• "Growing up, I would always take part in the dance groups at school": Medika Thorpe. Pic: Medika Thorpe (Facebook)Source: Facebook
Medika Thorpe, a proud Gunai-Gureng Gureng woman, was born in Melbourne but grew up within Sydney’s vibrant Aboriginal arts scene. She is part of a new generation of cultural activists. Along with Sani Ray Townson and Darren Compton, she dances in support of host Sean Choolburra in the second season of NITV’s comedy show Express Yourself. Medika talked to NITV about the role of dance in her life, rehearsing for Express Yourself in Redfern, and why comedy is such an important platform for expression in Aboriginal Australia.
Rowena Potts

1 Jun 2016 - 1:34 PM  UPDATED 13 Jun 2016 - 10:53 AM

"Dancing has always been a part of my life. My mum was going to NAISDA Dance College (National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association) when we were kids, so we were always around the college and around these amazing dancers who were starting their own careers in dance.

We were part of that Aboriginal art scene from a very young age."

Always dancing

At the age of nine I took part in one of Bangarra Dance Company’s first productions, Praying Mantis Dreaming (Bangarra’s first full-length work, directed and choreographed by Stephen Page). I got to travel all over Australia and to London, UK.

Growing up, I would always take part in the dance groups at school, performing at school assemblies, and I also had the opportunity to dance at the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.

After high school I was working in NSW Health in Redfern, when a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to be a dance facilitator for the Vibe 3on3. I jumped at the chance.

While working full time, Medika began facilitating dance workshops on weekends for Vibe Australia’s National Indigenous 3on3 Basketball and Hip Hop Challenge founded by the late Gavin Jones. Vibe 3on3 was a travelling youth event that promoted health, well-being, education, careers, cultural awareness and cultural pride to primary and secondary school students in regional communities around Australia. Vibe 3on3 ran for fifteen years before being forced to close due to government budget cuts in 2014.

From Vibe 3on3 to Move It Mob Style

"It was amazing. The opportunity for me to travel out to all these communities across Australia, some so small they only had a couple of hundred people. It was such an eye opener and gave me more of an appreciation for our communities and the importance of sticking together and spreading positive messages to our youth.”

Through Vibe 3on3, Medika became involved with Move It Mob Style, a television series produced in collaboration with NITV that promoted fitness and health through Hip Hop and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander music. Medika was a dancer on all four of seasons of the show.

Move It Mob Style was an amazing TV program that was created out of Vibe Australia. It became really popular and was nominated for a Logie and an ASTRA award so we knew we were on the right track, that our youth and our Aboriginal Australian and non-Indigenous (audiences) were inspired and entertained by the show. Move It Mob Style was the last thing I did in dance before I went to Canada.

I was in Canada when I got news that Vibe had lost funding. It was quite a sudden thing, and everyone was shocked at the news. All of these amazing initiatives that Vibe had created over 20 years were ripped away from us. It didn't just affect the people that were working at Vibe - it affected all our communities, the whole of Australia and Australia's Aboriginal future. Where do we go now? Do we start from scratch? It was pretty devastating to learn. And then we lost Gavin Jones. I guess the one thing you could see as a positive that came out of this was that people were inspired to continue his legacy.”

At the heart of Indigenous culture in Canada

In 2014, Medika travelled to Toronto, Canada, for a two-year adventure. It was a temporary hiatus away from dance, but landed her at the heart of the Indigenous film and media arts industry.

“In Canada, I fell into another industry - the film industry. I started working behind the scenes for the imagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival as the Guest Services Manager. ImagineNATIVE is the world’s largest indigenous film festival with a real community feel. That’s what made me really comfortable about being over there - because I would get homesick. But I'm really happy that I pushed myself to try something different.

Eventually I did feel part of a community and it’s like my second home now. During my time in Canada I really learnt so much about myself and grew a lot as a person, and I gained so much experience and made so many connections. Coming home and being a part of Express Yourself was just icing on the cake.”

The day after Medika arrived home in Sydney, she started rehearsals for Express Yourself Season 2. Rehearsals took place at the Aboriginal Dance Theatre Redfern (ADTR), a historic community arts space founded in 1979 to provide dance and theatre training to the Aboriginal community of Redfern.

“I mean - that building is part of Aboriginal history, it has a lot of significance. I’ve rehearsed there before, so for me to come back home and start rehearsing there, and to think of all the people that have been between those walls doing amazing things in their community, and in the arts community - it was pretty inspiring.


The Express Yourself experience

Jumping straight into rehearsals nearly every day was full on for me because I hadn't danced in so long, but I knew it was going to be a great show because of the people who were working on it. I was really honoured to be a part of it. I embraced it and just had a lot of fun. It really brought back my dancing spirit again.”

For Medika, not only does Express Yourself provide an important platform for established and emerging artists, it also has the potential to reach a wide audience and smash stereotypes in the process.

Express Yourself has so many elements. It’s not just comedy, there’s dance, music, DJing, performance, songwriting - there are so many genres that we tap into. The comedians on Season 2 are so ridiculously funny, some are friends of mine who’ve been doing comedy for years, but it’s also good to see new faces in Aboriginal comedy as well.

We all think we're comedians sometimes but Aboriginal humour has always been quite different. I think we laugh at almost everything. We always see the light side of situations. We make a joke out of most things even if it's quite serious, we try to find something that's positive and hang on to that. I think that comes from surviving and keeping family together - being able to sit around and have a laugh. It probably stems from a lot of things: what we've endured as Indigenous people of this country.

Can you imagine if we just took on all of that pain and let it take over us? We would be so miserable but we're very resilient people and I think comedy is a big part of our survival. It shows our strength in so many ways.

This show has the potential to go places - it could go around community, it could go anywhere around Australia, it could even go overseas, because it's so entertaining. And we want all of Australia to understand we are positive, and we can be successful and we can be funny, and just squash these stereotypes of Aboriginal people. We can create something amazing and we want all of Australia, and the whole world to watch.”

Watch Express Yourself Season 2 from 9 June, @ 9pm on NITV. Catch up on episodes with SBS On Demand HERE.