by Julia Robinson
Twenty years ago the traditional Indigenous dance, shake-a-leg, became front page news. It was performed outside the High Court in Canberra to celebrate the court’s historic Wik decision, which held that statutory pastoral leases do not automatically extinguish native title rights. One of the claimants, a Wik elder, marked the occasion by dancing. It was the first time many Australians had seen or heard the term shake-a-leg:
Gladys Tybingoompa could contain her exuberance no longer. She reached into her handbag, produced a pair of clap-sticks and whirled into a wild song and dance of victory. For a moment or two, every face around the normally sombre precincts of the High Court of Australia appeared to be wreathed in smiles as Ms Tybingoompa leapt and kicked through the dance she called ‘Shake a Leg’. She had travelled all the way from Cape York to Canberra to hear the High Court’s opinion of her people’s rights to their traditional land. (Sydney Morning Herald, 24 December 1996)
The term shake-a-leg has a longer history than this in Australian English. In 1845 the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Port Phillip, George Augustus Robinson, mentions this style of dancing in his journal: ‘The first part came with them all corroborring together and shaking their legs, as usual, a very lively time.’ (I.D. Clark, 1998, vol. IV, Journals of George Augustus Robinson, 3 October) The first evidence of the term itself does not occur until the 20th century, in an account of a concert given by Torres Strait Islander boy scouts on Moa Island:
The scouts dressed up for their various items. ‘The Pig Hunt’ and ‘The Wallaby Hunt’ were excellent. … The wallabies were sighted and speared. The men sang and danced, and finally gave a ‘shake-a-leg’ (special mainland dance) over the prey. (Sydney Mail, 10 December 1930)
Another account from the 1930s describes the difficulty of the dance, noting that even the most accomplished dancer can only maintain the movement for about a minute:
At Aurukun, too, that we saw the best examples of ‘shake-a-leg’, that remarkable form of limb quivering that is incorporated in so many mainland corroborees. … To learn it, the natives go waist-deep into water, which is buoyant, and takes the weight off their legs. When the muscle movements are mastered, they practise on land, standing on tip-toes and throwing their legs outwards and inwards with amazing rapidity. (Sydney Morning Herald, 13 July 1937)
Evidence from the mid-20th century onwards suggests that shake-a-leg is performed for a variety of reasons, both for entertainment and on more solemn occasions. Dance contests are one end of the spectrum: ‘They and their audience were equally absorbed—and equally amused—by the humour of the dance contest item which ends in a traditional shake-a-leg.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November 1978) A different mood prevails in this reference: ‘The traditional farewell ‘shake-a-leg’ was so moving, grown men choked and wept.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend Supplement, 6 March 2004)
Gladys Tybingoompa’s 1996 High Court dance was a victory celebration. Two years later it was famously repeated on the lawns outside Parliament House in Canberra at another significant moment—at the time of the Senate debate on the controversial Wik legislation. This time she was joined by a parliamentarian:
As Senator Brian Harradine peeled off his shoes and socks and did the shake-a-leg dance on the lawns of Parliament House yesterday, he sent a powerful message. The Independent senator is expected to be the key to the future of the Government’s 10-point Wik plan, as debate resumes. His joining Gladys Tybingoompa in her now famous dance yesterday was seen as a sign that he would maintain his opposition to the outstanding sticking point—the right to negotiate over pastoral leases. (Adelaide Advertiser, 1 April 1998)
The occasion cemented the place of shake-a-leg in modern Australian political history; it is now associated in the nation’s memory with the High Court’s Wik decision and the resulting legislation.
Because of this, it may not be surprising that shake-a-leg has been mentioned recently in the context of another contentious issue. In response to spectators booing elite AFL Indigenous player Adam Goodes, it was suggested that players should perform the shake-a-leg on the field in a show of support. The suggestion caused further controversy in the letters pages of the nation’s newspapers:
Shake a leg to show your support for someone who should get his own act together? Give me a break. (Canberra Times, 30 July 2015)
I think it would be great if every AFL footballer had a crack at the ‘shake a leg’ thing upon scoring a goal. That would show these ignorant racist elements of the crowd of the stupidity of their behaviour. (Illawarra Mercury, 3 August 2015)
Shake-a-leg is still making news.