Amata (Pitjantjarra lands, Central desert Australia)
Updated: Jul 1, 2019
The cold, yellow paint is brushed onto my chest first, then the black. It represents the goanna - parenti - dreaming. Wire and I get the same colours. Then Manu starts getting painted up black and white, I ask our teacher, Tjapaya "What do the colours represent?" He looks at me, as if to say, don't you know anything? and says "The magpies" the Aussie rules football team, and walks off.
Once us men have been painted up then we return to the group where the women too have been painted. There are six women and four men and we all assemble in front of Mantitjarra (Mrs Wilson) like a bunch of schoolkids on our first day of school, proud to have been painted, anxious that we don't make a mistake in the dance. Mrs Wilson looks us up and down, laughs from her large belly "Ooh look, you lot looking good now eh?" We laugh a little and smile oursleves into a slightly less awkward posture. In ten years of intermittent work with different Aboriginal communities, I've never been painted up and done a traditional dance before - I'm trying to look relaxed.
We're standing on red sand hills beneath the most magnificent blue sky, looking out onto a prehitoric vista of dark green desert oaks that dissapear into valleys of Grand Canyon proportions. Most of the teenage women we have travelled here with have opted to slink away. They are talking by the fire, doing milputjanyanni (drawing stories in the sand with sticks) or digging for water just 3 feet beneath the sand to make tea. I get the feeling they are all watching us though.
We are a motley group from Sydney and Adelaide along with some local Amata mob, all brought together by an ongoing community outreach project by Carclew Youth Arts who are based in Adelaide. Lee-Anne, my boss, is the woman who initiated this project, a Nunga woman, barefoot in a black negligee painted up and looking proud as punch. Finton, our video artist in charge of making video clips and short films looks like the six foot three half Fijian Tex Perkins that he is , or as Sammy Butcher from the legendary Aboriginal rock band, The Warumpi Band, refers to him as “This is my friend Nick Cave!". Wire is a short, nuggetty, Ghumbingaree Koori from the East Coast – a long way from his homeland – and I, a Brissy born, Sydney dwelling, slim, lanky white fella, am about as far away from the glamours of Bondi Beach as you can get.
Manu is selected as the goanna and as he stands there, the rest of us fan our hands over and around him while Mantijarra sings away with the help of two other women. No clapsticks here, they are banging two plastic cups together to keep the rhythm. Tourists like myself buy the clapsticks from the community art store but living culture like this can use anything. It reminds me of a corroboree I was invited to in Numbulwar community in Arnhem Land. Car headlight illuminated the scene in the dirt driveway of the backyard, aunties, uncles and dogs gathered around as the women danced in the dirt. Five women with two of them being albino sisters gave the scene a slightly heightened sense of the surreal. But the highlight of the night was when a five year old boy leapt out to do his dance in front of his grandfather, mother, father and family….in a spiderman suit. No problem, they sung their song, he did his dance with the same sharp intensity as his aunties and uncles, hit his final freeze in a cloud of dust to howls of applause and laughter from everyone around the fire. One woman turned to me and said with a smile “That was a good one eh? Spiderman corroboree."
Back in central desert Pitjantjarra lands it’s time for the men’s dance. We have been given a quick five minute lesson by Tjapaya, only twenty one years old but already a keeper of knowledge, strong traditional dancer and occasional university lecturer. With cups of tea being passed around, the aunties and women dancers sit and prepare to watch Manu, Wire and myself. Like a footy coach Tjapaya is running alongside us telling us what to do. “Step, step, arms up, run in now" Mantijara starts knocking the plastic cups together and her singing seems to wind up from the soft, cool, red sand hills we stand on. I’m nervous. Put me in a Bboy circle and I can bust a move no problem, but this a whole other level. As we run through the sand, jamming our heels into the earth, kicking up the dust with these ancient voices singing to us I feel a bit like an empty vessel, floating, being guided, no room for ego, it’s not really about the choreography. As the sun sets in the valley and we dance I realise it’s not really my body that has to learn to dance here, it’s my spirit.