‘Now we need you’: Cape York Indigenous dance festival reverberates with rich stories and a message of unity

The Laura Quinkan Indigenous Dance festival passes ‘these skills, stories and culture down to the next generation’

Mala, an Indigenous songman is speaking the music of deep bassy didgeridoo. As his vocal lines of grunts and rhythmic shrieks, backed by cadenced clapsticks, reach a crescendo, he invites the crowd to join him and the Yarrabah Barna dancers in the red dust circle.

“It is only because of our old people that we have survived, but now we need you,” Mala says. “We need you to stand with us and give us our voice.”

With these words spectators become performers, in a symbolic ritual of the coming together of dancers and onlookers, black and white, in a potent form of inclusion.

Middle aged Aboriginal man in white t-shrit with red headband
Mala at the Laura Quinkan Dance festival in far north Queensland, Australia. Photograph: Wayne Quillam/Guardian Australia
Two Aboriginal men in body paint with white feathers on their heads sitting down
Dancers from across the country gather in Laura, Queensland, for the biennial event. Photograph: Wayne Quillam/Guardian Australia
Jehrmess Waia from Saibai Island's Muyngu Koekaper dance team showing the Rainmaker dancing outfit during the Winds of Zenadth Cultural Festival, Thursday Island Friday, June 2, 2023. (AAP Image/Tyr Liang) NO ARCHIVING

Since its inception in the early 1980s the Laura Quinkan Indigenous Dance festival has brought together Indigenous communities from across Cape York, the Torres Strait and beyond.

The festival MC, Mark Hogan, says many non-Indigenous Australians and international tourists also travel to Laura, four hours’ north of Cairns, for the opportunity to engage with living Aboriginal culture.

“Every community coming up here to dance has a different story, their songlines – and those stories are told in dance,” he says.

“Whether it’s a momentous event or even just the story of a particular hunt – it’s these stories that the Indigenous dancers are sharing with the audience.”

Children dancing in orange grass skirts
After a nine-hour journey from Aurukun in far north Queensland, the Wik Nation dancers perform a Barramundi dance and a Mullet dance. Photograph: Wayne Quillam/Guardian Australia

Held 15km south of Laura, amid a landscape rich with ancient rock art depicting giant Quinkan spirits, the biennial event is one of the largest and longest running cultural gatherings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.

The traditional Bora corroboree ground, set among the sparse eucalyptus and melaleuca trees, with black cockatoos flying overhead, is a sacred site for the local Ang-Gnarra people. Groups have travelled from as far south as Albury in New South Wales to take part.

Although not overtly political in nature, this year’s festival is given potency by its timing at the end of Naidoc week and in the lead up to the voice to parliament referendum. The yes campaign has a strong presence, with evening discussions explaining the significance of the moment to roughly 5,000 spectators.skip past newsletter promotion

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A child in a red and orange grass skirts sits with back to camera with two large white hand prints in white paint on their back
Winners of the last Laura Quinkan festival Shield in 2021, Kawadji Wimpa Dance Team hails from Lockhart River near Weipa in eastern Cape York. The troupe of about 30 dancers transfixed the crowd. Photograph: Wayne Quillam/Guardian Australia
A group of teenage girls in body paint watch a performance
Different clan groups compete for the Laura Dance Shield. Photograph: Wayne Quillam/Guardian Australia

Jilian Faith, a teacher of Indigenous children in Herberton in Queensland’s Atherton Ranges, has been coming to the festival for 25 years and says this year is the biggest yet.


“I first came here in 1988 and we hired a car with mates from university. We were told not to take it off road but boy did we need to take it off road to get here in those days,” she says.

Throughout the three days of the festival, each of the eight clan dance groups perform three times, leading to a dance-off on the final day for the Laura Dance Shield. The Pormpuraaw traditional dancers are announced as the overall winners by Australian Indigenous actor and celebrity, Ernie Dingo.

A screengrab from This is Australia, a film clip by Marrugeku, an Indigenous intercultural dance company

Hailing from the western Gulf of Carpentaria, the troupe of 40 dancers travelled for over nine hours to get to Laura.

Syd Bruce Shortjoe, a freshwater man from the Kugo clan, says he has been coming to Laura since its beginning, originally as a dancer and now as a senior songman for the group, many of whom are teenagers.

“Laura is important because we are also passing these skills, stories and culture down to the next generation,” he says.

“Because someday we the older ones won’t be here. I am in my middle age so now I like to teach what these songs are all about, and which clan group they belong to.”

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MORE = https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/jul/11/cape-york-indigenous-dance-festival-laura-quinkan

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