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DIRTY DANCING

Grrrrrooom Wahhhhh. Thump. Errrrrrrrrrr. Wahhhhhh Thump. Errrrrr Wro-o-o-oroooooooo .

The ground shook with the thud of forty men stamping their greeting to the day.

They clapped in layered rhythms to enlighten both hemispheres of the brain, they danced, they bre-e-e-e-eathed in the morning as Dog emerged from his swag, barely conscious from sleep. He saw feet around his head stamping up and down; marveled at just how dirty the human foot can become after nearly a week in the desert, snorted and rubbed the dust from his eyes.

By day the abandoned station was a lot less forbidding. The sky was a pale steamy blue, orange sunlight stole through the campsite warming the five ruined buildings huddled together, clinging to each other for support. They sat in the desert like a baked ceramic sculpture, stoically tumbling in slow motion towards the earth. Rusted strips of corrugated iron lay in tangled piles, beams of wood crumbled where they fell, two scraggy gum trees forged an existence beside the stockroom casting shadows in a broad swoop across the clearing; another leant precariously over the chophouse, trunk and chimney entwined in a dance of mutual destruction.

In the distance, at the foot of a range of low hills, the glint and squeal of a windmill that once poured water into silver pipes, pumped it down the hill to lie tepid in the tanks below. Peeling circles of rusted iron, shards of broken pipe and timber had replaced the dream, that windmill screamed its song to a theatre of empty seats.

Dogster had no intention of stomping around at dawn that day or any other day ever in his life. He’d made that very clear. He was not going to join in on ritual bloodletting, spiritual preparation, naming ceremonies, drama school exercises disguised as shamanic practice or any but the most essential nudity.

*

There was a sense of shared hardship about the dawn dancing for the participants, a resigned piety about their shamanic sacrifice. Dog was not privy to this pre-dawn bonding nor the rich benefits that chanting and thumping can bring. He is a lesser man for it.

His first sight for the day was a clump of grubby men bending forward, their arses high to the sky. He watched, bemused, as they growled and hummed, rolling themselves back up towards the pale blue sky, turning inside out in an effort to please their bleary god. They roared as they reached the top of their climb, throwing that sound up and out into the ether, then turned round to do the same thing all over again.

In the centre of it all stood the mysterious Joseph, completely in his element, full of life and power. It was a startling transformation from the morose, secret figure of last night. a mature beautiful man. ‘He’s a magnificent specimen,’ the other men said with not a trace of guile, for Joseph was physically, to any eyes, an extraordinary fluke of nature.

The tang of red in his hair is emphasized by the remains of ochre still plastered on his chest. He’s fit, he’s healthy, exercises, runs, climbs, doesn’t drink, smoke, absolutely no drugs – everything in trim. Lightly dusted all over with body hair, brown with a hint of auburn that draws whorls around his pecs, drags the eye down past the navel, down to the bulge in his filthy fawn shorts, to the muscled legs streaked with paint, Joseph was a sight to behold.

He’s been put here as Dogster’s reverse doppelganger.

But there’s a suppressed anger, an edge to him. For at the top of this wonderful natural body is a handsome face blackened from within. He seems to be carrying the world around in there, so steeped in an all-abiding seriousness that he has forgotten the light, the sky.

The Number One cut and the five day growth surround Joseph’s face with a dour buzz, softening the edges of his head, drawing my gaze to the crucifix in his eyes. Sunlight paints a line down the centre of his face, washing down his forehead, catching the bridge of his nose, the jut of his top lip, the listless pout of the lower. Only the fine lines cutting under his eyes broke the spell. They spoke of pain, lots of pain.

I knew absolutely nothing of Joseph; we hadn’t talked at all – but here he was in my life, just meters away, feeding the men his tunes first thing on a desert morning. I rolled onto my elbows, unzipped the sleeping bag and sat up to watch him conduct.

*

Joseph was just beginning to work a group. As Dog watched the black fault lines in his nature started to show themselves in a thousand tiny ways. A blank look here, an edge of hostility in his voice, that profound lack of humor all revealed the sharp rocks he danced on. There was no bounce in Joseph; he was all spike and corners.

The man was surrounded by pliant supplicants, all keen to throw themselves deep into his world and yet wasn’t relaxed, couldn’t feel the ease of his dawn celebrity. Joseph was an elaborate, handsome metaphor; a dancing doll pulled by devil strings from within.

Yet the package was perfect – striding around in front of me on a brisk sunlit morning, lemon light streaming across his body, it was easy to forget the content and just look at the cover. The bristles of his beard glowed orange as he dancing round the men, clapping an intricate rhythm, stamping his feet in half time, singing and teaching, all at once.

He glanced over and caught my eye. He held my gaze for what seemed like a long time, with absolutely no expression on his face.  Then he was gone, swallowed into the lesson, dirty dancing with his demons at dawn.

We were besieged by blackfellas. Four busted carloads of ‘em, all women and children, accompanied by a single ancient old man. The local community had come to visit. They knew there’d be tucker and dancing, a cuppa tea and a chance to meet the strangers.

Aboriginal kids grow out of cuteness at a very early age, some practically at birth. By the time they’ve oozed a gallon of snot and learnt to toddle, their childhood is over. In the settlements children stumble, plastic bags at their nose, sniffing diesel while their mums and dads shriek drunkenly in the street. Chaos is everywhere.

These children were particularly feral but at least they weren’t sniffing glue. In isolated communities on Pitjantjatjara land some form of order is maintained. Alcohol is banned, broken families somehow survive. Mostly it was old people and children; grandparents looking after grandkids while their sons and daughters destroyed themselves in town. Their only hope was to maintain tribal lore. They clung to their past and tried to jam it into their future. I didn’t think they had a future.

*

Pitjantjatjara is the name of both an Aboriginal of the Central Australian desert, and their language. They refer to themselves as Anangu. Pitjantjatjara country is mostly in the north-west of South Australia across the border into the Northern Territory to just south of Lake Amadeus and west a short distance into Western Australia. The land is an inseparable and important part of their identity and every part of it is rich with stories and meaning to the Anangu.

They have, for the most part, now given up their nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle but have managed to retain their languages and much of their culture in spite of increasing influences from the broader Australian community. Today there are still about 4,000 Anangu living scattered in small communities and outstations across their traditional lands, forming one of the most successful joint land arrangements in Australia with Aboriginal Traditional Owners.

*

So here was our cross-cultural moment as the student shamans met the last of the tribe. Everybody was very respectful for about one minute, then the kids broke through and we just had fun. There was lot of laughter and whispers and giggling then the entire group of women disappeared behind some bushes.

Click click ngngyar-r-r-r-e click click click ngna-a-a-a

They were welcoming us with inma, their word for the ceremonial dance. In the wind the sound of forty-thousand years, the click of rhythm sticks. The city-slickers, already painted up for their inma moment, were like Japanese tourists on speed. Clickety-clickety-click-click-click. We didn’t need rhythm sticks; we could dance to the click of the Nikons.

In a grisly reply, the men danced their chicken dance to the accompaniment of helpless laughter. It was so ludicrous, so devoid of grace, such a kindergarten display. Sally and the girls shook with mirth, all the time clap, clap, clapping away.

*

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