Connecting to Country, culture and land through dance with Daniel Riley

“It is not easy. It is very hard, but it is hugely artistically fulfilling and wholesome to be in the arts world.”

For Wiradjuri man Daniel Riley, a dancer, choreographer and contemporary dance teacher at the University’s Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), dance is more than self-expression, it is the opportunity to connect more deeply to Country, culture and land.

“The world of dance was my bridge to culture and to my cultural identity,” says Daniel.

“Dance is an important pillar of First Nations culture and our story telling. It is one of the many pillars - there’s dance and music, but they go hand in hand, you don’t dance until the songman sings, so at ceremony you need both.”

At the VCA, Daniel is working closely with the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development to help students build their own bridge to their family heritage and culture in the development of a First Nations dance mentor program.

“The aim of the First Nations mentorship program is to make sure, when First Nations dancers from across the country choose to study at UniMelb, there is a culturally safe space for them to grow,” says Daniel.

“A culturally safe place where they can continue to connect to their identity surrounded by other Frist Nations dancers and a First Nations mentor.”

Daniel’s own journey with dance began when he attended a one-off dance class with his sister, a class which sparked a passion and a curiosity that propelled him into a new way of engaging with the world.

This initial dance class was soon followed by the decision of Daniel’s family to move to Canberra, where he found himself joining a youth dance company, “it was the first time I walked into a room and felt like I was with my people, my kin. People who understood my view – my very young view of the word - the importance of dance, the enjoyment and the pure joy of that.”

As Daniel continued to explore dance as a form of artistic expression he was able to go beyond his childhood, surface level understanding of First Nations’ culture, “when I was younger my connection to my culture was very surface level, boomerangs and dot painting, as I got older I started to utilise dance to connect with my cultural identity.”

“I started to find my cultural identity and to connect to family, a greater sense of belonging and who I wanted to be - how I wanted to identify in the world and with the world, and how I wanted to connect to the land,” explains Daniel.

Daniel’s exploration of dance and culture saw him join the Bangarra Dance Theatre, Australia’s leading First Nations dance theatre company based in Sydney.

During his time at Bangarra Dance Theatre, Daniel was involved in every major production from 2007 until 2018 and choreographed four works: Riley (2010), Scar (2013), Miyagan (2016) and Dark Emu (2018).

“I want to make work that actually says something. Culturally appropriate work and important work that continues culture, storytelling and our heritage, and for the First Nations artists and creators that are involved continues to culturally connect them to their identity, that is what dance has given me,” says Daniel.

“Our stories are some of the most important stories in the country. They are the stories that will always be wanted because we tell our stories from our Country and that is such an important part of it.”

“So, for me, if I can assist in that deeper cultural connection then that is a really beautiful thing and that is really important in terms of creating artistic work.”

At the VCA, Daniel is buoyed each week in class by the opportunity to work with students as they explore their own artistic identity through dance, “I thoroughly enjoy being with students and teaching them contemporary dance. Opening those doors to them as young emerging artists and seeing them discover their own sense of artistic identity within a space.”