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DanceRites returns to the Sydney Opera House forecourt

Phoebe Blogg -

Returning as one of the largest on-site competitions to date, this year DanceRites is Australia's only national dance competition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups.

With twenty-three dance groups and more than 350 performers from over 30 nations and clans across Australia, DanceRites will span across two days, with heats on Saturday 25 November and finals on Sunday 26 November.

Each individual dance group will present a cultural dance and song cycle, representing their local storytelling and language. Many groups may also perform an optional 'Wildcard' dance to showcase their group's unique style.

Dance groups will be judged by a talented panel of First Nations dance experts including, Elma Gada Kris, Gina Rings, Matthew Doyle, Peta Strachan and Sani Townson.

Groups will be judged on their technical dance skills, engagement with language and culture, skin markings and traditional instrumentation.

Sydney Opera House head of First Nations programming, Michael Hutchings, said that over the past nine years, DanceRites has grown into one of our country's most joyful First Nations cultural events.

"It's an important moment for First Nations dance groups and communities across Australia to showcase their diverse cultures and storytelling traditions - that go back thousands of years - through the powerful mediums of dance and song," he said.

"Lockdowns meant pausing for a couple of years, so it will be very special to welcome hundreds of deadly performers and an audience of thousands back to the Opera House for the first time since 2019."

Promotional material for the 2023 DanceRites. (Image: Supplied)

Whilst there is a variety of talented dance groups performing in this year's event, the celebrated Torres Strait Islander dance group Eip Karem Beizam will be returning to the competition for the second time, having first performed at DanceRites in 2018.

Originating from the Torres Strait Island but now based in Queensland, Eip Karem Beizam is a dance group living away from their home of Murray Island.

Striving to preserve their language, stories and traditional practices through their songs and dances – participating in DanceRites is extremely significant to the team at Eip Karem Beizam.

Eip Karem Beizam spokesperson Vera Havili said the group "feels very privileged to be representing our people and communities when we're performing away from home, we are always mindful of who we are representing and why we are there".

"Eip Karem Beizam aims to preserve the Meriam language, stories, and traditional practices by keeping our songs, dance and traditional practices alive and we see Dance Rites as an opportunity to share our stories, this is where our stories can come alive," she said.

Eip Karem Beizam performing at the 2018 DanceRites. (Image Wayne Quilliam)

With their language recognised by UNESCO as severely endangered, Havili mentions that to lose language is to lose culture.

"DanceRites gives us the platform to share the level of hardship we are experiencing as a nation with the loss of language and disconnection to country through a captivating showcase of storytelling. We hope that our performance will captivate the audience to understand our survival," she said.

In terms of what categories the group will be performing in, Eip Karem Beizam will be participating in the Cultural Dance and Song Cycle category.

"Eip Karem Beizam will be participating in the 'Cultural Dance and Song cycle'. This category allows us the opportunity to showcase our stories, and cultural practices whilst this is an important part of the survival of our culture, we acknowledge that participating in DanceRites is a great opportunity for us to stay connected with our knowledge keepers, elders, and community," Havili told Style Up.

Coming from a small community in a remote part of Australia, this will also be many of the group member's first time visiting Sydney.

Eip Karem Beizam performing at the 2018 DanceRites. (Image: Anna Kucera)

With a total of $36,000 in prizes to be awarded this year, DanceRites is bound to draw both a local and interstate crowd. Awards will be offered to both the winner and runner-up, as well as a separate prize for the best 'Wildcard' dance. Two Rites of Passage Awards will also acknowledge outstanding contributions to revitalising cultural knowledge and practices.

"It's great to see DanceRites return to the Opera House this year. Every year the competition grows and this year will see the biggest one yet. The competition brings together First Nations performers in a weekend-long Forecourt celebration, and I encourage everyone to get out and see this incredible arts and cultural event in the heart of the city," said NSW minister for the Arts, minister for Music and the night-time economy, The Hon, John Graham MLC.

DanceRites is free to attend and will be held on the Opera House Forecourt.

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