Grey Panthers’ dancing their way to health and vitality through celebrating Aboriginal culture

Community stories: 26 April 2023

We begin by acknowledging the wisdom of the Larrakiah, Warrai, Kungarakany and Yolngu elders past, present and emerging, where this project took place, and recognise all dance in Australia sits within the context of 65,000 years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance continuum.

“We have lived the past, we are too old to live in the future, what we have is in the now”

Daryl Butler, Grey Panthers member.

Tracks Dance Company in Darwin and Miku Performing Arts in Yirrkala on the Gove Peninsular are providing artistic leaders for the Grey Panthers dancers’ three-year Dhiyala Walu – In the Now project.  The project shines a light on older adult dance and creativity and is providing tangible outcomes of learning and knowledge sharing, as well as skills development in performance and film.

With the support of a $25,000 Strengthening Rural Communities (SRC) grant, Tracks Inc received funding to rollout the foundation year of activities focused on community connectivity, group cohesion, engagement and social wellbeing of older adults in three regional, rural and very remote communities in the Northern Territory.

In providing 65 weekly dance workshops throughout 2021-2022, the project connected older adult from Darwin, Coomalie (Batchelor) and Yirrkala, who were located more than 1000km apart, to celebrate Aboriginal culture.

‘The feeling of connectivity was palpable when we got the Grey Panthers in the same room as Janet Munyarryun, Rachael Wallis and Banula Marika. We are most proud of the direct sharing of culture (two ways).”

HEADING: Grey Panthers’ dancing their way to health and vitality through celebrating Aboriginal culture. IMAGE: The Grey Panthers practicing the Yolngu dance.
The Grey Panthers practicing the Yolngu dance. Photo by Duane Preston.

“Some Grey Panthers were hesitant to have ochre on them. Janet explained it was a sign of respect as sadly Banula had just lost his mother. Understanding this, all the Grey Panthers lined up to be painted, they also danced with the peppermint leaves collected the previous day.”

HEADING: Grey Panthers’ dancing their way to health and vitality through celebrating Aboriginal culture. IMAGE: Janet Munyarryun applying ocher to a Grey Panther.
Janet Munyarryun applying ocher to a Grey Panther. Photo by Duane Preston.

Although dance workshops were unable to be held in Yirrakala as planned due to COVID-19, two senior elders from Nhulunbuy joined the project and participated in face-to-face workshops in Coomalie and Darwin to shared choreography and cultural knowledge.

In recognising the importance of Aboriginal cultural intellectual property rights, Rachael Wallis from Miku Performing Arts worked closely the senior elders Janet Munyarryun and Song Man Banula Marika to get permissions, recording music for the Gapu and Morning Star dances and learn movements, and ensuring only culturally appropriate material was shared through the project.  

“At Tracks we would frame this as a ‘A Slow Burn Project’ where relationships are a focus and getting things culturally right is a priority. This is fundamental for projects with First Nations people living in remote and isolated communities.”

The Grey Panthers dance troupe perform about six times a year at various public events and festivals, bring joy to audiences and dancers alike, reshaping a narrative in the everyone’s mind about what “old people” can and can’t do.

“I have lived in the Territory since 1986. I am 72 years old and a newbie to the Panthers. I was simply blown away to be taught the Yirrkala Aboriginal women’s Morning Star dance and another water dance. [For you to] come and inspire 60+ older white women with your generosity of spirit gives me such hope for reconciliation”.

Sally Gearin, Grey Panther member.

Dhangu Walu has since been the catalyst for the development of a future project with Miku Performing Arts, as Janet Munyarryun and Banula Marika want to share the cultural story of the Sugarbag Man. This is an achievement as enough trust was built during Dhangu Walu for elders to come forward and want to work with Tracks to share a story. Consequently, Tracks Inc successful securing a $50,000 SRC Rebuilding Regional Communities grant in late 2022 to deliver the Sugarbag Man project in 2023. Keep an eye out for more to come on this new project.