Tracking Country - Lillian Banks shares how she crossed the continent to become a Bangarra Dance Artist

  • 03 February 2020
  • Broome

Lillian Banks hails from the coastal town of Broome in Western Australia’s Kimberley region. Growing up in a little four bedroom house with her mum and dad and seven siblings, home to Lillian felt like a bustling world of playful interactions and sharing. It’s easy to see why Lillian feels so at home at Bangarra, finding comfort and familiarity within this vibrant, culturally creative family. Here Lillian chats about what drew her to a career in dance and the path she took to become a Bangarra artist.

The first style of dance I encountered was lyrical hip-hop – there wasn’t really any proper technique, it was just a style for us in high school. Rika (Hamaguchi) was at the same dance school and high school with me back in Broome. She was three years ahead. I looked up to Rika as an inspiration – we sometimes performed together in Broome with our high school dance group and she always took the time to help us out and look out for us. She went to NAISDA Dance College, and then I did too. I’m the only child in my family to have moved away from home to study, so this was a very big deal for me … it was really scary. I knew I was going to be alright though, because there were four other Broome mob there at NAISDA to help me feel at home.

At NAISDA, I experimented with ballet, jazz, contemporary, and even the Horton Technique. It was also the first time I’d really experienced traditional dance. We learnt both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional dances, and we even did a residency at St Paul’s Village, a community on Mua Island in the Torres Strait. There, we lived the way the locals lived, and we danced every single day – it was amazing. There’s a real power in coming together through traditional dance – with everyone singing, playing instruments and dancing the one story as one community. I felt empowered by this experience and it fuelled my passion to learn more about my own culture, and my own dances.

There’s traditional dance in Broome, but most of it is really simple steps. A lot of the knowledge has been lost – it was taken away. My mob are still trying to reconnect to Yawuru culture. When I do traditional dance I feel great, but this feeling is mixed with a sense of sadness around not knowing my own traditional dances. In a way though, learning other mobs’ traditional dances helps me to connect, and it makes me want to learn more about my culture, and to try to rekindle more stories and dances from back home.

Even though I didn’t learn a lot about my culture, I grew up feeling connected to Country and that was great. On the school holidays, my family – Grandad, Mum, Dad and all us kids – would drive out to our family’s Yaruwu land, two and a half hours drive south of Broome; there were so many of us we’d have to take two cars. We’d camp out there on Country; there were a couple of caravans, swags, a generator and we built our own shower using the tank water. At night, Grandad would just start singing songs in language around the campfire when no one was expecting it. In town, he was usually reluctant to share his stories, but on Country, he was more willing.

Lillian Banks with her mum, Photography u.k., Year u.k.
But I didn’t think that I could make dance my career; I didn’t think I could dance the way Bangarra dancers did, or tell stories the way they did.

It wasn’t until my third year that I thought dance could be my career. At the end of 2017, I auditioned for Bangarra, and I got in – and I finally felt that I could be an Indigenous Dancer.

When I first joined, I was worried that the company would expect more from me than I could give ... but it’s not like that – it’s like they want us all to grow together. Since then, I’ve learned so much from this mob. I feel like I’m at home here – like I have a second big family here. I’m also lucky enough to have two fellow Yawuru women in the company; we can share stories and use our own Broome jargon – it helps us three feel at home here, or wherever we are in the world.

I thought my first year in Bangarra was amazing. We went to India, which had been on my to-go list forever. And Regional Tour was really special too. Not everyone can see our shows – it can be too expensive, or in a place that people can’t travel to. It’s nice to give back to people like that. For me, it’s a great opportunity to learn about the community, and to work with the next generation of First Nations' kids. Workshops are one of the big things that I enjoy; they help the kids feel proud of culture and give them people to look up to. They might not otherwise have the opportunity to do these kinds of workshops and learn this way of moving and storytelling.

There’s no other company like Bangarra. It’s been thirty years, and we’re still telling stories in a way that anyone can understand. And it’s a history lesson for us as well – we’re not just performing and educating audiences, but we’re also learning for ourselves, in a way. It’s an amazing opportunity to learn these stories, and for it to be your job!

I feel like I have so much more to learn… to give. I feel like I’m at this place where I can’t just settle. Every day I learn something new – about myself as well as the other Dancers. When I look back, I wish I’d just been more positive and less hard on myself – that’s a big thing I’m still learning now. I would tell my younger self to have an open mind, and to really work for what I wanted – to push myself. I think I wasted so much time thinking about what I wanted to do, even though I was already doing it. I feel like, if I’d known that, I would’ve been a better dancer, and maybe a better person too. I’m starting to understand how there’s always more you can do – if you push. It’s always a work in progress.

It’s an amazing opportunity to learn these stories, and for it to be your job!

Lillian Banks

Dance Artist

Lillian is a Yawuru woman from Broome, Western Australia. She left her hometown to study dance at NAISDA Dance College in Sydney and after grading joined Bangarra as one of two Russell Page Graduate Program recipients.

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