Thursday, November 4, 2010

Contexualized Dance Among Australian Aboriginals

Easter Purlapa, in Yuendumu (Yurntumu), Central Australia, 1978.
In this scene Jesus is taken by soldiers for his crucifixion.

A corroboree is a ceremonial meeting of Aboriginal Australians. The word was coined by the European settlers of Australia in imitation of the Aboriginal word caribberie. At a corroboree Aboriginal Australians interact with the Dreamtime through dance, music and costume. Many of the ceremonies are sacred and people from outside a particular community are not permitted to participate or watch. There are some women's and men's dances and songs, and those used by both men and women. Whether it be public or private, the ceremony is for invited guests. As a part of these dances members of the language would paint particular designs on their bodies to indicate the type of ceremony being held and the language group and family group performing. More on this below.

In the late 1970's, Baptist missionary Ivan Jordan began to see a potential for the use of corroborees in presenting biblical stories, such as Christmas and Easter. But after casually suggesting this to Warlpiri believers, it didn't produce any results. This was because among Australian Aboriginals, corroborees are not created but are handed down from elders or other tribes (whose ancestors handed the corroborees down to them). The only way new corroborees are created is on rare occasions when someone receives a new song in a dream or vision from a recently deceased Warlpiri.

But the Christian Warlpiris decided that since the Bible was received from God, it was permissible to create new corroborees based on it. So the Christian Warlpiris at Lajamanu developed a Christmas corroboree in 1977 and first performed it for a combined meeting of the Lajamanu and Yuendumu churches. The next year the Yuendumu church in turn created an Easter corroboree, to which many people trekked to watch from surrounding areas. Since then, the Lajamanu church has created a 'One Family' corroboree based on Galatians 3:28, which was performed in some of Australia's largest cities. Other created corroborees illustrate the crucifixion, the story of Ruth and Naomi, and the story of Timothy.

The process of creating these performances was a group effort, as is normal in Aboriginal society. Of course, the songs themselves had to be created, which usually consist of a few words repeated over and over. During corroborees, the male and female performers are naked from the waist up. The women cover their upper bodies with painted symbols which illustrate the story, while the men usually cover theirs with wamulu, a pulverised seed head colored with red or white ochre. Jordan notes that this partial nudity sometimes created resistance from white Baptists. However, he said that the Warlpiri Christians decided that the traditional practice was right for them, because it was focused on communication of the story, not flaunting one's sexuality. In traditional Aboriginal culture, such designs are considered to have ancestral and Dream power, designs which Nancy D. Munn describes as “a kind of graphic condensation of the vital qualities of dreams.”

After the body designs were discussed and agreed upon, the starting positions and gestures of the dances also had to be worked out. After each performance, an aboriginal church leader would explain the meaning of the story while the dancers dressed. He would then conclude by praying.

One interesting aspect of corroborees is that in the traditional (non-Christian) dances, the performers are considered to become one with the Dreaming that they are portraying. In this sense (if I understand it correctly), the Aboriginal Christians also become co-participants in the stories that they are portraying. J.V. Taylor has commented that in regards to ceremonial participation, the Aboriginal mindset is “I participate, therefore I am.” Jordan suggests that in this way Christian corroborees may become a “means of grace” for Aboriginal believers, much as Paul wrote about being “in Christ,” and being crucified and risen with Him.

Lastly and sadly, Jordan reports that due to old age and death, it is increasingly difficult to find new dancers and singers to take their places because many younger Aboriginal Australians aren't interested in the traditional ways. But Jordan also acknowledges that when many of them hit their thirties, they become more interested in traditional ways, and so he hopes that this will become the case with the Christian corroborees.  I leave you with a video of a Corroboree: 


  1. This is great! Did you research it? Did you read Ivan't book? I've scoured the web for a copy of it, no copy for sale anywhere in the world. :-(

    This review points out that the whole book is the perspective of the missionary, and it does not contain any voices of Warlpiri Christians which would have also been valuable.

  2. I do own a copy of Ivan's book, and based a lot of my post on it (the rest I found on the web). I bought a copy online a few years ago, but don't see any listed now (I use mostly).

    The link you provided does point out some limitations/criticisms of the book. I agree that it would be great to hear more from the Warlpiri Christians themselves regarding their faith and art. If you want to read more about Aboriginal Christian theology, try Rainbow Spirit Theology: Toward an Australian Aboriginal Theology, available on Amazon and elsewhere. I should probably do more research online to see if I can find additional insights from Aboriginal Christian artists themselves (seems like I've read some before). Please let me know if you find any artist info as well.

    There are two additional Aboriginal Christian art books that I've tried in vain to order from, but I may begin emailing other addresses at the school to see if I can get any response.

    Good News! A friend recently sent me some info that she received from Ivan Jordan, author of Their Way, which is available for purchase again. Here's what he wrote:

    Copies of 'Their Way' are available. The first 2 print runs were done by Charles Darwin University Press but they sold out a few years ago. The Australian Baptist Mission I served with, Global Interaction, did another print run a couple of years ago and they have copies available. Contact details are;

    Global Interaction
    P.O. Box 273
    Tel 03 9819 4944