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Behind the Curtain Blog

NDEO's "Behind the Curtain" Blog features articles written by NDEO members about dance and dance education topics as well as periodic updates on NDEO programs and services. This is a FREE resource available to ALL.


Cultural Appropiation in Dance: Lessons from DaCi 2018

NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Vanessa Finnegan, BFA, MAT. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.

In the summer of 2018, I attended Panpapanpalya, the most recent Dance and the Child International Conference (DaCi), in Adelaide, Australia. As a student and teacher of dance, and a choreographer looking to learn and expand her artistic practice, I was absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to be there. People had come from all around the world to celebrate and enjoy dance together. There were workshops, lectures, dance performances at the local hospital, pop up performances, and a concert in which groups of students from various schools around the world performed their works.

A bearded man is holding a stick with red and white tribal paint on his torso and face


One special treat that came with the location of this specific DaCi conference was getting to learn about the Aboriginal peoples, who originally inhabited the land we now know as Australia; as well as to experience their dances. Something I noticed throughout the city of Adelaide was that the public seemed to hold a deep respect and reverence towards the Aboriginal Australians. The Aboriginal peoples were mentioned by keynote speakers at almost every gathering, reminding us to remember Australia’s heritage and the native people still living and keeping that history alive today.

During the opening ceremony of the conference, descendants of the Aboriginal Gana people performed a ceremonial dance in Adelaide square. They welcomed us to their land,  performed a smoke ceremony, offered a blessing of healing smoke, and shared music and vocalizations with us. Later that night, Aboriginal peoples were led in dance by one of the elder people. The dancers were mostly children and adolescents, and because the Aboriginal peoples numbers are small the group performed many dances that demonstrated the traditions of not just one tribe, but various indigenous tribes. 

At a keynote speech following the performance, a woman in the audience brought up a question related to cultural appropriation: “It seemed that not all of the dancers in the Aboriginal performance were native people.” This assumption was based on the fact that about half of the children had much lighter skin than their elders. The keynote speaker, David McAllister of The Australian Ballet, responded that in fact all of the dancers did indeed have aboriginal ancestry.

It made sense to me that the idea of Aboriginal dances being performed by non-Aboriginal people in this dance demonstration would be bothersome to the questioner. However, it is important to remember not judge others based on appearance alone. No people - and no dance - remains stagnant. The Aboriginal people intermarried with European settlers, and Aboriginal dance has also changed, based on new influences and experiences. As McAllister discussed in the keynote, the sharing of culture can make for a richer, deeper experience for everyone involved.  McAllister went on to recall and describe one particular project of The Australian Ballet, in which native dances were blended with classical ballet. The Aboriginal people gave permission for and even participated in the project, which was hailed as a beautiful sharing of cultural dances. 

Big Dance,another example of cultural sharing through dance, was a dance form featured in workshops throughout the conference. Big Dance blends contemporary and indigenous choreography, creating dances that portray aboriginal stories while also connecting across cultures. Moreover, it allows for non-Aboriginal people to experience a piece of indigenous culture, without appropriating and commoditizing any of the original sacred aboriginal dances. I chose to take several of the Big Dance workshops, and I came to recognize it as a testament to the wonderful collaborations taking place between Non-Aboriginal Australians and the descendants of the Aboriginal Australians themselves. 

In the Big Dance workshops I attended, I learned the RED group choreography. This section focuses on the themes of bloodlines; the coming together of cultures, the heart of the country, and the red of the earth. These are themes that appear in traditional Aboriginal dances. However, because many of the traditional dances of Aboriginal peoples are considered sacred and are often kept secret from outside cultures, the movements themselves have been modified. By sharing their stories and allowing outside culture to participate in their traditions on their own terms, the Aboriginal dancers allow for a natural evolution of their dance without sacrificing the integrity of their traditions.

At the end of the conference, as part of the closing ceremony, all of those who took part in a Big Dance workshop had the opportunity to perform as a sort of flashmob. The movements, performed by an overwhelming number of dancers, were incredibly heartfelt and connecting. There was an urgency and seriousness to the movements as well, as if we were all moving along together on the same, somewhat trepidatious journey.

You can learn the movements to all three Big Dance segments online here. And you can read a bit about the Aboriginal story themes behind each section here.

For me, there were two important takeaways from this experience. For one, we must always be sensitive to the cultural origins of dance, and of any form of art. At the same time, we must remain open to new stories, and new ways of experiencing movement. With open communication and respect, we can benefit from the experience of  learning the dances of other cultures. Secondly, when teaching a dance from a culture other than your own, dance educators must first educate their students about the culture from which the dance originates. What is the story behind the dance, and who are the people of that story? Even a small amount of knowledge about the origins of a dance can be the difference between feeling entitled to a story that is not your own, and feeling honored to be allowed to step into someone else’s shoes and share a part of their story through dance.

Vanessa is a white woman with short brown hair wearing a long black dress standing in front of a storefront poster


Vanessa Finnegan graduated with her BFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Sweet Briar College, with concentrations in Dance and Creative Writing in 2017. She studied with dance educators Mark Magruder (Director of Dance at SBC) and Ella Magruder (author of "Dancing for Young Audiences”). Vanessa then went on to receive her Masters in Teaching degree, also from Sweet Briar, in 2018. She maintains post-graduate professional licensure to teach PK-12 dance and has been a dance educator for the past 4 years. She has taught many genres including ballet, hip hop, creative dance, modern, and contemporary, specializing in modern dance. Vanessa is also a newly established choreographer. She has choreographed solo and group modern dance pieces for 5 years at Sweet Briar College, she recently choreographed for 246 The Main’s children's musical, "The Little Mermaid", performed original choreography at the 2018 Dance and The Child International (DaCi) conference in Adelaide, Australia, and worked as the Director of Dance at Infinity Arts Center in Sterling, VA throughout 2019. In addition to her passions for choreographing, performing, and teaching dance, Vanessa is enthusiastic about advocating for dance and the arts. On her interdisciplinary arts blog,, Vanessa writes about and advocates for dance along with other forms of art.

Photos by Katrina Buniak

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