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A Unique Connection: Olympic Ice Dancing and Aboriginal Culture

April 15, 2010 by Reader's Connection

From Haughville Library´s Deanna Long: It’s always interesting to follow someone´s chain of logic; how they got from point A to point B through associations of thought. I got to the books I’ll be telling you about today–James Dawson´s Australian Aborigines: The Languages and Customs of Several Tribes of Aborigines in the Western District of Victoria, Australia and W. Ramsay Smith´s Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines–fairly easily: I read them because I love Ice Dancing at the Olympics.

If you are shaking your heads, let me give a little background to start. The Russian Ice Dancing couple Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin got in a peck of trouble for their original dance offering. The theme this year was folk dancing and this couple chose Aboriginal Australian Dance. Their presentation was received by audiences and Aboriginal Australians about as well as a fourth Crocodile Dundee movie would be. [Blog editor's note: If you wish, click below to watch Domnina and Shabalin rehearsing their routine.]

This got me thinking about authentic behavior, how real Aborigines dance and why they might be touchy about some Nordic couple clowning around on ice to their sacred music. Fortunately the library had recently added two reprinted anthropological classics so that I could get a quick, readable introduction to a complex topic.

Australian Aborigines: The Languages and Customs of Several Tribes of Aborigines in the Western District of Victoria, Australia
Dawson’s Australian Aborigines discusses the specific tribes in and around Victoria Australia. This brief (110 pgs plus a short dictionary of common phrases and daily vocabulary) gives not only an outline of the history of Aboriginal Australians, their tribal structures, customs and complex marital system but it also touches on how things have changed since the advent of white colonialists. Surprisingly for a book written in 1881, there is no condescension or sense of “white man’s burden” in the book. Customs and practices are compared to the customs and practices of the ordinary Englishman and the Englishman does not always fare well in the comparison. In discussing the Aboriginal game that is thought to be the origin of Australian Rules football we see:

This game, which is somewhat similar to the white man’s game of football, is very rough; but as the players are barefooted and naked, they do not hurt each other so much as the white people do; nor is the fact of an aborigine being a good football player considered to entitle him to assist in making laws for the tribe to which he belongs.

Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines An excellent companion to this work is Smith’s book of myths and legends. Published in 1932 this book presents Aboriginal stories of the creation, mythological foundations of laws and rules within society and other parables taught to the young in order to train them in the duties of a member of a tribe. In several of the myths the crime of greed and selfishness are punished and those who do their duty to the aged and infirm are rewarded. Thrilling stories of revenge and trickery sit side by side with tales to teach young people how to respect and cooperate with their spouses to avoid marital strife in a culture where marriages must be approved of by both tribes to be accepted and where time changes custom very slowly.

Both works speak of losing these traditions and having the native culture of various tribes watered down or adulterated by bad habits introduced by colonists. While the complete obliteration of Aboriginal culture and folkways, feared by both authors, has not occurred, these works demonstrate the value and necessity of hanging on to as much as we can. And to protect it from Ice Dancers with at times more enthusiasm than common sense.

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