Comparing traditional and contemporary styles of Indigenous dance

Comparing traditional and contemporary styles of Indigenous dance

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance groups use both traditional and contemporary influences in their works in order to express knowledge and meaning.

Keeping culture alive through dance

In the long ago past, ancestral beings created and shaped the land and established the laws that enabled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to live and thrive in their environment. The knowledge given to the people from the ancestors has been passed down over millennia from generation to generation through songs, dances, stories and designs.

While song and storytelling encodes the verbal knowledge, and design documents the patterns and connections of the living world, it is dance that provides people with the practical knowledge they need to understand and interact with their environment and hunt for food. Dance is a way of improving one’s intimate knowledge about each individual animals, behaviours and characteristics, so that the hunter can almost think like the animal itself.

In many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies, dance has a central role in people’s lives – not just a small handful of dance specialists, but all people.1 Furthermore, it is not exclusive, rather, dance is used deliberately as a way of bringing people together. In an interview, members of the Gupapuyngu Dancers from Galiwin’ku in Arnhem Land said, “we find that audiences respond to us much better when we remain true to the inclusive nature of the bunggul (dance) tradition and encourage them to be painted and share in the dancing experience. Audiences rarely know what to expect from traditional performances and are always surprised and delighted by our approach.”2

Dance in Indigenous cultures, along with singing repertoires of song items and painting using hereditary design features and motifs, is seen as an intellectual activity. These three activities together – usually seen in Western cultures as creative practice and/or entertainment – hold a more significant part of Indigenous culture. The canon of songs, dances and designs fundamentally function as a repository, like a library, of all the knowledge needed by the group to survive. However, these activities are not merely repeated in an unchanging, formulaic way. Each creator is not only free to extemporise but is expected to do so, framing and reframing ancient knowledge within the present world.

In this way, dance styles that are a blend of traditional and contemporary dance motifs and devices are not a new phenomenon that breaks with tradition. Rather, contemporary dance such as that created and performed by Bangarra Dance Theatre3 should be seen as a step along the creative path that Indigenous dancers have always followed. Similarly, Bangarra’s incorporation of contemporary costuming, staging, lighting and multi-media is a way of continuing the millennia-old process of blending the essential hereditary knowledge passed down through the generations with a framework that adapts itself to each new present context.

Classroom activity - The Arts (Dance) Years 5 and 6

This sequence of classroom activities aims to develop students’ awareness of traditional Indigenous dance motifs and devices, and then draw on them in the construction of their own creative works. Students will firstly view and then analyse short videos of traditional dances from several different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. They will examine videos of both male and female styles of dancing. They will view the work Kaya of the Ochre Contemporary Dance Company in Perth as an example of a dance group that combines both traditional and contemporary styles to express a narrative. Students can then choreograph their own dance performance to a piece of music set by the teacher in which they combine two traditional dance motifs that they have learnt which their choice of movements that they already know and can perform.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:

  • Explore movement and choreographic devices using the elements of dance to choreograph dances that communicate meaning (ACADAM009)
  • Explain how the elements of dance and production elements communicate meaning by comparing dances from different social, cultural and historical contexts, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance (ACADAR012)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 5 and 6 in The Arts (Dance):

  • students explain how the elements of dance, choreographic devices and production elements communicate meaning in dances they make, perform and view
  • they describe characteristics of dances from different social, historical and cultural contexts that influence their dance making
  • students structure movements in dance sequences and use the elements of dance and choreographic devices to make dances that communicate meaning
  • they work collaboratively to perform dances for audiences, demonstrating technical and expressive skills

Activity 1 – Traditional Indigenous Dance

Suggested timing for activity: one lesson

Required resources: computer with access to internet, projector

Students view the video, Aboriginal Fire Dance ( with the purpose of identifying a number of recurring dance motifs and devices that they can see. The videos should be watched several times in an interactive way, with the students choosing when to pause or repeat the video in order to copy the movements. They devise a way of describing these movements in words so that they can be written in a list. After trialling a few of the movements, the teacher and class jointly decide on two or three movements to be used and these are then rehearsed. Firstly with no music, and then secondly to a backing track of the teacher’s choice. It does not necessarily need to be Indigenous music.

Inquiry-based learning

While viewing the video of the traditional dance example, the teacher will begin an inquiry process by asking the students to consider how the dances might be conveying knowledge that forms part of the dancers’ beliefs. Students continue the process by asking themselves, and others, questions that arise for them from examining the idea that dance in Indigenous cultures is a form of sharing knowledge and not just entertainment.

Activity 2 – Responding creatively

Suggested timing for activity: one full lesson for creating, one full lesson for performing

Required resources: same as Activity 1

Students will firstly learn about the Bangarra Dance Theatre to build their knowledge of this group and its aims and performances. They watch the Bangarra performance Fire – A Retrospective ( and identify any traditional dance motifs or devices that they can see being used. These may be similar to the ones from the Aboriginal Fire Dance from the previous lesson, or not. (This video is actually a compilation of performances so there are many examples used). The students are encouraged to ask questions about what they have seen and to hypothesise about what knowledge might be being conveyed through this dance.

The class is divided into small groups of four or five students. Each group is to choreograph a 30-second movement piece. This will contain the two traditional moves that were drawn from the “Aboriginal Fire Dance” in the previous activity, and contemporary moves that the students have learnt previously. The teacher can consider using the same soundtrack as in the Bangarra video, or choose something else appropriately designed to stimulate student creativity.

In the second lesson, after quickly rehearsing their pieces, each group performs to the class. The other members of the class can provide feedback after the performance about how effective the incorporation of the two traditional moves were.

Inquiry-based learning

In this creative activity, students organise their work around the most engaging features of the dances they have studied prior, and present their work in their own chosen dance format. Students should use their own words to express what they have learnt and how this impacted on their creative choices.


1 Tamisari, Franca (2000).  Knowing the country, holding the Law: Yolngu dance performance in north-eastern Arnhem Land.

4 Australian Aboriginal Fire Dance:

5 Bangarra Dance Theatre: Fire - A Retrospective (2009):

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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.