Debutantes Natasha Eteaki (nd from left) and Killara Bell-Stewart (3rd from left) wait to be presented at the Aboriginal Debutante Ball held tonight at the Wests Leagues Club in Leumeah. Photo: Kate Geraghty KLG
When I was in year 10, my public, co-educational school considered running a debutante ball.
I, and a bunch of girls, went along to a meeting to express our interest and get further information.
At that stage, I really had no idea what a debutante ball was all about. I suspect I and many classmates were mainly interested in the after-parties we heard so much about. They were, we understood, wonderfully debauched occasions where the booze flowed freely and there were finely-dressed blokes.
Flowergirl Jasmine Belbin looks out on the decorated empty hall, before guests are allowed in to watch the debutantes and their partners being presented at the Aboriginal Debutante Ball at the Wests Leagues Club in Leumeah. Photo: Kate Geraghty KLG
My interest waned on an excursion a few days later. I overheard a female teacher talking about her opposition to the balls and what they signified. This little snippet of conversation led me to crack open Funk and Wagnell’s dictionary (Wikipedia still a few years off at this stage), and read up on why a female teacher may have some objections.
I found it was a tradition of presenting young, ready-to-be-married upper class women. It really wasn’t really my cup of tea.
At the balls, debutantes are dressed in white gowns to signify purity. They are paired with white gloves and spine-distorting high heeled shoes. The young women dance waltzes and other ballroom numbers, and are accompanied by young men in order to be “presented” to the dignitaries.
Fairfax photographer Kate Geraghty documents the preparations of teenagers from the Aboriginal community in Airds as they ready themselves for the Aboriginal Debutante Ball in Sydney. Photo: Kate Geraghty
It seems odd behaviour for any modern women but, many years later, I am surprised to discover there is a long tradition of debutante balls for young, Aboriginal women that continues today.
That some communities could embrace a tradition steeped in white, upper class values and designed to parade women around, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Even the Queen found the ceremony so questionable she stopped them as presentations at Court at the start of her reign.
But, is there more to the story? Reading the history of the balls, I started to gain some appreciation for what has been, at times, a rather interesting and transgressive practice.
The first Aboriginal debutante ball was held in 1949 in Melbourne and Yorta Yorta women were presented to the then Premier of Victoria. It is striking that many of these young women were growing up on, and around, Cummeragunja mission where every aspect of their lives was controlled by the Government, but they were also dressing in fineries and dancing.
The Yorta Yorta people have provided Indigenous Australia with some of our most well-respected activists and political events (for example, the “walk-off” only 10 years prior to this ball). Knowing this history, there was possibly something powerful and defiant in dressing up as proud young Aboriginal women and facing the Premier at that time.
The first National Aboriginal debutante ball was in 1968; the year following the Referendum. The young women who participated were presented to Prime Minister John Gorton. It is again striking that the year after Aboriginal people were finally counted in the census, an event was held centered around recognising young Aboriginal women as people with dignity and status.
The Aboriginal debutante ball in Moree, which has been going for a number of years was held in the Moree Memorial Hall in the 1990s. This was significant. Prior to the 1965 Freedom Ride, no Aboriginal person was allowed to set foot into that hall.
At the balls in the 1990s, some women making their debut were aged in their 50s and 60s. These older women were marking the fact they were being presented in a place from which they were legally excluded while growing up.
Aboriginal debutante balls have not only been inclusive of older women, but also of young mothers, married women, and, in the case of the balls at Worawa College in Healesville, young women with troubled backgrounds who may have been excluded for much of their lives.
To an extent, it seems the rigid and sexist traditions borrowed from the upper-classes have been reconfigured in an inclusive, community-focussed, and occasionally political way.
The practice of a young woman being “presented” to society will never sit completely right with me. I feel strongly that women need not be presented but are completely entitled to assert their place as full and equal partners in society. I also feel there is a great deal more strength to be acquired as doubly-marginalised black women asserting this right.
Aboriginal debutante balls have existed alongside a history of defiance, assertion of identity and the reclamation of rights and space. They included women where mainstream balls have excluded them and they have provided an opportunity for women to engage in practices centred around themselves and their own growth.
Women’s spaces have always been part of our culture. For all my misgivings about the balls, I cannot deny there is power in all this. I hope that as these balls continue to spread nationally, they draw more strongly on community traditions.