“I knew I was breaking the boundaries but I knew I wasn’t alone.” Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman OAM.
From where I sit, the woman you’re about to meet should be one of our more well-known artistic icons.
One day she will be.
Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman founded Australia’s most distinguished professional contemporary dance company, taking on the conservative forces of 1960s Australia to bring the modern art form to our young dancers.
Without her, there may not be an Australian Dance Theatre or Mirrawu Creative Arts Centre and Dance Company.
At 81, she’s still performing and teaching.
For that, we love her even more.
Friends, meet Elizabeth…
Martine Harte: You defied the mainstream arts community and began teaching despite huge criticism, why were you so determined?
Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman: I was a woman on a mission! (laughs) I was so excited, passionate about the art form and wanted to share it with as many people as possible.
There was a wonderful response from young people – a lot of university students who were enquiring about different ways of moving – but there was also huge social upheaval.
Visual artists like Nolan, Tucker and even Drysdale were pushing the boundaries in their forms and we were all inspiring each other. I knew I was breaking the boundaries but I knew I wasn’t alone.
You were very committed to human rights, reconciliation, gender equality from the outset, why was that?
I believed in equality and believed in women having more rights, I’d been brought up in a very patriarchal time so was pushing for my freedoms as a woman.
There were a few moments I was almost discriminated against but always felt strong because most of my mentors in modern dance were women.
Do you have an idea you’d like to share?
I think it’s important we keep being creative, keep busy in our lives and contribute to the community in positive ways. I’m still performing.
I’ve had mentors much older than me, a very famous Japanese dancer Kazuo Ohno was still performing at 91.
I was lamenting the fact I was 60 and must stop and give up! After talking with him I realised there is life after 60, even for a dancer.
You have so much enthusiasm, is it always the case?
There’s been lots of dark moments when I’ve felt very depressed.
I have a positive attitude overall and I work with young people – I feel very blessed because they give energy back to me, I can regenerate and find that energy again.
It’s exciting to now be able to pass on some of the experience I’ve gained.
Are you holding on to something you should let go of?
Mmm, maybe the thought that maybe I should stop dancing because I’m too old.
Thoughts on ageing?
As we age it is just amazing because so many things in our life experience come together.
You suddenly realise and understand lots of different meanings of things, the older we get. Wisdom does come with age.
It is something that can only come with a longer life, there are so many extraordinary revelations, so it is worth living for and waiting for.
My life is like a mosaic, all those bits and pieces, things that happened in my teenage years or later on, gosh now I see the relationship of them all. And that’s really wonderful.
Have the passing years made you a more spiritual person?
Yes, I think my spirituality has been a very active part of my dance life certainly, but may I say my normal life (there’s no such thing as normal) but personal, ongoing, everyday life.
You know, I’m not aware of it all the time but yes it’s a very important basis for my life journey.
I’m not even afraid to talk about it now. For years one didn’t dare mention spirituality, let alone talk about it, when I first went to do my PHD in dance I said to my supervisor, “Well I can’t write about dance unless I include spirituality as well.”
And her face went white.
Are you clear on what that spirituality is?
It’s difficult to actually talk about, but I know when I’m on stage, I can get into another level of myself.
I believe it allows my spirit to shine through my body without feeling self-conscious.
It’s allowing yourself to be naked, you know that nakedness is not a flesh body nakedness, it’s about showing your truth because it’s an art form without words.
I remember an Aborginal elder coming once to watch and afterwards he said, “Elizabeth thank you, I love watching you all dance, I was watching your spirit dancing.”
Indigenous people understand that completely, so that for me was an enormous compliment.
What about relationships… how have they worked out for you?
(laughs) Now that’s a more difficult subject!
I was married for 12 years and I had a wonderful husband, he was a photographer and I was a young dancer, I carry his name still.
We have a beautiful son, Andreas. However, his father and I decided to go our separate ways.
I had another couple of wonderful relationships, then not.
I probably decided I wanted to continue my artistic life. It’s hard for people in theatre particularly, because you have to dedicate so much of your time.
Once you find the strength in yourself to follow what you love and keep on being creative then that emptiness of not having a partner goes away.
MOST BEAUTIFUL MEMORY
We are have memories we replay, what’s your incredible memory, I’m sure you have many?
I have many memories, oh my goodness!
It’s funny that this has come to mind: I was camping in Australia’s red centre, in swags and this wonderful sky. Everybody else around the campfire had said good night. I climbed into my swag and it was as if I felt my heart physically expand.
A lot of people have told me central Australia is the heart of the world. I thought, ‘my gosh, it’s true.’
There’s something about the red earth; I believe those kinds of things. When I get sad or depressed or don’t know what to do, that memory comes back and I get enthusiastic again.
It’s as if the land has given me strength.
We have so much to learn from Indigenous women, we need to honour their wisdom, the elders are extraordinary teachers for us.
Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman. Photo – Barbie Robinson.
Learn more about the Mirramu Creative Arts Centre she founded here.
Discover ADT here.
Elizabeth completed her doctorate three years ago (love it!) with a thesis entitled, ‘The Quest for an Australian Dance Theatre.’
She continues to be invited as a guest teacher, most recently in Taiwan.
Main image: thanks to Chen, Yi-shi.