Touring museum exhibition

Dancing in fetters:

the culture of convict dance

Discover a completely different aspect of convict life.

When we think of convicts, we don’t tend to think of music and dance, but dance was an integral part of everyday life and one of the most popular forms of recreation in the early colony. Convicts danced to escape the drudgery and harshness of their existence. It provided social cohesion, a sense of belonging and cultural identity in a strange new land.

Dancing was a prime pastime for the underclasses in 18th and 19th century Britain and Ireland where the majority of convicts originated.  Once convicted, prisoners danced in prisons and on the hulks while they awaited transportation – some danced to the music of their jangling chains.

A number of enlightened surgeons encouraged convicts to dance on the long voyage to the colony, knowing it was good for their health and “tranquility of mind”.  In the colony dancing remained a popular pursuit – even if it was sometimes associated with illegal activities!

National tour  2021 to 2024.

The exhibition Dancing in fetters: the culture of convict dance was developed by Moreton Bay Regional Council in partnership with dance historian, Heather Blasdale Clarke, and is based on doctoral research undertaken at QUT.  Commencing in late 2021 the exhibition will go on tour to six museums with convict connections across Australia.

The tour will include public programming with concerts and workshops, an education pack, and interactive videos.

Curator: Heather Blasdale Clarke           Tour organiser: Joan Kelly

This project has been funded by the Australian Government’s Visions of Australia programme.

Auspiced by the Abbey MuseumSupported by Bush Traditions


Header credit: Lowest life in London. Tom, Jerry, and Logic among the unsophisticated sons and daughters of Nature at ‘All Max’ in the East. Illustration by George Cruikshank (1792 – 1878). ©Trustees of the British Museum

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