Dean Widders, centre, and members of the Bangarra dance troupe in Araatika: Rise Up! (2021). Courtesy of SBS, 2021.
“I started with the real goal of making this dance powerful so it meant a lot to our Indigenous community and our kids, but then for non-Indigenous Australians to know more about our culture.” - Dean Widders (2021).
In our previous post, we reviewed the feature documentary Araatika: Rise Up! (2021) and its documenting of Indigenous NRL Legend Dean Widders’ Mission to Create an Australian Pregame War Cry. Today, we’ll be sharing how Widders (2021) has taken the NRL pregame Unity Dance, and its messages of cultural and social empowerment, from the realm of Rugby League “to the community, to all Aboriginals and all Australians” (Widders, 2021).
When COVID 19 hit in March 2020, all NRL games were shut down and plans for players to perform at the 2020 New Zealand - Australia Test were disrupted. This resulted in a low point for Widders as he long-defined himself by football. In the documentary, we see Widders set out to the Ingelba Mission in his hometown of Armidale, hoping that connecting to his ancestral roots will help him find something meaningful outside the realm of footy (Araatika:Rise Up!, 2021). Here, he reflects on these circumstances, saying:
“Rugby League made me strong, but now it’s for me to step up to become the man that I always wanted to be in a space that’s going to challenge me…culturally. I want to stand there like my ancestors did, dancing on the same land as they did. Drawing that strength, and then seeing where that takes me for the rest of my life.”
We see Widders come to the realisation that “dance could be bigger than football.” And so, he decides to speak to professionals in the performing arts realm who can help him take the Unity Dance from NRL to the performing arts world (Araatika:Rise Up!, 2021).
Dean Widders, centre, and members of the Bangarra dance troupe in Araatika: Rise Up! (2021). Courtesy of Financial Review, 2021.
In comes Wesley Enoch, Quandamooka man and artistic director of the Sydney Festival (2017-2021), and Stephen Page, Nunukul Munaldjali man and Bangarra Dance Theatre’s artistic director. Upon hearing Widders’ epiphany, Enoch explains to Widders that the feelings of excitement and a sense of pride that viewers feel after watching sport and a theatre or dance production are one in the same. He expresses that a professional production of the Unity Dance will be able to evoke feelings in the audience of “that’s part of me up there - you’re representing me and my culture” (Enoch, 2021).
Here, the documentary takes a tournament movie-esque trajectory, as Enoch delivers an exciting proposition for Widders to “Get a mob together and come and dance” at the Sydney Festival’s The Vigil - an annual showcase of First Nations culture that occurs at the Barangaroo Reserve on 25th January. With the go-ahead, Widders partners with Stephen Page and dancers from the Bangarra Dance Theatre to create a men’s ceremony performance that will bring together, not just Indigenous football stars, but Indigenous men of all walks of life (Araatika:Rise Up!, 2021).
For Widders, this is a deeply personal journey as he has spoken out many times against racism during his NRL career. He believes that the best way to change the negative stereotypes around Indigenous Australians is for Indigenous role models and leaders in the public eye to stand up, celebrate their rich culture and inspire others to take pride in it. So, he enlists journalist Stan Grant, NRL’s Cody Walker and George Rose, as well as AFL legends Michael O’Loughlin and Adam Goodes, and Redfern community leader Shane Phillips to perform in the new men’s ceremony (SBS, 2021).
Adam Goodes (left), Dean Widders (back), Stan Grant (front) and Michael O'Loughlin (right) performed at Sydney Festival’s The Vigil 2021. Courtesy of NRL Photos (Joseph Mayers), 2021.
Thanks to choreographer Choolburra, the initial Unity Dance for the NRL Indigenous All-Stars already incorporated the concept of having dancers of different cultures and family totems. However, the challenge this time was to do the dance on a much larger scale with ‘100 warriors,’ and to create intervals where the leaders could take centre stage and acknowledge their country, heritage and totem. To help direct the dancers, Page (2021) gets them to visualise that “we’re like the big goanna skins shields supporting all of these stories, but all under that one big sky; that one ceremonial sky.”
In an interview with NITV about the film, the First Nations director Larissa Behrendt (2021) commented that, although the film predominantly focuses on Indigenous male role models and men’s ceremonial dancing, “it’s really important to show this side of First Nations maleness.”
“There are so many negative stereotypes of Aboriginal men that have become part of popular culture, that relate to them being violent. And particularly since the Northern Territory intervention, there have been huge narratives about the way in which Aboriginal parents aren’t caring for their children…There is not a single man in this film who is not an inspiring role model, even though they’re from very different backgrounds,” Behrendt explained.
AFL player and Adnyamathanha Narungga man Adam Goodes performing with Bangarra dancers at Sydney Festival’s The Vigil, 2021. Courtesy of The Guardian (Yaya Stempler), 2021.
In a spine-tingling finale moment, the documentary shows the stars coming together with their fathers and sons and Bangarra’s world-celebrated dancers for the televised The Vigil showcase, adorned in ochre and showing pride, strength and brotherhood in one another (Araatika: Rise Up!, 2020).
Since the performance was on the eve of Australia Day (otherwise known to many First Nations peoples and allies as Invasion Day and/or Survival Day), Enoch created that space and opportunity for the performers to “celebrate the resilience of culture in their own way, in a very poetic and lyrical way that speaks back to the day from that position of cultural empowerment” (Behrendt, 2021).
Check out the goose-bump-inducing Unity Dance, performed at Sydney Festival’s The Vigil showcase in January 2021 below:
Here at Yarn, we love to support all artistic practices and the sharing of Indigenous culture and knowledge through these forms of art. Just like art, dance provides an incredible platform for storytelling, cultural education and truth-telling. It is through performances like the Unity Dance that Indigenous Australians are able to express their identities and challenge some of the narratives about Indigenous culture within Australian society.
Check out the documentary Araatika: Rise Up! (2021) via SBS On Demand.