The South Australian based, all female Aboriginal dance collective, ‘Of Desert and Sea’, talk through dance, culture, and their connection to past and future generations. We recognise and respect the nations and peoples from which they derive from - Adnyamathanha, Kaurna, Narungga, Ngarrindjeri, Yarluyandi, Yankunytjatjara nations - and these women and their impact on preservation of culture and community.
Written by proud Nukunu and Narungga writer Janaya Callaghan.
Early on a Saturday morning in June, I sit on the beach watching four gorgeous women dance in their gentle mix of traditional and contemporary style. I’m here on location with the brand ‘Significant Other’, as they centre the group in an editorial style shoot. The dancers move together in a circular formation, with a soft grace, each person leading another. Their dedication and love for sharing their culture is what drives them to be here, taking every opportunity to share with others what they do and why they do it.
“My culture is my biggest motivation, for sure. My elders, making them proud. Paying my respects,” says youngest troupe member, Iteka Ukarla Sanderson-Bromley. Joining the collective during her mid-teens, Iteka has found ‘Of Desert and Sea’ to be another outlet for being with family and showing people the beauty in her culture. “With my culture as my inspiration, it's easy to stay motivated”.
Of Desert and Sea, known also as ODAS, is a collective created, directed and performed by sisters Lilla and Pearl Berry, Kirsty Lillian Williams, and Iteka Sanderson-Bromley. Since its formation in early 2017, ODAS has had a legacy of talent and elegance in their shows and performances. Their 2020 show Beautiful was a showcase and celebration of all the feminine power that is a part of Aboriginal culture.
“We just all seem to understand and respect each other,” comments Pearl, reflecting upon the relationship between the girls. Back in their beginnings, dance was a fun, creative outlet - that ended up bringing their sisterhood together. “It was a way to get away from everything at home. It was another door opener for us youth back in the day,” recalls Kirsty, dancer, artist and mother.
“Dance is such a strong part of Aboriginal culture, and it’s where I feel most connected to our culture,” says Pearl. Each girl has danced for the majority of their lives, in a range of different styles. And dance has connected them to family, both blood and found. For the girls, a lot of different family members - uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers - were involved in the local Aboriginal dance community; Kurruru Arts, a local arts and cultural hub based in Port Adelaide. This is the place the girls met and grew up practising traditional dance together.
“I grew up watching these Aboriginal dance ensembles for so long and was just so excited to be a part of it because I thought they were so amazing” remembers Lilla, thinking back on her coming of age at Kurruru.
As the girls grew older, they decided to turn this connection between contemporary and traditional styles and create something more, something they could share with wider audiences.
“I felt like there was something missing in my life, so I needed to start dancing again” says Kirsty, thinking back to when her daughter was first born. “At first it was just a social connection, but after being around in the studio we were asked if we were performing, if we were doing anything. We took those enquiries as an opportunity, and then we just ended up performing and loving it because we’d missed it so much. And then we thought, we have to make this a dance group now, what’s our name going to be, and we went from there”.
“The name came from our nations that are spread across South Australia; we come right from the desert, down the bush, through to the sea,” adds Iteka, who has a strong connection to her own country. “For young mob, it’s easy to think they haven’t got time to go back to country or be connected in some way. It can be hard to find a balance... I can really feel it in my body when it's time to go back to country”.
The heart of ODAS has always been culture, community, sisterhood, and joy, with the girls wanting to represent the past to pave way for the future.
“It’s important for the next generation to see us doing our thing, but also just because I love it. I love being with these girls,” begins Pearl.
“That’s what it’s all about, that next generation,” adds Kirsty. “Sooner or later, when my son and daughter are older, they’ll be thinking about how to give back to their community. Because community is so important to MOB, and if we didn’t have that, we would have nothing."
“I think another important thing is putting something in place that empowers them, making them feel strong and proud to continue celebrating culture,” says Iteka, chiming in.
“It’ such a strong feeling internally, and then being able to share that with others is amazing,” Lilla adds. As a producer, arts administrator and one of the creative directors of ODAS upcoming show Thirteen Sisters, Lilla finds inspiration in collaborating creatively alongside others. “Being able to provide opportunities to share that with others is amazing, too - that’s what I love. Working with others and helping to bring to life creative visions can be transformative and incredibly rewarding, not only with other artists but with audiences.”
For future generations, what these girls do is a doorway for them.
“The girls that I grew up watching dance, we are those girls now,” remarks Lilla. “It’s important to have younger dancers know that there are these spaces to go and belong, and that they can create that for themselves”.
For past generations, what these girls do is a tribute to all that they have done.
“Our elders have done their fight,” says Iteka. “They’ve taken their rest, and it’s now our time to preserve culture for our mob.”
Dance has been but one of those forms of cultural preservation these women commit themselves too. And watching them, dancing together on set, in the harsh wind of a winter morning, I see the strength in this commitment. To their Adnyamathanha, Kaurna, Narungga, Ngarrindjeri, Yarluyandi, Yankunytjatjara families and people. To each other, and to themselves. To the past, and to the future.
This article and interview was written and conducted by writer Janaya Callaghan. Janaya is a proud Nukunu and Narungga woman from South Australia, living and working on Kaurna land.
The women of ODAS are wearing our High Summer 22' Collection, including:
The Akila Dress (chocolate), The Adeline Top & Skirt (chocolate), The Adeline Dress (chocolate), The Yara Midi Dress (blue), The Odelia Dress (cream) The Theodora Shirt & Skirt (chocolate), The Cora Dress (butter - coming soon).