Dance Rites aims to revitalise vanishing cultural practices – language, dance, skin markings, and instruments – to ensure they are shared from one generation to the next. The competition sees groups from around the country compete for the winner’s prize of $20,000.
Last year more than 180 participants from 12 communities participated and Yuin woman, Sharon Mason, founder of the Djaadjawan group was part of it, scoring second place. This year the group is hoping to take the top spot.
“When I started this group I aimed to get my girls to the opera house within five years, but they were so good it only ended up taking three,” Mason told NITV News.
The Djaadjawan group was always something Sharon wanted to create. For more than five years, Sharon went through a brutal experience with domestic violence. At the time she felt trapped, disconnected and had lost her identity.
“There was a lot of fear that held me in that toxic relationship and you get into a stage where you’re moulded into it and can’t get out," she said.
"I ended up escaping with my son in my arms - I lay on the bus floor to get out so I didn’t get seen and now I’m back on my own country and haven’t looked back since.”
Restoring culture and strength
The 43-year-old felt the need to create an environment which would help strengthen Indigenous women, bring back culture and preserve language. In 2013 she formed Djaadjawan, which means sand in the Bhurga language, and now continues to encourage Indigenous people to explore their roots through culture.
This year there will be 12 women from Djaadjawan performing at Dance Rites and some of those ladies have been impacted by domestic violence - this for Sharon, was the driving cause to turn to creative dance.
The group ranges in age with the eldest member being 70 and the youngest, just two.
“In my dance group there’s four generations of girlsstemming from my mother who turned 70 this year, right around to the grandchildren. This for us is a time to really connect to our country, culture and showcase our Aboriginal pride,” said Mason.
Sharon’s mother, Vivian Mason is a proud Yuin woman born on Narooma in NSW far south coast. The 70-year-old competitor says it’s up to Elders to inspire, empower and educate the next generation.
“I’ve got to keep the girls on their toes and seeing me active makes them get up and do more – that’s the benefits of dancing when you’re 70,” she said.
“There are terrible things in the world but you’ve got to keep on moving, that’s what I’m there to show them.”
“When we go out there, we dance on our country, we sing, we show that we’re proud of our culture. I tell the girls you’re black, show it!"
Vivian says 'old teachings return to the next generation, who are proud to showcase their culture'.”
“When we go out there, we dance on our country, we sing, we show that we’re proud of our culture. I tell the girls you’re black, show it! It’s a beautiful experience,” she said.
Our dancers are so shy, you wouldn’t get a boo out of them if you scare them, but as soon the ochre comes on, they transform into someone else and come alive on stage."
Sharon describes Dance Rites not as a competition, but instead a ‘coming together.’
“It is like a spiritual ceremony because so many clans from all across the nation are able to perform traditional song, dance and language in Sydney harbour, where everything first started,” she explained.
“Since Dance Rites I’ve noticed a lot of our people have gone back to their culture and that makes a difference amongst communities. We need to go back in reverse, despite the world may be moving forward, we need to take a step back because we need to follow the drama.”
Sydney Opera House Head of First Nations Programming, Rhoda Roberts AO, says Dance Rites invites audiences to engage with language, dance, skin markings and traditions of diverse First Nations cultures.
“By engaging with culture, we preserve and celebrate it – but the experience isn’t just about the audience – participants reconnect and reclaim their personal histories through dance as well as build connection in their communities.”
More First Nations culture needed internationally
Sharon believes there needs to be more First Nation celebrations on an international level where all heritages are recognised.
“New dance groups continue to emerge and have joined us doing all sorts of things like women’s business and women’s camps. It’s like a big gathering where people from the same culture can unite and share yarns, dance moves and just connect,” she said.
“Things like this should be continued around the world so First Nations people can unite. We’ve got a lot of teachings that we need to pass on to them and also learn from them. They’d be good role models for our mob to move forward.”