NAISDA: The birthplace of contemporary Indigenous dance

A big vision is driving the future of one of Australia’s most important education providers.

NAISDA Restoration, 2017. Photo by Branco Gaica.

NAISDA Dance College is recognised as the premier Indigenous training college devoted to the development of talented young artists. Its early beginnings can be found in the 1970s, when African-American contemporary dancer and arts activist Carole Johnson first visited Australia and realised there were no dance programs for Indigenous Australians. 

‘It was from that initial observation that the first workshops were held in Redfern in 1975,’ explained NAISDA Chief Operating Officer, Debra Schleger.

‘NAISDA really started then, in that period, about the time when Black Theatre was beginning in Australia. It started right back in the roots of the political discussion of the time and through workshops and training the first Indigenous dance group — the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre (AIDT) – which was formed through NAISDA, as well as Bangarra in 1989. NAISDA and Carole Johnson have been there right from the start.’ 

While the AIDT ceased operations in 1998, Bangarra has become a major performing arts company under Stephen Page. NAISDA has a strong connection with Bangarra Dance Theatre, with 55% of the company’s dancers being NAISDA alumni, including Artistic Director Stephen Page. Today NAISDA delivers Certificate III, IV and Diploma courses in dance, music composition, and dance film, with an Advanced Diploma starting mid 2018. 

‘The quality we achieve through our rigorous training is extremely high because we have a core team of very skilled trainers who are industry professionals, so students get the absolute cream of Australia choreographic dance and associated skills training.’ 

‘Importantly our mandate is also to share celebrate and teach First Nation knowledge through dance and arts education for all Australians. Our outreach program of performances and cultural education is delivered to over 26,000 Australian school students, teachers and parents across the country each year,’ said Ms Schleger.

More than a dance college

Now entering its fifth decade, NAISDA is a member of the Australian Government’s elite ARTS8 – the national body comprising just eight of our country’s premier arts training organisations. NAISDA receives funding through the Department of Communications and the Arts, and Prime Minister and Cabinet federally, as well as support through the NSW Government. While funding has been consistent over the years, NAISDA is in need of increased funding to bring it in line with other arts training institutes across Australia.   NAISDA also has a vision that will change the shape of Indigenous creative learning in Australia. The college’s future will see a widening of career outcomes through a new international art education centre, Naya Wa Yugali (‘we dance’ in Darkinjung language).

‘We have the concept design and next year we are going to do the business planning and final revisions. We are a well-managed, sustainable and future-facing organisation. As finalists in the 2017 Telstra Business Awards, we were proudly acknowledged as one of Australia’s most inspiring and entrepreneurial organisations in the not-for-profit sector. We are moving ahead with our fundraising and are in discussions with the State Government about the procurement of the land that we would like to build on. It is just up the road from our current campus here within the Mount Penang Parklands on the NSW Central Coast,’ said Ms Schleger.

‘It’s a big vision, and we are very committed to making sure we do the planning correctly and involving all levels of Government and private sector support.’ 

NAISDA Restoration, 2017. Photo by Branco Gaica.

The new centre will enable NAISDA to grow its core training and career pathways, offering courses in creative areas such as set and costume design, cultural courses and arts related industries. Equally it will safeguard and celebrate the richness of our country’s first cultures and provide a repository of Indigenous cultural learning and research for all Australians. This future development is reliant on a committed philanthropic support base. Fundraising is underway in earnest including NAISDA’s annual Songlines Summer Appeal

‘It’s about creating an ecosystem. At NAISDA we always say “it’s not just about dance”. Our learning programs are informed by powerful partnership with Elders, Cultural Tutors, onsite cultural residencies and Indigenous communities and networks extending nationwide. We are committed to providing a strong student support program. We don’t just have people who turn up every day, do their classes and go away. Nearly three quarters of our cohort live on site and our holistic learning model encompasses mental health, physical health and wellbeing … we’re not a huge organization [but] we’re a very supportive organisation.’ 

‘We all work together and this special environment of connection and affirmation results in incredible student completion rates. NAISDA has a completion rate of 84%. In the VET sector that’s unheard of anywhere else in Australia. The national rate for completion across Australia is 34% and for Indigenous Australians it is an alarming 25%. When you are achieving 84%, it’s because everyone is working to foster a connection to culture and educate, encourage and empower the whole person.’ NAISDA is closing the Gap!’

To find out more about NAISDA, visit

Brooke Boland
About the Author
Brooke Boland is a freelance writer based on the South Coast of NSW. She has a PhD in literature from the University of NSW. You can find her on Instagram @southcoastwriter.