Traditional Dancer

Dance is more than moving to a rhythm. It is an anchor to identity

Author: Ray Kelly

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Ray Kelly
Ray Kelly is a proud Goori from Awabakal country with ties to Dunghutti and Biripi nations.

In the mid 1980s when I was about six or seven years-old, my father Ray Kelly Senior wrote and directed his first piece of theatre titled Get Up and Dance. The play explored the lives of an Aboriginal family living on an Armidale mission in the mid 1960s and focused on a young boy named Goori who lived with his grandmother and grandfather in a tin shack alongside the local garbage dump. Goori’s time on the mission was also shared with his uncle Spider and friend Charlie.

Throughout the play the audience follows the journey of Goori as he struggles to find his place and belonging in his confusing world. One side of his life is a rich history of culture and heritage and the other side a new, challenging world that is exciting, but not overly inviting. As Goori tap dances between both worlds trying to find a place that is his, he is confronted with the reality that he belongs nowhere: Goori is in his own personal limbo.

Goori speaks with the people in his world. Grandfather, a fence builder, encourages him to look to the future, to get an education, and to adjust to the new way. Uncle Spider is a drinker, a realist who is quick to tell Goori there is no place for him out there. Uncle Spider invites him to take a seat and share his McWilliams Port. It is only through his relationship with grandmother that Goori finds a glimmer of hope. The two begin to talk as they search through an ageing trunk, looking at frail photos of people no longer alive, holding medals of unrecognised wars and hearing stories of a life Goori believes he will never live. Goori lets his mind travel.

Grandma paints a picture of people dancing, of families and communities all moving together, singing and laughing. There are uncles stomping the ground like emus with firecracker feet, raising dust and thumping the earth. It is this visual that ignites the strength within Goori. He no longer feels disconnected. He has found his own pathway, his belonging.

Get Up and Dance finishes with Goori dancing amongst the rubbish at the dump, trying his best to be that emu with firecracker feet. He is watched by all the people in his life. Goori’s journey has begun.

I got up and danced.

One of my earliest memories is of piling into a bus with about 20 people – mostly teenagers – headed for the now defunct theme park, Old Sydney Town. I was no older than five years of age. My father had gathered a group of young men from the local area and created a dance group and we were to play the role of traditional natives for the theme park’s audiences. As we travelled on that dingy old bus towards Old Sydney Town, I heard my father speak to the young men about why dancing was important. He spoke of culture, he spoke of togetherness, he spoke of personal responsibility. Obviously, it didn’t make any sense to me at that young age, but I did notice the amount of respect the young men had for his words.

The dance group continued on for many years. We toured New South Wales performing at schools and major events, we even graced the stage of the Sydney Opera House. These times last as great memories in my mind.

I continued to dance well into my teens and soon helped to establish a dance group of my own, a group of cousins and friends who were young, energetic and keen to impress the girls. As this group grew, it became more than just useful for picking up, I began to become aware that I was moving into a leadership role within the group. I found the words of my father come flowing back through me: culture, togetherness, responsibility.

It was at this point I realised that dance was so much more than simply moving to a rhythm. Just like Goori in Get up and Dance, dancing is who I am.

Dancing has opened many doors for me through the years. I have travelled the world sharing the energy of my peoples. I have danced with the Maori on sacred lands. I have stomped and jumped with the Masi Mara under the African stars. I have even shared a stage with samurai in Japan, learning and growing through our cultural exchange. I have learnt many lessons from other cultures. Though customs and traditions and beliefs may look different and belong to other people I have also found many similarities which I can relate to my own people. This has broadened my vision of myself and my place in this world.

I now see that Goori in Get Up and Dance is not only my father or myself. Goori is all Aboriginal people who need an anchor to their identity.

No longer a child or a teenager, I look to the future and see the lives of my three daughters, my nephews and my niece. I already see the emu with firecracker feet, I see the eagles reaching for the sun, I see the journey of a generation who through the power of dance will one day stand alone and be proud to say I got up and danced.

This story was first published on 30 March 2017 by Guardian Australia as part of their collaboration with IndigenousX. Produced with assistance of IndigenousX & Guardian Australia staff.

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