Last weekend I found myself with an extra ticket to the Victorian NAIDOC ball, the highlight event that ends a national week of celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Now I’ve attended quite a few Society of Women Engineers banquets and am very familiar with the pomp and ceremony of a formal affair, but I couldn’t help gawking at the Martha Stewart like center pieces.

“Don’t you do this sort of thing in the US?” I was asked, “Not even for your prom?” I don’t know about you, but my prom was nothing like this. Or half as fun.

One friend described what I should expect: “It’s just a black fellah get-together that ends in a piss up”.

Turns out that was pretty accurate. Since this was the Victorian (ie local, not national) ball, it felt more like a formal family picnic. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. There were some out-layers. For instance, I couldn’t decide if the people at my table just didn’t know anyone or if they missed the memo about the point of the gathering – to celebrate. Needless to say, I didn’t spend long at the table trying to figure it out. Things were too interesting everywhere else for me to spend time delving into their personal history.

The evening started out seriously. There were some introductory speeches – the obligatory Welcome which was extra special that evening because the elders leading the welcome had just been honored nationally. My memory fails me on the national Australian honor granted to the first woman, but the second elder I’d been introduced to earlier in the evening and now will never forget: Auntie Carolyn was named NAIDOC Elder of the Year this year. Earlier this week, I found myself confronted with her profile again when a friend showed off the art exhibit she is included in at the Footscray Community Art Center. Auntie Carolyn is one of the three elders involved in the project. Clearly a force in the community.

There were also memorials – Lionel Rose, an influential community leader passed this year.

There was dancing. The big hit of the evening were the young dancers dancing the mosquito dance. The whole room laughed as one while the little ones, aged 5 – 12, faked frantic itching from the unseen pests.

There were more speeches after that based on the evening’s theme of “Civil Rights – Still A Fight”, but local conversations quickly drowned out any sense of organization. The party spirit in the room could not be contained. People amused themselves, ignored the organizers, and waited for the dance floor to open. When they kicked us out of the convention center at midnight, we moved to the Crown Casino where time doesn’t exist and the party never ends. I heard stories that some people continued through to 6pm Monday. I’m amazed at the stamina, but was myself happily tucked into bed by a modest 4am Sunday morning.

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