Araatika: Rise Up! Documenting Indigenous NRL Legend Dean Widders’ Mission to Create an Australian Pregame War Cry

Indigenous Australian and Māori All-Stars lit up CBUS Super Stadium during the 2020 All-Star Game with their pregame Unity Dance.

Indigenous Australian and Māori All-Stars lit up CBUS Super Stadium during the 2020 All-Star Game with their pregame Unity Dance. Courtesy of Sporting News, 2020.

2021 was an amazing year for documentaries about First Nations Australian performing artists, with Firestarter: Story of Bangarra marking the 30th anniversary of the magical Bangarra Dance Theatre company, and My Name is Gulpilil presenting a complete reflection of the legendary Yolŋu actor and traditional dancer David Dalaithngu. 

The latest feature documentary Araatika: Rise Up! (2021) focuses on creative expression through dance and how its qualities of teamwork, strength and unity are synonymous within sports. First Nations director Larissa Behrendt has created an empowering documentary that follows former Indigenous NRL star Dean Widders’ mission to create a pre-match dance that highlights Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Behrendt tracks the development of this ‘Unity Dance’ against the backdrop of Australia’s Indigenous sporting and social history. Viewers are also able to witness incredible interviews with prominent Indigenous figures, including journalist Stan Grant, NRL legends Mal Meninga and Preston Campbell, AFL star Adam Goodes and Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Stephen Page (The Guardian, 2021).

The powerful documentary screened as part of last year’s Sydney Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival, before being aired on NITV in January 2022. It is available to watch via SBS On Demand

The documentary begins in Armidale northern NSW, where we meet Anaiwan man Dean Widders, who opens with a powerful statement, saying:

“I’ve seen from an early age what Rugby League can do for an Aboriginal community. It takes us back to our traditional culture. The teamwork, the sticking up for each other, being there for each other. It really suits the way Aboriginal people work in our communities.” 

Widders remembers growing up in Armidale and never learning “anything about Aboriginal people and Aboriginal life.” Having played against New Zealand Māori Rugby League team twice, he saw the players perform the haka with such passion and pride, which Widders says “always niggled at me,” because the Indigenous Australian team had no such equivalent to represent their own pride and respect for their culture (Araatika:Rise Up!, 2021).

“All through the Pacific, every country has a performance before the game, and we’re the biggest of the Pacific nations, we’ve got the oldest culture out of all of those Pacific nations. We should be the main ones doing something to show respect to our traditional people,” Widders said.
Indigenous Dreamtime and New Zealand Māoris come face to face in 2008 RLWC.

Indigenous Dreamtime and New Zealand Māoris come face to face in 2008 RLWC. Courtesy of Wikimedia, 2008.

Widders says past efforts to establish a pregame war cry were lack-lustre. In 2008, the Indigenous Dreamtime team performed more of a stand-off than a dance in the Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) game against the New Zealand Māoris (Araatika:Rise Up!, 2021). 

“We got taught the night before and we didn’t do it real well, and it’s always irked me that I got that opportunity to dance on a big stage and I didn’t know about the dance, I didn’t have a real strong connection or feeling to it,” he says, voicing his disappointment.

In 2015, Widders took it upon himself to seek help from Sean Choolburra - Gu-Gu-Yalanji, Kalkadoon, Bwgcolman, and Kandju man, dancer and choreographer - to develop a pre-game dance for the Australian Indigenous All-Stars. Choolburra went into the NRL Indigenous Players Camp with the understanding that the players come from different cultural backgrounds and have different family totems. So, he taught the players a series of movements that are well-known amongst Indigenous Australians, such as the stomping dance and the spear stance. He had the players form a circle at the beginning of the dance, with all of them dropping to reveal the main man holding a boomerang in a powerful warrior stance. This created a moment of silence and an air of stealth, which is reflective of how First Nations warriors hunt. The players then danced forwards as a united front in a boomerang formation (Araatika:Rise Up!, 2021). 

Widders sees this ‘Unity Dance’ as more than pre-match entertainment, which is evident where he makes the point of comparing teamwork on the field to the tradition of First Nations men hunting together:

“That instinct for movement, for space, it’s a thing that’s in our history I believe. And that’s why on a football field, hunting, working in groups, it comes through in the way we play football and the way our people dance.”

George Rose performing acknowledgements in his traditional language at the NRL Indigenous All Stars 2015 pregame ceremony.

George Rose performing acknowledgements in his traditional language at the NRL Indigenous All Stars 2015 pregame ceremony. Courtesy of Asia Pacific Rugby League, 2015.

For the first time, the ‘Unity Dance’ was performed at the 2015 NRL Indigenous All Stars match, with big NRL personalities, such as Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis and George Rose. Not only was the dance a tremendous success, but so was the game! 

“The best front rowers in the world would all come together to play against us, and you know I didn’t have any confidence…I just thought this is an opportunity for me to stand up,” man of the match George Rose (2021) says in the documentary about going into the dance.

Then, as Rose built courage and “started yelling out, speaking in language” everyone “burst into tears and everyone was so proud.” 

“…The more I learn about aboriginal dance, it’s all about giving us some strength. That's what I feel with it, and I feel it could add power and strength to anyone in this country that does this dance,” Gamilaraay man Rose (2021) says, coming out the other side of the experience.

The NRL Indigenous All-Stars have since continued this tradition of a pre-game war cry, with players adding their own dances from their family’s totems. Check out the electric Unity Dance and Haka pregame performances at the NRL Indigenous All Stars match in February 2022 in Townsville below: 

Stay tuned to read about how Dean Widders has taken the Unity Dance and messages of cultural empowerment and counter racism from the realm of football to the wider Australian community.