Aboriginal children

Funds for innovative program using dance to connect Aboriginal children to culture to improve health and wellbeing

The Guunu-maana (Heal) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Program at The George Institute has been awarded almost $1,000,000 over three years to develop a new approach to reducing early life preventable disease risk and improve health and wellbeing among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

The funding - part of the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund Indigenous Health Research round - will support a contemporary cultural dance pilot program to enhance cultural identity, cultural connectedness, self-esteem and physical fitness of children on the NSW Central Coast and in Moree, a remote community in NSW.

Lead investigator Dr Julieann Coombes said that dance is known to have multiple positive benefits on health, including social and emotional wellbeing.

“Cultural dance has been an important part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures for centuries. It is a way to connect people to their ancestors, land and culture,” she said.

“In addition, multiple studies have shown that dance can improve cardiovascular fitness and bone health of children and young people and contribute to preventing or reducing obesity.”  

“It has also been demonstrated to be more effective in improving school attendance and cultural identity,” Dr Coombes added.

The program will be led by the Guunu-maana (Heal) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Program in partnership with Aboriginal youth, Elders and communities. It will be offered to children living in out-of-home care and to families experiencing economic disadvantage to address modifiable risk factors for non-communicable diseases including cardiovascular and mental health conditions. Together, these account for 70% of the health gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians and are importantly known impacts of colonisation.

Research has demonstrated the pivotal role of culture on the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and is reflected on the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan 2013-2023. However, few interventions to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health consider cultural health paradigms and values.

“It is more important than ever to create meaningful ways to connect to culture and identity, particularly for our young ones who are often yearning to connect more to their culture,” said Keziah Bennett-Brook, Head of Guunu-maana (Heal).

Through the physicality of Indigenous dance and its deeper connection to culture, this project will build Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s self-esteem, social and emotional wellbeing and physical fitness, cultural identity, and connection.

It is hoped that the outcomes will help the team secure funding to scale up the project to benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children across other Australian states and territories.

“With further funding we will be able to run the program in more sites and develop a decolonised implementation framework to evaluate the impacts of the cultural dance program over a longer period of time,” Dr Coombes added.

“In addition, we will be bringing new knowledge into the implementation research field through the development of a decolonising implementation framework to benefit other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities more broadly” added Ms Bennett-Brook.