Dance like you mean it

It’s 20 minutes past 10 on a Friday morning. Around 2000 people sit at the Indigenous Emerging Business Forum in South Perth. Some are on their phones, others are engaging in general work small talk. But most are staring straight ahead, consumed by the heavy black curtains that occupy the stage in front of them. Wondering what or who is lingering behind the dense drapes.  

What waits behind the curtains however is not the foreseeable spokesperson or slideshow orator. Instead, a bundle of children, crowned in radiant woven headbands with white paint dotted on their cheeks and toes are standing just centimetres away from the stage. They rock carefully back and forth as they stare down at their feet, rehearsing in their heads the movements, the steps, the pace and rhythms of the dance they’re about to perform. 

But most importantly, they are rehearsing a story. One that’s a 1000 years old, one of their ancestors’, one of dreamtime. This is the most important part – this is the power of dance. 

The kids of Koolangka’s Kreate performing an Indigenous dance routine.
Photo: Harriet Flinn.

The group is called Koolangka’s Kreate and they are one of the many cultural dance communities in Perth that are encouraging young people to reconnect with their heritage through performing arts.

Communities such as these have proven to be a crucial conduit for many young people especially young immigrants and First Nations’ people who find themselves in an isolating middle-ground of cultural disconnection.

In this story we will take a look at three different cultural dance communities in Perth: Indigenous, African and Indian.

Although dance itself may not be the final answer, the communities it has fostered along the way are providing the safe spaces to allow young people to rekindle, celebrate, and be empowered by their cultural identity.

Out of Africa

Group members freestyling to Afrobeats.
Photo: Harriet Flinn.

The industrial complex in Osborne Park north of Perth is usually deathly silent past 7pm. But on Tuesdays there is an exception. The deep vibrations of the Djembe drums and the hyped howls of encouragement can be heard outside the walls of Dynamic Dance Studio. A small sliver of Africa is being revived and 32-year-old Alex Mubanga is the person responsible.

Mubanga was born in Zambia, a sparsely populated country in South Africa, where his relationship with Afrobeats was established. For him, dance was the answer to almost everything, from mental health issues to escaping local gang violence. He found a voice in the movements, and a distraction within the rhythms. 

Alex Mubanga in the dance studio.
Photo: Harriet Flinn.

However, when Mubanga moved to Perth 12 years ago, settling into a western context was harder than anticipated.

“When I arrived, it was very difficult to form an attachment and genuine connections. I found myself pretending to be what I’m not… just to fit the Australian culture.”

Alex Mubanga

Mubanga is not alone in this feeling. Author and anthropologist at the University of Western Australia Dr Gretchen Stolte has spent a great deal of her academic career researching the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, including cultural dance, protocols and identity. As a Nimi’ipuu (Nez Perce) American Indian, she too has published articles on her own exploration and reconnection journey. 

Dr Stolte says feeling “out of place” in a change in cultural context is a frequent experience for individuals who are a part of their countries’ diaspora.

Dr Gretchen Stolte is currently a lecturer at the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia.
Photo: Supplied.

“It’s kind of like being at home wrapped in a warm blanket and then having to leave home in the winter and not having your blanket, you just feel cold.”

Dr Gretchen Stolte

There is a lot of “walking between two worlds” for many people who experience this sudden change in cultural setting and an unconscious pressure from this new society to perform or act a certain way, according to Dr Stolte.

“Especially people who are visibly foreign, that can’t pass as Australian, they are constantly [being] bombarded by all this foreignness, this stuff that’s different.”

An overview of Western Australia’s multiculturalism according to the 2016 Australian Census.
Infographic: Harriet Flinn.
A young member at Mubanga’s dance community.
Photo: Harriet Flinn.

When Mubanga started getting involved in Perth’s African dance community, he says he started to feel “himself” again. 

“When I started dance, I found that it was the most times I would feel myself, the most comfortable and most authentic.”

Alex Mubanga

Mubanga started understanding the power of dance in providing Africa’s diaspora with a sense of cultural consolation. So he decided to form a dance community. 

“Once the other Africans saw people that look like them, they felt like they needed to be here… and then it kind of grew from there,” he says.

Although there are a number of ways people reconnect with their culture, like art, writing or reading, there seems to be a scientific explanation as to why dance has a shared fondness, according to Dr Stolte.

“When you are with a dance group, with someone that’s from your background or someone that’s from your culture, you don’t have to pretend anymore. You don’t have to translate your words, you don’t have to speak carefully – you can be yourself,” she says.

“It can be really empowering, and very homecoming. Like ‘oh this is part of who I am,’ and so it can be very very powerful.” 

Dr Gretchen Stolte
Mubanga details the importance in explaining the meaning behind the cultural dances.
Video: Harriet Flinn

Grace Chalwe has been dancing with Mubanga’s community since its inception and says it has helped her get back to her cultural roots. 

“Being around other African people and reconnecting with others who are like me…I makes me feel like I’m home,” says Chalwe.

“It has helped me appreciate that, at the end of the day, we are all the same. We all like to have fun, we all like to be happy…and dance really does that.”

Dance of Dreamtime

Susan Dickerson dancing to the sounds of the didgeridoo’s. Photo: Harriet Flinn

It’s now 25 minutes past 10 and the children are still waiting patiently behind the stage. Their Aunty, 48-year-old Liz Narkle glances through a small gap in the curtains, watching the audience members shuffle in their seats. She turns to the kids who are staring back at her, wide-eyed, searching for reassurance. But she doesn’t say anything. Instead, she offers a gaze of comfort, of familiarity – one that is only understood by the children. A secret language. They are now ready. 

Josiah Dickerson dancing with his boomerangs with the other boys. Photo: Harriet Flinn.

The curtains are drawn and the kids walk on stage – like they had practiced – one foot after another. As the men settle their didgeridoo’s into position, the familiar vibration of the instruments begins to echo throughout the auditorium. 

The boys then rise to their feet, banging their boomerangs together in time with the music, sharpening their gaze as they extend their arms, hands moving like snakes.  The girls flicker their eucalyptus tree branches, tiptoeing in circles.

Their nerves are replaced by a feeling of pride. The feeling of holding onto something so sacred, and then sharing that with others. But most importantly, finding themselves along the way. 

Koolanga’s Kreate was first established one late night in Bunbury, 10 years ago. Narkle was sending her five boys to bed when one of her twin sons, Jacob, started dancing in a refusal to go to bed.

She asked him what he was doing.

‘The Corroboree Mum, we learnt it at school,” said Jacob.

Narkle then got all the boys out of their bedrooms and into the lounge room to show her the dance they had learnt. 

Her husband then turned to her and said: “You know I can play the didgeridoo.” 

She looked at him in bewilderment. He then grabbed the pipe end off the vacuum cleaner and started to play it like a didgeridoo. And as she watched her family she had a thought – to form a kids’ dance group.

Koolangka’s Kreate before their performance at the Indigenous Emerging Business Forum.
Photo: Harriet Flinn.

“I think it’s vital to their growth, their personal development…it gives them a bit of pride, we’ve lost a lot of our culture.”

Liz Narkle

Narkle is a Noongar Yorga woman who has tribal connections with the south west of Australia through her parents and grandparents. However when growing up Narkle wasn’t as absorbed within her culture as she would’ve liked.  

“For me it’s very important, because when I was younger we didn’t get taught this kind of stuff and I missed out on all of this. I only made up for it as I got older… but I longed for it when I was a kid,” she says.

Narkle explains how and why the children connect to the dances.
Video: Harriet Flinn

On the topic of cultural disconnection, Dr Stolte has researched extensively the notion of reclaiming one’s cultural identity.

A young member of Koolangka’s Kreate performing with the other boys. Photo: Harriet Flinn.

“People tend to phrase it that way, of ‘losing their cultural identity’, as if you can lose your identity like you can lose your car keys. Your car keys are separate from you. You can lose your car keys but your identity is not losable. It is you – it is inherently you,” Dr Stolte says.

However, Dr Stolte says dance can often act as one of many possible stepping stones to cultural reconnection.

“For people who are part of the diaspora, who have not grown up in the culture but are wanting to understand their heritage, dance and language are key aspects to that [understanding], because with language you get a way of seeing the world.

Sanctuary of saris

On the top floor of the Indian Community Centre in South Perth, a wedding is in full swing. The men are hanging bouquets of bananas at the entrance while the women stand together in scattered groups, dressed in vibrant-coloured saris.

Jeena Jamaludin teaching the all-womens class Bollywood choreography. Photo: Harriet Flinn.

But one floor below – in a small, dimly lit room – another celebration is taking place. The women of Bollywood Dance N Beats, run by 38-year-old Jeena Jamaludin, move gracefully around the room dancing in a rhythmic sequence, using their hands, fingers and eyes purposefully . 

Jamaludin has been teaching traditional dance since she was 10, living in her Indian hometown of Kerala. She says that during the countless celebrations that take place throughout India, dance is a major component.

“During the cultural celebrations and art festivals back in Kerala, everyone gathers together and learns some sort of dance… your neighbours, your kids, everyone… so my passion for Indian dance stemmed from there,” Jamaludin she says.

In 2006, Jamaludin moved to Perth with her husband and six-month old son. It’s here that Jamaludin started to notice how young Indian children who recently moved to Perth were unconsciously disconnecting from their culture.

“I started to realise when kids move here they start school and thats a common area they come together,” says Jamaludin.

“But in school they are not immersing in their cultural background. Instead it’s the Australian curriculum. And whether they realise it or not, they were kind of moving away from their cultural roots.”

Jeena Jamaludin
The dances in Bollywood films are a combination of formal and folk Indian music and dance traditions.
Photo: Harriet Flinn.

Dr Stolte says younger generations are more at risk of feeling culturally disconnected.

“When you’re young, especially when you’re a teenager, you are trying to figure out who you are.

“Then there is this added sense that, ‘well, it’s too late now, I’m not enough, I’m just going to go in this direction,'” says Dr Stolte.

It was because of this realisation that Jamaludin decided to start teaching young people what she knew best – Indian dance.

“It first started in my garage five years ago and through word of mouth kids started to show up,” Jamaludin says.

“So I would try to make them understand their culture even though we are not in our home town I tried to replicate it here.

“And it made me feel so happy. Knowing that they were growing up in a community like this, it made me feel very proud.”

Aileen James, left, and Mareena Jaisob, right, at the group Bollywood Dance N Beats dance classes.
Photo: Harriet Flinn.

Aileen James, 20, and Mareena Jaisob, 21, met through Bollywood Dance and Beatz and say the dance classes have taught them a lot about their home country.

“It took me a while to find a place to dance again, but once I did, it just felt like home instantly…it felt like I should be here,” James says.

Dr Stolte says dance communities are fundamental in providing safe spaces to young people who are trying to understand themselves in a cultural context.

James and Jaisob explain why the dance classes help them reconnect to their culture.
Video: Harriet Flinn

“It’s a way of just kind of bringing them in and letting them know you’re a part of something, your part of this community, you are enough,” says Dr Stolte.

“Even if you’re not accepted in your work or act school, in this community you’re 100 per cent accepted…and that can be really empowering for vulnerable youth.”

The Koolangka’s boys huddling together before their performance. Photo: Harriet Flinn.

It’s reached 11am at the Indigenous Emerging Business Forum. Koolangka’s are still hyped as ever. None of the kids have changed out of their clothes. They’re still buzzing with an adrenaline that is hard to believe will ever fade away. Narkle then turns to me.

“As you can see they still run a muck and they get the eyes off me,” she lets out a laugh, eyes creasing. “But it is nice to see them like this, seeing them proud of themselves.”

She takes a look around the room, at the community. Mothers are laughing, trying to persuade the kids to sit down for a split second so they can wipe the dried white paint off their faces. The men are watching the boys with eager eyes as they clutch onto their boomerangs, pretend fighting with each other.

“Everyone who’s involved has an obligation to give back to their community, they all feel like they need to give back, not because they have to but because they want to,” says Narkle.

“So we’ll keep doing this, we’ll keep teaching our children and they’ll teach their children…and we’ll keep giving, for as long as we can.”