Dancing Lines by Molly Pwerle ( c 1920 - 2023)

The paintings of Molly Pwerle are often characterized by long, straight lines which criss-cross the canvas. Molly paints these lines in one direction, and overlays a second set of lines running in the opposite way. The result is a pattern which resembles loosely woven cloth.

However, Molly’s lines have nothing to do with weaving. Importantly for Molly and for her expression of her heritage, these lines symbolise dance tracks. Dance tracks are the markings made in the sand by women of Molly’s country when they gather to perform their ceremonial dance. The women stand shoulder to shoulder, each one’s feet slightly apart. While another group of women sits and sings, the barefoot dancers move forward in unison, their toes gripping the sand. Each dancer takes a series of small hops with both feet together, the soles of their feet barely leaving the ground. As the line of women moves forward, their feet leave dance tracks in the sand.

In Aboriginal culture, dance is used as one of the methods of reaffirming important stories to the present generation and of teaching them to the next. The other ways are body painting, drawing in the sand, rock painting and story-telling. In all these ways, important knowledge can be handed down. Much of the knowledge is bush lore relating to the location of water and food, without which tribal peoples might perish in the unforgiving terrain which is their home.

Every Aboriginal person owns a dance. Molly paints the dance owned only by the women of the Pwerle and Kemarre skin groups. This dance tells the story of how the dreamtime women danced all day and night. It is a story which has been passed down to the Pwerle sisters by their ancestors. Interestingly, at a location in Utopia, dance tracks made in the dreamtime have hardened with the passage of time. Today they can be seen as runnels in a flat rock.

The sisters used to draw the story in the ground to teach it to the younger women, and they also paint it on the body in preparation for dancing. This activity is considered sacred, and is always carried out separately from men. The design for the body painting is a series of parallel lines painted vertically down or straight across the upper arm.

All the sisters – Molly, Emily and Galya – own the story about the dancing tracks.

As well as the dancing tracks, Molly paints the U-shaped parallel lines which the women paint on one another’s chests before they dance. Molly also paints the bush tomato.

Although Molly’s sisters Emily and Galya also own the story about the dancing tracks, they choose not to incorporate the dance tracks into their paintings.