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No. 21 (December 1957)
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Beth Dean who has made many Maori friends during her tours of New Zealand writes here about the contrasting dance styles of three different races: Maori, Australain Aboriginal and New Guinea.



A comparison of the dances from three widely different racial groups could easily fill several volumes, so these few thoughts can only touch the surface of a fascinating subject.

Dance is the urge to move rhythmically that lies within all peoples. But the manner in which time and space is punctuated by movement varies greatly. The different styles of dance are as individual to each race as are finger prints to every human being—as different as are their languages.

Among the aborigines of Australia, dance is divided into two carefully preserved sections. There are sacred and non-sacred or play-time types of dance. Playtime dances are about hunting, fishing, etc., or often they are related to some amusing incident of the day.

The sacred dance is highly traditional. It is based on ceremonial which is attributed to the great culture-heroes of ancient epic stories. These heroic beings lived in the long ago dreaming times. They created man, the animals and all the natural features of the land—its rivers, mountains, trees and rocks. The long hours of chanting before the sacred rituals culminate in dance, refer to the great exploits, the difficulties overcome by these creative and magical beings who were filled with life force.

When the present day aborigine is asked why he stamps hard, digging deep into the sand of the sacred dancing grounds, his reply is “We feel joy as the dust rises around us because in dance we become one with the earth and the spirit of life flows through us.”

Both the chanting and its dance expression have a prayerful and fully conscious attitude of mind. Ritual sequence is preserved intact through many generations. Some of the sacred Kangaroo totem ceremonies that the author and her husband. Victor Carell, witnessed in Central Australia, 200 miles west of Alice Springs in 1953, were replicas of those recorded in 1898 by the famous Ethnologists, Spencer and Gillen.

There was artistry and great beauty in the ceremonies. There were highly theatrical effects created from sudden flashing firelight in the pitch black of night as the massed dancers, covered in age-old patterns of vari-coloured feather down and ochres, appeared and disappeared from the circle of light created by the flames. Sometimes the movements were hard and angular in

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The Warrangau corroboree is performed to the rhythm of clapping boomerangs (foreground) by dancers decorated with birds' down, stuck on with blood from gashes in the arm. Wooden crosspiece on headgear, centre, represents buffalo horn (University of Sydney Photograph)

style with high knee action stamping of great virility. At other times there was a melting grace of cat-like softness about the dance as if it were a lament of deep-welling sorrow. In another ceremony, the men's bodies trembled in such intensity that the 12 foot leafy poles attached to their legs shivered to the very tips and swayed out over the heads of the seated crowd.

The women's dances, as they shuffled in place were softly quiet. Their eyes were shyly cast down as their heads moved poised and gracious to the right, then to the left, their arm movements were sometimes a relaxed swinging to and fro, or they could be controlled, ineffably graceful like a ballet dancer's studied movements.

In non-sacred dance, the men showed not

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Mosik and Bill of the Millingimbi people lead a corroboree. These two men have been numbered among the world's greatest dancers. (Australian Official Photo)

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only the great acting ability we had seen in the sacred dramas, but also an inventiveness in free movement that was extremely difficult technically, as well as being full of artistry. In the case of Gilligan, a dancer of the Wagaitch Tribe, Northern Territory, there were vertical spins in the air landing on one knee, or again great leaps ending in a Hindu sitting posture. From this he would leap straight up in the air without help from his hands. Some of the men were truly gifted comedians. Their psychological insight into the foibles of mankind was given such apt dance expression that we laughed till the tears came to our eyes.

The women of Arnhem Land have their Djarada dancing. It is linked with melodious or plaintive songs to the accompaniment of small resonant hardwood sticks or a boomerang beaten on the earth by the leading song woman. These are not the shy maidenly dances the men see in the camp each night when everyone gathers round the fires for communal singing and dancing. The Djarada are a kind of love-potion magic. They include the fast whirling of each dancer in place like a gay planet, or a stylised imitation of crows in flight as the girls dash headlong round and round the secret Djarada grounds. No man dares to cross this dancing ground. Its magic would kill him—nor would he look at the dancing even from afar. Yet the men have their own Djarada love songs.

If one judges a people by the beauty of their artistic conceptions and expressions then the aborigines are not so primitive after all. They are a gentle contemplative people of real dignity in their traditional way of life. Self discipline was one of the chief goals of adult manhood. Strong tradition, as well as inclination has kept them living as nomadic tribes. The aboriginal point of view is diametrically opposed to that of agricultural peoples. Tillers of the soil value conservation of food which leads to the gathering of wealth and to the mode of living in fixed communities which are stabilised by buildings for homes and for storage purposes.

The gathering of wealth leads in many instances to a people's love of war games. This is not a part of aboriginal culture. To an aborigine, the land, its animals, and vegetation, is his “other self” so it is unthinkable to make war to increase land-ownership.

Being entirely human the aborigines do have arguments, usually over a woman. This can lead to small scale spear fighting but it is as foreign to these people to fight over land as to till it. Instead, they perform each sacred ceremony exactly as did the First Creative Ancestor. The last tones of the droning didjeridu fade, the chanting ceases, the dancers have exerted their energies in perfect belief that the ritual was correctly accomplished, therefore there will be food for all across the land. The Spirit of Life has once again been released to bring kangaroos, wild berries, goannas, fish, birds, honey ants, yams and all necessities upon the land in abundance.

Next Issue: New Guinea and New Zealand