half hour over three days, another dance troupe walks out onto a dusty field and mesmerises the crowd with moves and music that shake and wake the soul. I buy a fresh coconut and then squeeze into a spot among hundreds of others eagerly awaiting the next performance. “There you go sister, there’s a good spot,” an old lady says as she pats my shoulder and shuffles her weight around, her grandchildren snuggling in around her.
Then it begins – a tribe of straw-skirted dancers moving in unison to beating drums and clapping sticks. Shivers run down my spine, even in the 35 degree heat. I zero in on a little girl with a cheeky smile in a red cotton top – she’s smiling through the curtains of dust as her spindly legs move wildly and her straw skirt shakes with her rapid-fire ambidextrous movements. She’s surrounded by her clan, dust flying in every direction and into the eyes and mouths of cheering spectators. The drums, clapping sticks and now a hauntingly beautiful female elder’s voice has reached such a crescendo that the crowd is just staring, not caring about the dust that’s getting faster and thicker as the dancers whip things further up a theatrical frenzy.
Then as quickly as it begun, it’s over. The music snaps off in a sharp instant and the dancers seem to freeze. Applause breaks out and becomes as loud as the drums were. I watch as the dancers form a neat line and walk off the field and down the side of the large tin shed and the stage, disappearing back into the bush from which they came.