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Doing the Nutbush: One country’s strange love affair with Tina Turner

It’s not clear how the dance came to be such a big part of Australian culture, but its popularity remains undimmed.
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Many Australians feel a special connection to Tina Turner, with one of her early songs having found a unique place in the country’s culture.

As fans around the world mourn the singer’s death at the age of 83, many in the country remember growing up learning the line dance to Nutbush City Limits, the song she performed with her then-husband and collaborator Ike in 1973.

The song is about life in a small town in Tennessee and, despite it being a far cry from life in Australia, the dance has become a staple of weddings and parties.

There are a number of reasons why this is very strange.

Turner’s performances of the song never included the dance that has become so loved by Australians, and the song wasn’t even that popular anyway, peaking at number 14 when it was released in the 1970s and then at 16 when it was re-released in 1991.

The Big Red Bash is an annual music festival held in the Simpson Desert in outback Queensland.
The Big Red Bash is an annual music festival held in the Simpson Desert in outback Queensland. Marc Grimwade / Getty Images file

The dance is thought to have grown from a scheme combining the creative arts and physical education in primary schools in the states of New South Wales or Queensland.

But others say it was never part of Australia’s education curriculum, and was instead spread by individual teachers, copying what they had seen in other schools.

Interdisciplinary artist Kay Armstrong first encountered the Nutbush as a primary school student newly-arrived in Western Australia from England in the late 1970s.

She told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2018: “We learnt the Nutbush in primary school, and then in high school, and then I’ve probably done it at every wedding I’ve gone to since.”

The country’s keenest Nutbush fans have set world records for the largest number of people performing the dance.

Some 4,084 people performed the dance at the Birdsville Big Red Bash in Queensland to break the previous record.

A month later another 3,700 people gathered for the dance at the Mundi Mundi Bash in Broken Hill, New South Wales, but failed to set a new record.