Special interview with Gail Mabo - 14.07.22


NAISDA recently had the pleasure of speaking with multi-disciplinary artist, cultural leader and inspiration, Gail Mabo, daughter of land rights activist, Uncle Eddie Koiki Mabo.

An important member of the NAISDA family, Gail studied dance at the Aboriginal and Islander Dance Theatre (now NAISDA) in Sydney from 1984 to 1987 and served as a NAISDA Board Director from 2009 to 2015.

Our sincere thanks to Gail for taking the time to speak with us about her experience at NAISDA and how the arts have left a lasting impact on her life and on those around her.

Q: What role do you think the arts play in navigating the path ahead for First Nations people?

The arts are the tools of the storytellers because we are a storytelling nation.

We hold the stories of our past; we hold the stories that are now; and it allows future generations to look back on those stories, to understand the times of people and how they can negotiate within their own communities about things.

Through the arts we mimic the stories of ‘before’ – through dance, through a theatre piece, through a book. We can do it through visual arts, we can do it through media and now in new art forms, through technology.

So, for me, it’s the most important tool that you can use to move a story forward, so you never forget it.

Q: Tell us about your connection to NAISDA?

In 1984 I auditioned for what was then the Aboriginal and Islander Dance Theatre (AIDT) and studied there from 1984 until 1986.

During that time, I fell pregnant with my first son, so I chose to leave and went back to community to raise my son and teach classes based on what we had been taught at AIDT.

That was one of the rules that the Founding Director instilled in us – that AIDT was a training school, but that the training never stops. You go on to teach and direct others so that they can one day go down that path and join the organisation as well.

So, for me, that’s what I did. Going back and teaching within my community for 12 years. I could teach the dances from the Torres Strait that I grew up with. With Aboriginal dances, I could only teach motifs.

I was consistently reminded that the motifs that I was teaching come with history, come with all that valuable knowledge. We have to tread lightly when we are teaching motifs to our people and really explain where the motifs come in, why we are doing it and how that connects us to what it is we are teaching. Also, to develop motifs of everyday life, because doing that and bringing it through, generates a new style of dance that they are creating.

When I left AIDT and went back into that community, I started seeing kids sitting on the road and I looked at them and said, “Where are your mum and dad?” They would say ‘At the club’ and I never knew what that meant. So, I just said, “Are you hungry?” and they always said “yes”. So, I’d take them to a local shop and buy them some hot chips and bread and go, “I can give you this” so at least they had something in their stomachs to keep them warm and keep them going until their parents got home.

Then, I noticed that this was an ongoing thing. So I approached the local preschool and asked if I could teach dance classes after hours in their facility. The Director of the preschool said that she lived across the road, and I could use her code as long as I cleaned up when we were finished. And I thought, “Woah, you don’t know me but you’re giving me this?” and I just said, “Thank you very much.”

By this time, I had two children; two sons. The youngest I wrapped up and put him in his pram, and had the other one, who was two, walking alongside the pram. As I walked along, I invited the kids that were sitting on the side of the road to come and join us and do a class. In the basket under my pram, I had sandwiches, drinks and fruit to give them, to feed them while we were doing class.

I did this for nine years, and during that time I followed the kids from primary school to high school. Once they got to high school, the principal let me implement dance as one of their activities on a Wednesday afternoon. Instead of going outside and playing sports in the sun, they could choose to come and do a dance class with me.

It wasn’t an easy feat to do a dance class with me because I’m quite cranky when it comes to dance. I have rules and if you break my rules, you don’t turn up to my class. And they knew those rules. So, for the next five years of schooling, they had me. And with that, I implemented a dance class, implemented discipline, implemented all these rules and rules of engagement within the class. If it wasn’t right the first time, they would have to keep doing it, and doing it, until they got it right.

I used to take them away to places to compete in dance competitions. I instilled the pride of dancers within them – to become and believe in what they were doing; to know what they were doing was beautiful. I would make them dance and then, one at a time, I would take a dancer out to sit and watch what the whole thing looked like, so they understood what they were doing and what it looked like. As a dancer, if you don’t have a mirror in front of you, you can’t see what it is.

This was the first time in that community that 20 girls completed their HSC! 20 Indigenous students! Before that, they’d all drop out at Year 10.

So doing the arts, doing dance, bringing that pride within people, it resonates through lots of things.

When the girls finished school, they went on to do dance within the community after I left. I felt that the pride, that dance, was within them. They kept doing it because they knew it was working and helped kids maintain focus at school. They never just painted it as something that was ‘just fun.’ No, there’s lots of eyes and ears and people watching what you are doing and mimicking what you’re doing.

When I went back to that town, one of the girls literally ran up to me and knocked me over to give me a hug and said to me, “I want to thank you for teaching me to be a mum.” I said “That’s not my role, that’s your mother’s role,” and she responded, ‘No, my mum is an alcoholic, she didn’t raise us. When we were doing dance classes, you had your babies, you were breastfeeding them, changing them, you were disciplining them, you were doing everything that a mum does.” So she was watching, and I became her mum that she didn’t have. I cried. I cried at that notion because it’s like wow, the impact of such a small gesture spoke volumes to people.

So, when we are teaching dance, we have to be mindful of that and tread carefully because you could make or break a dancer.

Q: What role to you think cultural and creative organisations like NAISDA and Bangarra Dance Theatre play today in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural learning?

When you are teaching students, you are moulding those students to become a better person within themselves because you are giving them something that they’ve never had before; someone who cares. Someone who is there to nurture them through a particular phase of their life, which is dance.

And you have to be mindful of what they can achieve. You have to manage expectations of that child and ensure what you teach them is within their capability.

You need them to succeed. You don’t need them to feel doubtful or hate the process, or go out and destroy things because they didn’t achieve what you wanted. You have to be very mindful of how you treat them and be careful of what you say.

Q: What opportunities and challenges do you see emerging for careers and performances in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creative and cultural sector?

The whole thing about going down the arts path is about how you choose to play the game. You can’t step on people expecting to get to the top before anyone else.

It’s that whole thing of when you succeed, you bring someone else along with you, because it takes a whole village. Dance families are villages of people.

So, we have to learn to nurture and help each other get to where we need to go to succeed. If you see someone falling on the way, just take time to find out if they’re okay. It only takes a moment.

But you also can’t hand-feed them or give them every answer that they need. You have to be mindful of Self and respect Self. That’s where you find other people as a collaborative. Help each other move forward to where you need to go and keep your eye on your goal.

Q: What advice would you offer a young Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artist or performer beginning their journey into dance?

I’d say that when they step into the realm of dance, to recognise that the people who step in front of them to teach have years of expertise.

They need to leave any baggage at the door; to be someone that can be moulded to become better. And then appreciate what you have; what you are learning, because not everyone has that opportunity.

When you sit back and reflect on the opportunity that you have as you get older, you’ll see what was given to you. Some people choose to abuse that, or use that as a platform for other things. But always be mindful of who was with you, how you are going, and where you choose to go.

Do that as a collaborative! Do that together!