Social dance and early Australian settlement: An historical examination of the role of social dance for convicts and the ‘lower orders’ in the period between 1788 and 1840.


One of the aims of historical research is to provide new perceptions and illuminating insights.  The notion of convicts having a life which included music and dance is strikingly at odds with the prevailing image of convict heritage.  Historians were aware that vernacular culture had quickly become established and then flourished in the English penal colony in Australia, but little was known about the details.  The purpose of this research was to investigate the question of dance and its accompanying music in the early colony, covering the period between settlement in 1788 and the abolition of transportation in 1840.  The first stage of the research aimed to create two comprehensive databases, bringing together the scattered and fragmentary, textual and non-textual evidence into a readily accessible form.  The second stage of the research utilised the information accumulated in the databases to transform it into another dimension, embodying the dance in studio research.  By combining the interdisciplinary methods of historical and practice-led research, it was possible to explore both the intrinsic, aesthetic qualities of the dances, and the extrinsic socio-cultural elements.  It suggested that dance played a significant role in the social life of some of the early Australian convicts.  The result of this research is an extensive, in-depth body of evidence in the form of two databases and a video of the interpretive work to reveal a detailed image of the vernacular dance which was part of the popular culture for convicts and the ‘lower order’ community in the early colony.

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Professional Doctorate by Creative Works, Queensland University of Technology.


Header credit: Lowest life in London. Tom, Jerry, and Logic among  the unsophisticated sons and daughters of Nature at ‘All Max’ in the East.  Illustration by George Cruikshank (1792 – 1878). ©Trustees of the British Museum

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