As the final performance of Southern Stars wound up last year, Suzi Clapham noticed three little girls from the production’s Aboriginal dance group in tears.
“I was so worried because we had these three little girls crying and I thought, oh my God, has one of them been hurt or lost? I was panicking,” she recalls.
“I asked them what’s the matter and they said, still crying, ‘We won’t see each other for another year’. My heart was pounding, thinking something’s wrong, but they just did not want to leave each other and it was just so beautiful.”
For Suzi, that story sums up what she hoped to achieve when the Yanggaa Garaba Dance Group was formed six years ago. It started with 18 members but this year, 180 students will take to the floor at the WIN Entertainment Centre to open next week’s Southern Stars Extravaganza.
They will be among about 3000 students from more than 100 public schools who will feature in the shows on Friday and Saturday, 25 and 26 August.
Suzi’s teaching career spanned almost 40 years until her retirement as Albion Park High School principal in 2021. She’s had a long association with Southern Stars, including four years as executive producer, but says now she’s retired she has “more energy and time” to put in.
She was in the thick of the final rehearsal for the Aboriginal dance group at Illawarra Sports Stadium last week, including helping to make the costumes. Their Dreaming item, choreographed by Rachael Morgan, is all about connecting with nature and making connections with each other.
“It started with simply needing an Indigenous voice and Indigenous presence in Southern Stars,” Suzi says of the troupe.
“There were very few schools who had kids confident enough to actually perform but it was like a ripple effect: once the kids in the audience saw Indigenous kids performing, there was a sense of ‘You know, maybe I can be involved in that too’.
“I think it’s got to do with the fact that schools are doing far, far, far more significant programs and kids are not embarrassed and are more confident.
“You’ve got the kids, their cousins and brothers and sisters and rellos from around the place talking to each other and then it becomes the thing to do. It grew fairly slowly but we’ve doubled the numbers in one year. It’s amazing.”
Suzi, a Muruwari woman who’s lived most of her life on Dharawal land, was the first female Aboriginal principal of a NSW high school.
Asked about the Aboriginal dance group, she says simply: “It’s my passion. It really had nothing to do with dance because I’m not a dancer, it was to do with culture.
“As it’s grown, it’s incorporated costuming and it’s incorporated the emu feather belts that I design and we’ve grown into much more.”
Earlier this year, the students took part in a Culture Day held on Country at Lake Illawarra. It was led by Aboriginal community members to help the students connect to culture.
“That’s what we’ve been building to for the past five years,” Suzi says.
”I’ve applied for funding for five years and we finally got some. We’ll have another one of those at the end of the year. For me, that’s the continuum.
“For some of these kids, this is the highlight of the whole year. When these kids look back, they’ll remember this, they won’t necessarily remember some stuff that they’ve done in the classroom.”
Suzi tells a story of a boy from Bomaderry Primary who stood up and delivered an acknowledgement to Country in Dharawal.
“Since then, I’ve had at least six kids come to me and say as part of this, can we learn how to do an acknowledgement in language?
“The kids were just blown away by how amazing it was. It’s the rapport. And it’s just growing and growing and growing.”
Tickets for the Southern Stars’ Embrace Extravaganza are available by clicking here.