Teacher background information
Year 1 Science Content Description
For millennia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have used story telling through song, dance, painting and music to preserve and transfer knowledges. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ dances incorporate imitations of certain animals that communicate important information about its external features, characteristics and behaviours. Observations about living things in an environment provide important knowledges that facilitate the sustainable management of the environment including the animals and plants of a particular Country or Place. This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to explore how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ observations of the external features of living things are mimicked and replicated in dance. Through these dances, the intended audience receives important scientific information about living things in the environment.
An important aspect of science is the recognition that living things have external features and some of these features may be distinctive or unique to a particular organism. Science uses these features for specific purposes, such as classification systems and the hierarchal organisation of organisms. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have observed living organisms in their environment for millennia, particularly noting the external features of the organisms. Stories, songs, dances and paintings have long been a way in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples document, preserve and communicate knowledges. Often, dance contains knowledges and information about the environment and the living things of that Country or Place, including important marine and terrestrial animals. Incorporating the external features, characteristics and behaviours of significant animals in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ dance communicates and preserves the scientific knowledges and understandings about the organisms within an environment. These knowledges can be of vital importance to the community; many organisms can have highly dangerous external features while others provide important materials, such as for the construction of domestic implements.
The external features of birds and other winged organisms are depicted in the dance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The brolga, whose name in English is derived from burralga, the Gamilaraay language term for the bird, is a large wetland crane, with a featherless red head, grey crown and long legs. It is an important cultural species to many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples whose Countries encompass brolga habitats, including tropical northern Australia, central Australia and along the east coast into south-west Victoria. Many Aboriginal Peoples, including the Numbulwar Peoples of the Nunggubuyu Language Group in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory, have documented the external features of the brolga in dance. The performers may be painted with grey and white ochres or wear costumes to mimic the feather colours of the brolga. A bright red stripe painted across the forehead or red fabric tied around the head is used to represent the distinctive red head of the bird. Dance movements also mimic other external features of the brolga. The dancers communicate that the bird has long legs by stretching and elongating their legs as they perform the dance; they simulate the movement of the brolga as it places each long limb as it walks. The wings of the brolga are mimicked in the arm movements of the dancers. Arms are held behind a dancer’s body with their wrists and hands touching the lower back to replicate the position of the wings as the brolga walks. Dancers extend their arms and use rhythmic movements up and down to indicate the extension of the brolga’s wings in flight or during mating rituals.
External features of other winged organisms are mimicked in specific choreography of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The watji dance of the Noongar Peoples of south-west Western Australia mimics the external features of the emu. Dancers use an arm extended in front of the face to represent the long neck of the emu and the beak is mimicked with the dancer’s fingers closed to the thumb and pointed forwards. The Wagana Aboriginal Dancers who come together on the lands of the Darug, Gundungurra and Wiradjuri Peoples in New South Wales mimic external features of the cockatoo in dance. The characteristic crest is represented by the dancer’s hand on top of the head and fingers spread apart in the same manner as a raised cockatoo crest. The Urab dancers of Puruma Island in the Torres Strait perform a dance featuring sulphur-crested cockatoos in which each dancer wears a mechanised apparatus on their head which splays open to mimic the cockatoo raising its crest. The contemporary Australian dance theatre company, Bangarra, incorporates external features of organisms in the productions that depict animals. In the production “Bush”, the emergence of a moth from a cocoon is represented by arm movements that transition from arms closely folded into the body to outstretched arms that mimic the wings of the emerging moth. A dance of the Guugu Yimithirr Peoples of far north Queensland mimics the features and behaviour of the flying fox; dancers hang upside down by their legs from tree branches and fold their arms into their chest.
The external features of many marine organisms are also represented in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ dance. The Muralag Peoples of Muralag Island in the Torres Strait represent and communicate external features of the sawfish in a dance in which the performers wear masks. The masks are constructed to represent the distinctive features of the sawfish, including the long series of teeth along the snout, the dorsal fins and heterocercal tail. The dance involves slow movement of the mask from side to side, imitating the motion of the sawfish as it moves through water. On Mabuiag Island in the Torres Strait, dancers perform tadu kap (that translates to crab dance in English). The performer crouches down with the upper arms positioned horizontally and the forearms vertically, as a representation of the nipping claws of the crab. Guugu Yimithirr Peoples of the Hopevale region of far north Queensland have been reported to represent and communicate important information about dangerous organisms using songs, dances and models of animals. The potential danger of the venomous stonefish is communicated through a cultural dance, with a warning about the consequences of treading on the stonefish spines. A beeswax model of the stonefish includes anatomical details of the spines; the model is used to represent its structural features and communicate the dangers of the organism.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dancers also use movements and costumes to represent native land animals. The kangaroo is depicted in the dance of many cultural groups across Australia. A dancer will frequently adopt a staunch, powerful stance with shoulders held back and a protruding chest, to represent the upright posture, muscular shoulders and elongated torso of the kangaroo. The kangaroo has large, pointed ears that can twist independently of each other, and in dance this feature is often mimicked using two fingers pointing upwards from the sides of the performer’s head. The tripod stance of a kangaroo, when the kangaroo stands on powerful hind legs balanced by its tail, is mimicked when dancers squat on their haunches. The dancers hold their arms close into their chest to mimic the position and size of the kangaroo’s front paws. Aboriginal dancers use arms and legs in succession to imitate the pentapedal locomotion of a kangaroo; that is, the placement of the front legs, tail then hind legs in sequence.
This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to explore how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples represent the external features of living things in dance. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long represented and communicated knowledge of the observable features of organisms through cultural practices, including dance. The movement, choreography and costumes incorporated into dance reflect observations of the living things within an environment and have been a means of preserving and communicating such knowledge for thousands of years. Through observing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ dance, students have the opportunity to understand scientific details about the external features of living things that are represented in the performance.
In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:
Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.
I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.
The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.
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Bangarra Dance Theatre. (2011, October 6). Bangarra and 'Wild things: Animal on stage' exhibition in Melbourne [Streaming video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfF_NquI2RM
Bangarra Dance Theatre Australia and Education Services Australia Ltd. (2013). Education Resource: Brolga: From the production Corroboree, 2001. Retrieved from https://www.bangarra.com.au/media/qwcpt2zl/brolga_3-4.pdf
Bangarra Dance Theatre Australia and Education Services Australia Ltd. (2013). Education Resource: Brolga: From the production Corroboree, 2001. Retrieved from https://www.bangarra.com.au/media/k5nhfpqm/brolga_5-6.pdf
Bangarra Dance Theatre Australia and Education Services Australia Ltd. (2013). Education Resource: Moth: From the production Bush, 2003. Retrieved from https://www.bangarra.com.au/media/e5pk2ez5/moth_3-4.pdf
Bangarra Dance Theatre Australia and Education Services Australia Ltd. (2013). Education Resource: Moth. From the production Bush, 2003. Retrieved from https://www.bangarra.com.au/media/qmlnkfsb/moth_5-6.pdf
Bangarra Dance Theatre Australia and Education Services Australia Ltd. (2013). Education Resource: Mutton Bird. From the production Mathinna, 2008. Retrieved from https://www.bangarra.com.au/media/qrudsr03/muttonbird_5-6.pdf
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University of Melbourne. (n.d.). Indigenous knowledge resources: Comparing traditional and contemporary styles of Indigenous dance. Retrieved from https://indigenousknowledge.research.unimelb.edu.au/resources/comparing-traditional-and-contemporary-styles-of-indigenous-dance
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Yothu Yindi. (2015, September 14). Yothu Yindi - Gudurrku (The Brolga) [Streaming video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D01YNfseU7o