A guide to
Dance Rites

Your handbook for the song and dance of
Australia's ancient cultures

This weekend, 24–25 November 2018

Watch the live stream 6pm AEDT on Sunday 25 November

Dance Rites – Australia’s First Nations dance competition – is a free, two-day celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island dance and cultures on the Sydney Opera House Forecourt each Spring.

Dance Rites draws together performers representing nations from across the country from Far North Queensland to Victoria, and Tasmania to Murray Island, the most easterly inhabited island in the Torres Strait.

Groups travel to Sydney to showcase their unique cultures in one of the world’s most spectacular outdoor performance spaces: Bennelong Point. Formerly known as Tubowgule, Bennelong Point has been a meeting place for ritual celebration and dance for tens of thousands of years.

Each group will present three dances: a welcome and a farewell dance – one of which must include a chant in local language – and a ‘wildcard’ dance of the group’s choosing. These will be judged by an expert judging panel for their technical skill and engagement with language, skin-markings and traditional instruments.

Dance Rites provides a national platform for the transmission of cultural knowledge from one generation to the next and from one community to another ... It has become a significant national event, demonstrating how the world’s oldest living culture continues to flourish, thrive and evolve.”
Rhoda Roberts AO, Sydney Opera House Head of First Nations Programming

Photo: Daniel Boud

Photo: Daniel Boud

Meet the
Dance Rites 2018 groups

Buuja Buuja Butterfly (Wiradjuri)
Buuja Buuja Butterfly Dancers is a Sydney-based dance group who perform both traditional and contemporary styles of dance led by Wiradjuri woman, Rayma Johnson. We aim to inspire and empower by helping to spread culture and dance.”

Buuja Buuja Butterfly

Buuja Buuja Butterfly

Buuja Buuja Butterfly

Djirri Djirri (Kulin)
We are called the Djirri Djirri Dance Group, the Woiwurrung (Wurundjeri) name for Willy Wagtail. We named our group Djirri Djirri as it is a little black bird who is well known to dance all the time. We offer dance as an interpretation of our culture with the essence of traditional dance and ceremony. All of our dances have a story about creation, family and Country.”

Djirri Djirri Dance Group

Djirri Djirri Dance Group

Djirri Djirri Dance Group

Duurunu Miru (Yuin)
We are the Duurunu Miru (Sea Dreaming) dance group. We're a little group from the far south coast in the Yuin nation. Our dances tell stories about the land, Dream Time and the tracks around the Thaua country with a smoking ceremony. We have performed at Giiyong Writers' Forum and the local NAIDOC Awards.”

Eip Karem Beizam (Meriam)
Eip Karem Beizam – Meriam Cultural Group registered in 2007 is a Murray Island cultural group based on Thursday Island. Our members are experienced and skilled dancers, weavers, linguists, artist, singers and songwriters. Our aim is to uphold the Meriam culture and traditions, and preserve the Meriam language through cultural practices, storytelling, singing and dancing. ”

Eip Karem Beizam

Eip Karem Beizam

Jumbaal Dreaming (Gumbaynggirr)
“Jumbaal Dreaming is a group of male dancers from the Bowraville area on the Mid North Coast of NSW, the Gumbayngirr Nation. The Troupe was formed 30 years ago by Martin Ballangarry—Elder, Dancer, Songman and Deputy Mayor of Nambucca Shire Council (plus many other hats!). Dancers range from zero to sixty-six (they start in their mother’s womb).”

Mayi Wunba Dancers (Djabugay, Walpara)
We are the local dance troupe of Kuranda, rainforest people of the top of the range of Cairns. Djabugay is my Grandmother's Clan, my Grandfather is Walpara Clan, from the Western Yelanji Nation. We tied first-place winners with Bamaga and Lockhart at River Laura Festival 2017. We've been dancing since the early '80s, so a few generations have come through the dance troupe and have been taught traditional song and dance and also how to make the traditional grass skirts, grass belts to wear, and our weapons—spears (the boys go out to look for the spear tree, and they dance with the spears). Our dance is part of keeping many parts of culture alive and is really important for our community.”

Mayi Wunba Dancers

Mayi Wunba Dancers

Mayi Wunba Dancers

Meuram Murray Island Dance Group (Torres Strait)
Our Group is called Meuram Murray Island Dance Groups Townsville. We are of Meuram Tribe, one of eight tribes of Murray Island, Torres Strait. The Meuram Tribes are the owners of Meuram Lands on Murray Islands, also the surrounding reefs, sand cays and seas of the Murray Island District.”

Minjil (Yidinji)
“Minjil is a community dance group. Minjil is a Yidinji word that means, 'sparks from fire that shoot up in to the night sky'.”

Ngaran Ngaran Dancers (Yuin, Ngarrugu)
“NNCA Dancers have danced at local, regional, state and international events. All dances are complemented with smoking ceremonies, traditional fire sticks, storytelling, interpretation and interactive engagement with audiences. Ngaran Ngaran Culture Awareness was established in 2011. NNCA is a First Nations-owned and operated cultural service provider on the far South Coast of New South Wales on Yuin country.”

Nunukul Yuggera (Nunukul, Yuggera, Yugumbir)
The internationally acclaimed Aboriginal dance troupe Nunukul Yuggera, who are Traditional Custodians of the Brisbane, Ipswich Logan Regions, Stradbroke and Moreton Bay Islands and Gold Coast Regions, started over 20 years ago and have travelled the world extensively, showcasing traditional Aboriginal culture through song, dance and other various forms of cultural expression. Their performances mesmerise the audience through their honest, heartfelt and spiritually lifting expression as if the Dreamtime unfolds before your eyes.”

Nunukul Yuggera

Nunukul Yuggera

Nunukul Yuggera

Of Desert & Sea (various)
“Of Desert & Sea is an emerging company and collective of Aboriginal dancers, currently made up of six young women who range from 17 to 28 years old. We are currently housed at Kurruru Arts and Culture Hub near Port Adelaide. Our dancers come from a variety of language groups and include Narrungga, Wirangu, Ngarrindjeri, Adnyamathanha and Yankunytjatjara. As a collective, we do not have an artistic director, but see ourselves as co-artistic directors, with each dancer having the opportunity to be the lead choreographer on their own dance pieces.”

Pakana Kanaplila (Luwtrawita)
Our Dance Group name is Pakana Kanaplila. We have been performing for over a decade reviving cultural dance practices to ensure traditions of song and dance continue for generations to come. Pakana Kanaplila are a state-wide Tasmanian Aboriginal traditional contemporary dance group and have built a reputation across the Island State performing for all major festivals and have a sound relationship with Tasmania's arts organisations.”

Pakana Kanaplila

Pakana Kanaplila

Pakana Kanaplila

Thikkabilla Vibrations (Ngiyampaa, Gomeroi)
Thikkabilla Vibrations was formed in 2016 by Tyrone Hall from Dubbo. Thikkabilla works with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth to deliver a unique and contemporary yet culturally empowering experience and they do this through a range of programs including dance. Thikkabilla is committed to passing down cultural knowledge and to empower the next generation of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth.”

URAB Dancers (Kulkalgal Nation, Torres Strait)
URAB Dancers are dynamic traditional dance team from Poruma (Coconut) Island that shares close ties with neighboring Kulkalgal Islands in Warraber, Iama and Masig. Our vision is to revive, strengthen and promote the unique Porumalgal culture, identity and traditional stories through songs and dances.”

Wagana Aboriginal Dancers (Wiradjuri)
“Wagana are a group of Wiradjuri, Dharug, Darkinjung, Gamilaroi, Ngunnawal and Dharawal women and girls from the Blue Mountains, the NSW Central West, the NSW Central Coast and Sydney. Wagana are led by Wiradjuri dancer and choreographer Jo Clancy and are blessed to have Jacinta Tobin as their Song Woman. Wagana women and girls have been dancing together on Country every week for fifteen years. They dance, they sing, they weave and they come to Dance Rites with Yindyamarra—respect, honour, gentle and soft steps.”


In Australian First Nations culture, language is more than just a means to communicate—it is inherently connected with the land and has deep spiritual significance. Each language came to the ancestral Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people during the Dreamtime; it's through these unique languages that communities maintain their connection with their ancestors, land, law and culture.

Below is a glossary of important words commonly used to discuss community life, connection to Country, song, dance and cultural lore. There are over 120 surviving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in Australia, many with unique spellings and pronunciations. We’ve included common meanings for these words here along with audio samples voiced by Rhoda Roberts as a guide.

Place and land

Acknowledgement of Country
An Acknowledgement of Country is a way of recognising the traditional custodians' ongoing connection with the land, and of respecting Aboriginal culture and heritage. It can be given by persons of any background.

Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands.

An Eora word that has become part of Australia’s identity. It describes a place of ceremony and creative expression, a transformative gathering for New South Wales.

A term used by Aboriginal people to refer to the land to which they belong and their place of Dreaming. Use of the word in Aboriginal language is much broader than standard English.

The Dreaming can be seen as an embodiment of Aboriginal creation which gives meaning to everything. It establishes the rules governing relationships between the people, the land and all things for Aboriginal people. The word itself has different meanings for different Aboriginal groups.

Homelands (also territories, estates) are located on Aboriginal ancestral lands with cultural and spiritual significance to the First Nations people who live there. Complex connections to land include cultural, spiritual and environmental obligations, including obligations for the protection of sacred sites.

Native to a place or area, originating in and characterising a particular region or country, also including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. ‘Indigenous Australians’ is a term used to refer to the original inhabitants of Australia; it is always capitalised. Many Aboriginal people don’t like the term to be used to refer to them.

(“Missions”) Areas originally set up and governed by different religious denominations for Aboriginal people to live. Missions implemented government policies. Aboriginal people associate the term with trauma suffered from forced living conditions and abuse, rarely with positive memories.

A group of Aboriginal people who share an area of land, river and sea that is their traditional land. A nation has a number of clan or language groups.

A central Australian word for Dreaming.

Photo: Prudence Upton

Photo: Prudence Upton

People and community

Aboriginal and First Nations 
Usually refers to the First Peoples of mainland Australia and other countries such as Canada and Taiwan.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Note that this abbreviation is not liked by many Aboriginal people due to its use in discriminating contexts.

Boss man, boss woman
Connected to Dreaming and Traditional lores, they carry the knowledge for a particular song, dance and story of landscape ancestors.

Many Aboriginal nations are broken into clan groups with their own unique language, dialects and borders. Some clan members cannot marry one another under kinship.

A community includes many important elements: country, family ties and shared experience. Community is about connection and belonging, and is central to Aboriginality. Aboriginal people may belong to more than one community.

A person charged with maintaining and passing on particular elements of cultural significance including: knowledge, stories, songs, dances, language, ritual and imagery.

Custodial elder
The key go-to person within Aboriginal communities, respected and consulted due to their experience, wisdom, knowledge, background and insight. Often described as the ‘custodians of knowledge’ or the ‘libraries’ of a community. The term ‘elder’ does not necessarily equate with age.

First Peoples
The term First Peoples is often used synonymously with 'Aboriginal people' or 'Indigenous people'.

The importance of all relationships, and of being related to and belonging to the land. It’s a complex system that determines how people relate to each other and their roles, responsibilities and obligations in relation to one another, ceremonial business and land. The kinship system determines who marries who, ceremonial relationships, funeral roles and behaviour patterns with other kin.

Colloquial term used by Aboriginal people to refer to a group of people they belong to.

Moiety systems
Skin names are divided into two groups, ‘sun side’ and ‘shade side’, and exist across regions. Most language groups also use a section or subsection system with four to eight skin names. An individual gains a skin name upon birth based on the skin names of their parents, to indicate the section / subsection that they belong to.

Torres Strait Islanders
Refers to the First Peoples of the Torres Strait region (as compared to the mainland people).

Head of First Nations Programming Rhoda Roberts introduces Dance Rites in 2015

Head of First Nations Programming Rhoda Roberts introduces Dance Rites in 2015

Song and dance

A north Australian (Yolngu) word describing a song with dance, or ceremonial dance performance.

The distinctive traditional dance and ceremonial headdress of the Torres Strait. The dancer's headdress is the main symbol on the flag for the Torres Strait region and represents unity for the people.

In Anangu culture, the art of dance is reserved for a very small number of special events and is therefore rarely seen. This dance is called an ‘inma’. Every move and sound is rich with ancient meaning.

The Torres Strait Islands' traditional drum are used for celebrations, island dancing and singing. The drum is carved and hollowed from driftwood. Goanna skin is stretched over the drum and held in place with a split bamboo holding ring sealed with beeswax.

A family of hollow, wooden instruments connected to Yolngu Law and ceremony in song, dance, visual art and narrative. The word ‘didgeridoo’ is an introduced, generic term that lacks the significance and precision of the diverse names for this instrument.

Law and culture

Any object made or modified by Aboriginal people, often stone tools or wooden objects. A group of artefacts (especially stone tools) located on the ground surface is referred to as ‘artefact scatter’.

A 19th century idea that Aboriginal people should become white, convert to Christianity and learn how to work and live as Europeans. From the 1930s assimilation became Australian government policy. With many living under what was known as the Aborigines Protection Act, in 1969 it became known as the Aborigines Act and was repealed in 1983.

The accepted and traditionally patterned ways of behaving, and a set of common understandings shared by members of a group or community. Includes land, language, spirituality, ways of living and working, artistic expression, relationships, and identity.

Customary law
Based on traditions and customs of a particular group in a specific region. Also referred to as ‘lore’.

Describes the ending of colonisation and the liberation of those who were colonised. The process includes dismantling the colonial state and its laws. The ultimate goal is the self-determination of those who were colonised. Those pursuing decolonisation start by reconnecting with kin and country, and disengaging with the colonial system.

Language group
Language is linked to particular geographical areas. The term ‘language group’ is often used in preference to the term ‘tribe’, and many Aboriginal people identify themselves through their language group.

The learning and transmission of cultural heritage. See also: ‘customary law’.

Denotes a domestic treaty between the Commonwealth government and Aboriginal people. It comes from a word in the Yolngu language meaning coming together after a struggle, facing the facts of wrongs and living again in peace.

Message stick
A message stick is a form of communication used by groups entering other clan and nation boundaries. Message sticks were incised and carved passed between different clans and language groups to establish information and transmit messages and walk across country on invitation and safe passage.

Originally a Danish word, now used for a large heap of shell and other food remains left by Aboriginal people at camp sites which build up over an extended period of time. Middens are often found near rock platforms and in proximity of fresh water.

A songline (also known as a ‘Dreaming Track’ or ‘Trade Routes’ ) is a path across the land which marks the journey of creator-beings as they created the lakes, rivers, plants, land formations and living creatures during the Dreaming. Songlines are recorded in traditional songs, stories, dance, and painting.

Sorry Business
An English expression mostly adopted from mainland Aboriginal people to refer to a period of cultural practices and protocols associated with death. The most widespread ceremonies of Sorry Business are conducted around the bereavement and funerals for a deceased person.

The ultimate power, authority or jurisdiction over a people and a territory. No other person, group, tribe or state can tell a sovereign entity what to do with its land or people. A sovereign entity can decide and administer its own laws, determine the use of its land and do pretty much as it pleases, free of external influence—within the limitations of international law. Sovereignty is a more precise term than ‘self-determination’.

A wooden device used to throw spears. The woomera is held in one hand while the other hand places the butt of the spear on the woomera's hook. From the Dharug Language of Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

Dance Rites logo and play button

Watch the Dance Rites 2018 live stream

Watch the Dance Rites 2018 live stream

The Sydney Opera House honours our First Nations by fostering a shared sense of belonging for all Australians, and we acknowledge the Gadigal people, traditional custodians of Tubowgule, the land on which the Opera House stands.

Dance Rites 2018 Acknowledgments
The Sydney Opera House acknowledges the generous support of the ARROW Collective – Dance Rites Foundation Partner – Sydney Opera House donors and Event Partners Quay Quarter Sydney and Westpac.

Jane Kift, Alexandra Martin, Nicola Penn, Janne Ryan

Inner Circle of Friends
Shar Adams, Albert Fisher Family Trust, Michael & Janie Austin, Tony & Dara Bridgewater, Annabelle Chapman, 33 Creative, Toni Frecker & Alex Burger, Ryissa Fogarty, Joanne Jakovich, Susanne James & Malcolm McClintock, Leone & Matthew Lorrimer, James & Claire Kirby Family Fund, Jean McPherson, Martin Portus, Regal Health Group, Tegan Redinbaugh, Lindy Ryan, Bronwyn Simons, Susan Spencer, Stephen Wells, Fiona Winning

Justin Tam, Dominic Ellis

Rhoda Roberts, Francesca Hughes

Audio engineering
Jacob Burkett, Justin Tam

Web development
Justin Tam

Dominic Ellis

Daniel Boud, Prudence Upton,
Joseph Mayers, Simone Fisher,
Syrenne Anu

Additional assets
Esther Crowley

Thanks to all the participants
in Dance Rites

Buuja Buuja Butterfly, Djirri Djirri, Duurunu Miru, Eip Karem Beizam, Illawarra Flame Trees, Injinoo Aboriginal Dance Group, Jumbaal Dreaming, Mayi Wunba Dancers, Meuram Murray Island Dance Group, Minjil, Ngaran Ngaran Dancers, Nunukul Yuggera, Pakana Kanaplila, Thikkabilla Vibrations, URAB Dancers

Thanks to the performers
ALLKUMO Dancers, Electric Fields, Indigenous Enterprise, Kulgoodah Dancers, Leonard Sumner with Julian Bel Bachir, Muggera, Te Rua Mauri

With thanks
Susie Anderson, Neil Simpson

For more of the stories that make the Sydney Opera House, visit Backstage

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