Dancers and communities: a collection of writings about dance as a community art

In This Article

Dance plays a large—indeed, a vastly underestimated—role in our social fabric... When we see dance activity as a whole... it becomes evident that the impulse to dance is a strong and widely shared one in contemporary Australia (Shelton, 1991, p.111).

About the stories in this book

The stories in this book illustrate the rich exchange that takes place between dancers and communities. Dance can be an accessible and empowering creative tool for individuals and groups to express their identity, feelings, histories and aspirations. People of all ages and from all walks of life are represented in this book, participating in ongoing dance projects, celebratory events, and performances. Locations range from work places to detention centres to natural environments. The artists represented in this collection are committed and experienced, sharing a common enthusiasm to practise their art with communities. Their words and those of the participants are inspiring, challenging and thought provoking, making this book a unique contribution to the practice of dance in Australian communities.

How is it that the word dance has so many different meanings and associations for different people? Why is there such a gap between what dance means for the ballet dancer in her studio and for teenagers at a dance party? It appears that these two experiences have little in common and yet in the middle ground between the professional dancer and the social dancer is a flourishing area of activity. This area of work, which can be broadly located under the banner of community dance, has been under acknowledged and inadequately documented.

Community dance has to fight for recognition on two fronts: firstly it is marginalised by the professional dance world and secondly dance as an art form has a low profile within the community arts. Dance artists working in community contexts are frequently unacknowledged and undervalued by the dance establishment which gives great value to highly stylised forms of dance that demand specific body types and extensive training.

Perhaps due to a narrow understanding of dance and the perceived level of specialisation demanded, the potential of dance is also not widely recognised in the community arts. Relatively speaking dance is infrequently used as a primary art form in community arts projects. It is more likely to be included as a component in celebratory events, parades and festivals. Attempts to advocate for the wider use of dance are hindered by a lack of accessible information on dance as a community art as compared to other art forms such as visual arts or theatre.

The purpose of this collection is to give dancers working with communities the visibility and credibility that they merit, and to celebrate the wealth of community dance in Australia. In advocating for the place of dance as a community art, we are aware that the principles of community arts and community cultural development need to be broadly and flexibly interpreted, as indicated by some of the writers in this collection. It is not our intention to create a watertight definition of community dance, nor do we suggest that this collection is comprehensive. Given the complexity and diversity of the field we have attempted only to indicate the range of work that is taking place in order to promote interest and debate. That we have drawn together this particular collection of descriptions and images is not to undervalue the many other roles that dance plays in our society.


For the most part we have chosen not to include recreational dance, dance therapy, dance in education and the outreach work of professional dance companies, although we acknowledge that these, and other uses of dance, overlap with the area we are exploring. We believe it crucial to address the role of dance in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, recognising that dance is an integral part of their culture. Similarly we want to acknowledge the richness of dance influences in the multicultural society of contemporary Australia.

Practitioner interviews

  • Renaldo Cameron: a pioneer of community dance in Australia
  • Elizabeth Dalman: creating a bridge between professional dance and the wider community
  • Sarah Calver: a history of Tracks Dance Collective, Northern Territory
  • David McMicken: working through Tracks Dance Collective—communities and places in the Northern Territory
  • Lisa Lanzi: contacting people through dance—diversity in South Australia

Approaches to dance in the community

  • Dance and the problems of community (Rachel Fensham)
  • Beyond the tutu (Janet Donald)
  • Change through human motion: reflections on choreography in community (Beth Shelton)
  • Dance and placemaking (Helen Poynor)
  • Young people dancing—an overview of dance projects involving youth (Jacqueline Simmonds)

Dance in Indigenous communities

  • An interview with Dorethea Randall: breaking down barriers with Indigenous dance
  • Contact Youth Theatre: Dancin Up—workshops at John Oxley Youth Detention Centre
  • Doonooch Self Healing Aboriginal Corporation

Cultural dance practice in Australia

  • A different space: reflections on a community dance project (Dr Chandrabhanu)
  • Conversations with Aires Eddie Almeida, Director of External Relations of East Timor Cultural Centre, Sydney
  • Aneta Tauri, member of Nga Hoa Pumau Maori Cultural Group, Brisbane
  • Members of Sanguma and Drum Drum, Darwin

Community dance projects

  • Restless Dance Company, Adelaide (Sally Chance)
  • Meet me at kissing point, Townsville (Cheryl Stock)
  • Ellin Krinsly and members of the Older Women's Network dance group, Sydney (Interviews)
  • Moving meanings: an Art in Working Life Project, Perth (Christine Owen)
  • River of Islands community dance project, Murray River, NSW (Philip Piggin)


This collection of writings and photographs was conceived as a result of research into community dance carried out for the Department of Dance, UWS Nepean and Ausdance, NSW in 1991–92. The research revealed a wealth of activity—inspired and energetic dance artists and communities working together on an impressive diversity of projects. Documentation of this work, however, was difficult to locate and access. The rich body of knowledge that has been gained in the field is fragmented and dispersed. This, combined with the ephemeral nature of dance, results in a lack of visibility of community dance. Practitioners and projects are often unable to benefit from the experiences of others and there is a lack of informed debate and the stimulus and support that this provides.

Shelton, Beth. (1991) . Shall we dance? How shall we dance? Community Dance in Australia. Dance —Australian Made. ACT: AADE National Council.


Dancers and communities: the power of dance to enter individual lives in significant ways

Shirely McKechnie tells us why this collection of writing about community dance is so valuable: 'They speak of the human need to give expression to deeply felt connections and unique situations; but they also ask questions. Whose dances? What is their purpose? Can everyone participate? They convey the diversity of the dance experience and a reassurance of its power to enter individual lives in significant ways.'