We recently had the opportunity to attend the Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival in Far North Queensland. The festival occurs every 2 years, so it was a very special that we got to attend this exciting and special event. The town of Laura has a population of around 120 people, but during the festival, the township swells to almost 5,000. People from over 20 different communities travel across the region and up to 500 performers participate in the sharing of their culture. There isn’t much to the town; if you blinked you could have passed right through with out noticing, except that the paved road ends after Laura. The ecosystem of this region of the Cape York Peninsula is much different than the rainforest of the Tablelands, where the SFS Center is based. It is drier, hotter, and the vegetation is more sparse than in our green, damp, mold-loving home base.
The festival is held about 15 km away from the main town at a very discreet location down a dirt track into the bush. It is at the Ang-Gnarra Festival Grounds, a traditional and sacred Bora site that has been used by the Aboriginal people for many generations to share their stories, dance, language, and art with other Aboriginal groups from around the region, and now, with people from other parts of the world. The dance site is an opening in the tall trees, covered in soft, brown earth, and surrounded by ancient, spectacular rock art. All the spectators sit in a huge circle, just outside of the dance ground, some in chairs, many on the ground. The dancers from the different regions, such as the Mayi Wunba group from Kuranda, and the Gura Buna Gunggandji group from Yarrabah, all took turns dancing and telling stories.
Each group was different from the next. Some were only children dancing; some were a mix of adults and children; some were large groups of up to 30 people; and some consisted of just 5 dancers. The music, dress, and some dance moves were similar among the groups, but each had their own style. There was one dance group that really grabbed my attention. This group of dancers consisted of 7 young boys of varying ages—the oldest was maybe 10 years old. They wore grass skirts with red clothing underneath and had intricate designs painted in white on their upper bodies, limbs, and faces. The boys were dancing without any adults leading them, and all knew exactly what they were doing. The “Eagle Dance” was amazing—they individually danced like a soaring eagle, stomping and swaying to the beat of the drum and pulse of the Didgeridoo. The youngest boy couldn’t have been more than 5 years old, and he danced with so much passion that everyone couldn’t help cheering for him. The crowd was so excited, the boys repeated the dance a second time!
One of the group leaders spoke about the purpose of the festival. It is partly a time for the diverse Aboriginal communities of the area to come together to share history, culture, and experience, through dance, stories, song, and art, with each other and others from around the nation and world. However, the most important purpose is to pass the rich cultural history on to the younger generations within the Aboriginal groups. It is a time to celebrate and to give respect to the traditions and stories that must be passed on to the children in order to keep the Aboriginal culture alive and strong.
The Aboriginal culture of the Cape York Peninsula is a living one, filled with people that are willing to work at keeping it strong. It was awe-inspiring and a privilege to be able to share in the passing on of this ancient culture across generations and nations. It was an experience and place that will always be remembered.