Maloya dance and music: Réunionese Créole togetherness

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA)

First Advisor

Renée Newman

Second Advisor

Jonathan W. Marshall

Third Advisor

Michael Whaites


La Réunion is a former French colony where the coffee, vanilla — and later the sugarcane industry — brought together the mostly enslaved and indentured people from Madagascar, Africa, India, China and France. A quintessential part of this hybrid culture has been the development of maloya, an improvised music-and-dance form that so alienated French colonial authorities and landowners that it was unofficially banned until 1981. While maloya music has been taught since 1987 at Conservatoire de La Réunion and has reached international stages, maloya dance itself has rarely been explored academically, often relegated to the rank of superficial entertainment. The aim of the present research is to interrogate maloya: what it means to me as a practitioner of maloya and what it means as a culturally embodied art form.

Using the principles of practice-led research methodology and the research methods of a/r/tography (including qualitative interview methods, as well as studio practice, performance creation, teaching activities and narrative writing familiar with autoethnography), the research interrogates my subjective experience as a maloya artist, researcher and teacher in Australia. As an art form, the research identifies the improvised technique of maloya dance. The research argues that maloya is comprised of elements of La Réunion’s history: dislocation, slavery, ‘third space’, hybridization and freedom. Thus, analysing the teaching of maloya in Australia is the teaching of Réunionese identity. The different spaces, the different audiences and the different intentions of the dancer all play into how the dancer moves. When performed at an International Arts Festival, maloya is different to its presence at a backyard neighbourhood party or in a sacred ritual honouring the ancestors.

The research is neither definitive nor interested in providing a generalisable formula for a transnational theory on adapting dance for different audiences or for different purposes (such as for performance or for teaching), rather the motivation behind the research is to fully interrogate an underexplored dance form and to better understand the origins and composition of a dance form that I carry in every step of my feet. Maloya is the conceptualisation and representation of who I am and how key Réunionese artists see themselves through maloya. The research argues that maloya contributes to identity formation, maintenance and evolution and that the history of surviving dispossession and oppression informs a certain type of cultural, linguistic and artistic identity, similar to the powerful idea of batarsité.

As a teacher of maloya in Australia, it became clear that the dance as an artistic representation informs the negotiation of intersecting identities and that this perspective — in conjunction with the participant observation, field trips and interviews with maloya artists and experts — sits comfortably alongside my subjective experience of teaching and performing maloya. The research is an important critical yet subjective interrogation of a dance form that is embraced by its people as not only a powerful symbol of freedom from oppression, but also emblematic of everyday life on a post-colonial island.


Author also known as Muriel Hillion Toulcanon

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