Contemporary Indigenous Dance: Continuing Connections to Culture

For the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, dance has always been a significant part of their culture and traditions. In First Nations’ culture, dance serves as a crucial form of storytelling, from one generation to the next. In the twenty-first century, these traditions continue, however they are now often blended with contemporary forms of dance.

Bangara Dance Theatre production: Bennelong. Image sources from Bangara (2017).

Training institutions such the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) and dance companies such Bangarra Dance Theatre bring traditional Indigenous dance to the modern world. These institutions use dance as a form of artistic expression to bridge the gap between Indigenous culture and mainstream Australia. Dance can be seen as a universal language as it has the ability to form cross-cultural and inter-generational links.

Hans Ahwang is a Torres Strait Islander dancer who embodies and creates these cross-cultural and inter-generational links. He is a Moa Island man who grew up learning the traditional dances of his peoples from his family and community. Ahwang has continued on to become a leading Torres Strait Islander dancer and choreographer. Within Torres Strait Islander culture, dance is an important part of storytelling, as well as the preservation of history and knowledge. As explained by Ephraim Bani, a Torres Strait Islander singer and performer, dancing is the ‘literature’ of the Torres Strait Islander people:

“The importance of dancing and songs in the Torres Strait Islands…is not mere entertainment…it is the most important aspect of Torres Strait lifestyle. The Torres Strait Islanders preserve and present their oral history through songs and dances; in other words, the songs and dances are Torres Strait literature material. Just like any written materials, which are usually illustrations, the dances act as illustrative material and, of course, the dancer himself is the storyteller” - Ephraim Bani, 1979.

Hans Ahwang. Image by Organic Photo.

Ahwang through dance and his many other creative endeavours continues these storytelling traditions. He is a creative who blends his passions of dance, fashion, education and culture to promote Torres Strait Islander culture, as well as to educate the younger generation. Throughout his career, he has worked as a dancer, choreographer, educator, actor and model. 

Ahwang began his journey at NAISDA where he completed a Diploma of Professional Dance Performance. From there, he went on to perform with companies such as Mirramu Dance Company, Gary Lang N.T Dance Company and Arpaka Dance Company. With his keen interest in fashion, Ahwang has modelled for the Australian Indigenous Fashion Week (2014) and Fiji Fashion Week (2015). One of his biggest achievements was in 2016 when he won the “Artist of the Year” NAIDOC award for his contribution to dance, the arts and his Torres Strait Islander community.

Ahwang’s connection to his Torres Strait Islander culture and country has always had a major influence on his roles and creative projects. This can be seen through his performance in Carriberrie. The film is a 14 minute virtual reality experience which takes the viewer on a journey through stunning Australian landscapes and exhibits traditional song and dance performances.

Ahwang has also been heavily involved in the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) for many years. The CIAF provides an opportunistic platform for Hans Ahwang to blend his love of Torres Strait Islander culture, dance and fashion. This year he choreographed for the featured fashion showcase Water is Sacred. The choreography integrated traditional and contemporary movements, designed to accentuate the beautiful flow of the clothing - just like water.

Hans Ahwng performing at McGuffey Art Center. Image sourced from Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection (2016).

Ahwang spends his time between Sydney, Thursday Island and his home Moa Island, where he teaches young students traditional and contemporary dance. He says he experiences much joy when he teaches the students:

“I tell them of my journey, and I can see that it really inspires them. Some of them are very shy and nervous, and I know what that feels like because I used to be like that, so I really try to motivate them to get them out of their shell and get creative.” - Hans Ahwang (Courtesy of Oberon, 2020).

Hans Ahwang is incredibly passionate about reviving and supporting the dance culture of Moa. His dream is to build a dance and cultural studio for Moa Island and the wider Torres Strait communities. Through the studio he will create new opportunities for young people within his community by encouraging a healthy lifestyle on the island.

If you’d like to find out more about what Hans Ahwang is currently up to, you can check out his Instagram account here.

Here at Yarn we love to support all artistic practices and the sharing of Indigenous culture and knowledge through these creative practices. Just like art, dance provides an incredible platform for storytelling and cultural education. It is through dancers such as Hans Ahwang that traditional Indigenous dance is shared and preserved