SUMMER 23/24

DANCING ON DARKINJUNG LAND
Indigenous contemporary dancers have been recognised around the world for their remarkable talent. But where is a lot of that talent formally nurtured and trained? Right here on the Central Coast at NAISDA Dance College.

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Nestled in Mount Penang Parklands since 2006, NAISDA Dance College was born from a surge in cultural pride and a drive to share the stories and struggles of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders through artistic expression.

The college has an impressive list of alumni including award-winning choreographer and performer Deon Hastie, who has returned to his roots as NAISDA’s Head of Dance, as well as Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director Stephen Page, and celebrated singer and performer Christine Anu.

When I ask Deon Hastie to describe himself, he pauses … He may be a performer on stage but when talking about himself, he’s emphatically humble. After a few moments, he offers ‘I’m a learner … a student of life, I guess.’ But after talking to Deon about his life and career, I learn that this dancer and choreographer is a storyteller and proud Indigenous man who is spontaneous, passionate and highly ambitious.

A descendent of the Djabugay people of Far North Queensland, Deon grew up in the ’80s in the small country town of Mareeba, west of Cairns. It was in high school that he fortuitously fell in love with dancing when one of the performers in the school concert fell ill and he was asked to step in. Deon admits he had never thought about dancing before but agreed to learn the routine at lunchtime. ‘I surprised myself,’ he says. ‘I got on stage that night and I didn’t even worry about the audience – I just performed.’

DEON HASTIE IN LEIGH WARREN AND DANCERS’ PRODUCTION ‘DIVINING’. PREMIERED AT THE ADELAIDE FESTIVAL.

With spades of raw talent and unbridled passion, he recalls many performances where he has stepped in at the last moment and improvised. Connecting with audiences through dance, breaking through language and cultural barriers, he has had 800-strong crowds on their feet dancing with him. ‘I think people are just happy to see something so honest,’ he says. ‘Dancing comes from the heart.’

Before the national college relocated to the Central Coast, Deon studied at NAISDA in Sydney, which was formed after the 1972 Tent Embassy Protests in Canberra. It was a time when contemporary Indigenous dance was emerging as a way of connecting with people and sharing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

NAISDA made it possible for Indigenous students to tell their stories through artistic expression and, with the displacement of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it offered them the opportunity to re-connect with their culture. ‘I had a very religious upbringing and lacked cultural awareness and knowledge, so our tutors became our cultural parents who entrusted us with their language, songs, dance and stories. This helped shape my identity as a young Aboriginal person and gave me sense of place and belonging,’ Deon says. 

PHOTO: JAMIE JAMES

While studying at NAISDA, an agent warned Deon that he should not expect to dance for anyone other than Bangarra Dance Theatre or Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre (AIDT). Despite this, he went on to work with renowned dance company Leigh Warren and Dancers in Adelaide (now Dance Hub SA), performing in 18 major works nationally and internationally. During his time there, Deon believes he reached his full potential as a dancer but remembers it took a long time to be recognised for his artistic skills, rather than his ethnicity. 

DEAN HASTIE AND JOANNE ROADS IN ‘PETROGLYPHS: SIGNS OF LIFE’ CHOREOGRAPHED BY LEIGH WARREN AND GINA RINGS.

Eleven years, and many ground-breaking performances and accolades later, he hung up his dance shoes and became artistic director of Kurruru Youth Performing Arts in Port Adelaide, where he worked with Aboriginal children. In 2019, Deon was appointed Head of Dance at NAISDA, which had moved to a new facility on Darkinjung land in Kariong and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Deon works with the young students who are called ‘developing artists’ during their training at NAISDA, nurturing, guiding and supporting them at the beginning of their dance careers.

‘It is really important to me that these young artists gain the skills necessary to become the next generation of First Nations dancers, choreographers and cultural ambassadors, sharing the stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and preserving our culture.’

If you are a young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person interested in applying to train with NAISDA in 2023, visit naisda.com.au  or contact reception@naisda.com.au

WORDS MEGAN ARKINSTALL

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