Dance is simultaneously one of the most exciting and least understood of the Australian performing art forms. Probably the very oldest form of artistic expression of all, it’s perhaps best known now for its cutting-edge contemporaneity.

Right now, Melbourne is playing host to Dance Massive 2011, one of the most ambitious festivals of new and contemporary Australian dance in years. With 22 shows across a fortnight, it’s a fair measure of just how vibrant the form has become.

Dance faces unique challenges. As former Melbourne International Arts Festival director Kristy Edmunds observed in the wrap-up session of the inaugural National Dance Forum, a two-day conference of contemporary dance practitioners from around the country: “Dance is an ephemeral form.” Because it’s a non-linguistic and often non-notated art form, it doesn’t enjoy the same advantages of being written down, stored and transferred that literature, film and music enjoy.

Dance also has an undeserved reputation as being difficult to understand. The ABS statistics tell us its audiences are small, despite their passion and loyalty. Australia’s arts media — facing challenges of its own — struggles to understand or cover dance with any depth and sensitivity, with the notable exception of online outlets such as Crikey and specialist publications such as RealTime. And while Ten’s So You Think You Can Dance proved a massive boon to the art form in terms of popular appreciation, the show is not returning this year.

All of these issues were chewed over last weekend at the forum in North Melbourne. Long a splintered and regionally disparate community, the National Dance Forum shows Australia’s dance scene is beginning to unify and connect in ways that can only be good for the art form in this country.

Brisbane-based independent producer and choreographer Claire Marshall is a good example of attendees. Working largely outside a major company for the bulk of her career, Marshall has choreographed for music videos as well as self-producing a series of ambitious dance shows in Brisbane and the Gold Coast. “I think what I found was most valuable was listening to other artists talk about how they work and what they’ve done in the past,” she told Crikey. “Some of the stories were quite inspirational.”

Marshall is currently bumping in a show at the Arts Centre Gold Coast entitled Cavill Avenue. “Being from Brisbane, which is quite isolated distance-wise, there was a sense of being connected to the greater dance community. It was amazing hearing about people who were older and wiser and had been practising for a long time.”

Jess Devereux is a dance animateur and independent producer who shares her time between Melbourne and Darwin, where she works with that city’s acclaimed dance company Tracks. “I found it really important for a couple of reasons,” she said. “I feel very much like a coming together of people was important — I hadn’t attended anything like that before where such a breadth of people from across the national community had come together.

“I suppose that now the National Dance Forum has happened, people probably are a bit  less mystified and curious about what’s going on in regional Australia.”

Melbourne critic and commentator Jana Perkovic attended the forum and has also been reviewing many of the shows in Dance Massive. “The thing about Australian dance is that there is very little talking, because people spend all their time working on the body,” she said in an interview. “A lot of attendees said that this was the first time the dance community in Australia was actually meeting since Greenmill in 1997, and they really cherished that a lot. Dance in Australia is decentralised and it’s very interesting what’s happening in Western Australia and Queensland and Tasmania.”

Perkovic also pointed to the attendance of Singaporean choreographer Tang Fu Kuen as evidence of the beginnings of international connections: “Apart from being an important figure he was also very, very articulate and one of the most liked speakers. At the end of his interview he made a point of saying, why isn’t Australian dance engaging more with dance in Asia? So much of what he talked about was completely applicable to Australian situation: we don’t have that long history of appreciating form, but we do have some very hybrid and contemporary artists working right now, and we’re on a kind of periphery. It was a very generous and open call for communication.”

Ausdance‘s Julie Dyson argues the forum is the first proper gathering of the national dance scene since the demise of the Greenmill festival: “We used to have a big festival where we talked and saw performances called Greenmill Dance Festival. It ran from 1993-97 and then funding ceased. So it’s been I think a very special occasion for a lot of artists to get together to hear from a younger generation, and to hear from our indigenous artists — some of whom haven’t had these opportunities to share their practice before.” She hopes the Australia Council’s Dance Board, which funded the forum, will support it again in 2013.

The final session of the forum was chaired by Edmunds, who underlined the importance of sharing those connections. “We don’t have a shared knowledge of our history,” she told delegates. “That is not a critique because it’s a very ephemeral form and it lives in the bodies of the transfer of knowledge and how that takes place. The challenge is how find a way to advocating these histories so that they’re available.”

* Dance Massive finishes this Sunday in venues around Melbourne. Claire Marshall’s Cavill Avenue runs March 31 to April 2 at the Arts Centre, Gold Coast.