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By Lin Sampson
Times Live
August 1, 2010

 

Number 14 Fikizolo Street, Nyanga [Cape Town, South Africa], lies within a jostle of shacks, a place where hazy-eyed dogs eye each other and lines of washing herald the winter sun. It is a place not without a certain community charm but a place where poverty exhales an air of desperate need and, as the afternoon shadows lengthen, crime hovers on street corners.

The World Cup is over but the fever remains and a toddler swaddled in pink wool falls over as he tries to kick a ball. But at No 14, a different kind of athletics is being pursued. Three 16-year-old boys – Samkelo Khuze, whose house it is, Odwa Makanda and Abongile Tenza – are warming up with demipliés, the traditional start of the barre exercises, the foundation of a ballet dancer’s technique.

Backs taut, arms in graceful arcs, they bend and stretch, bend and stretch, starting with first position and continuing to fifth. In the background, a man shaves, looking at himself in a shard of mirror.

These are the ballet boys of Nyanga, who are growing in number, cocking a snoop at their soccer-mad friends as they discipline their bodies and minds in a daily ritual of pliés, jetés and arabesques. Their shoes might be worn, their tights torn. They might lack such luxuries as leg warmers, but ballet is their devotion.

Samkelo is luckier than many. He lives in his grandmother’s house, its neat interior filled with shiny ornamental china dogs, together with his mother, Liza, and his two-year-old sister, Hope.

“You know, my father is gone and he was always drunk and my mother she has to work very hard. Ballet for me is everything. Going to the Dance for All Studio has made my life happy,” he says.

Dance for All is an outreach initiative started by one of South Africa’s most talented ballerinas, Phyllis Spira, and her husband, Philip Boyd. Tragically, Spira has since died but the work is continued by Boyd. The studio employs 30 people at its headquarters in Athlone and has more than 1500 students, 400 of them males.

“There is,” Boyd tells me, “always a need for male dancers in the world. Many of these boys will get good jobs if they manage to stay the course. Although they are all good dancers, ballet is not part of their culture and it requires a different attitude.”

Students come willy nilly by word of mouth: “We don’t advertise, and take any shape, size or colour. Once those kids have been chosen they are channelled into specialised classes best suited to their abilities, such as ballet or contemporary dance.”

The boys are the special project of dancer Margie Sim, formerly of PACT (Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal). As we drive into Nyanga, where we are to watch a rehearsal, she breathes with relief. “Ah, there they are, my lovely boys. They have all turned up, good boys. Look, I do have to push them along but they are doing so well. I think every one of them will make it as a professional dancer. It isn’t easy for them, but I do get angry when they don’t pitch.”

But today, despite the freezing cold and the rain, there is not one absentee.

“The hardest thing,” says Boyd, “is getting qualified teachers to go to the townships. People are reluctant because it is not a normal kind of situation. It is very noisy. Some days you can work and some days you can’t. We teach in school classrooms and sometimes we suddenly have to leave because of a parents’ meeting. Margie has been mugged; others have been knifed.”

The boys stand at the barre. “Okay, up, down, arms out, no Lwando, those are banana fingers, thumbs in. Open the knees, backs straight, big smile, show your teeth.”

Boyd says: “It was always my dream to start something like this. It gives the kids discipline and structure – something they have very little of. We started with 34 kids and R25,000. Our budget today is R280,000 a month and we have trained dancers who are working all over the world. People said to me, ‘You can do what you like in Khayelitsha, black children have big feet and big bottoms’.”

The young men come to Dance for All for different reasons and then find themselves drawn more and more to the disciplines of dance, especially classical ballet.

Odwa has been doing ballet for three years. “I had a friend, a girl, who did ballet and I wanted to do it as well. One day I went along with her to Dance for All and I have been going ever since. It has changed my life.”

Abongile has been dancing since 2002. “My older brothers did ballet. I used to watch them and try out the steps. Now they both have jobs – one with the Cape Town City Ballet, one with a township project. I think I have gained a lot from ballet.”

Lwando Dutyulwa went to his first class because he had become fat. “I thought to myself I might be able to lose weight if I started dancing. In the beginning it was hard. It was like I was putting my body in places it didn’t want to go. Now I see my future as a dancer. I can make money dancing; that is good.”

“Ballet is hard work,” says Boyd, “and it takes a long time to get anywhere. Some come for a few days and think they know it all. But slowly it dawns that it is a daily discipline that stretches over a lifetime.”

Even after years of work, success is never guaranteed. In the townships there are many ways of tripping up. Girls who are only in their teens already have babies strapped to their backs. “She was one of our most promising dancers, now she is a mother,” Boyd says, pointing to a girl who looks about 12.

Few of the parents know what ballet is. “I am fighting quite a battle to keep this all together,” a young male dancer tells me. “My dad has never seen me dance. He’s usually too drunk. It makes me sad. All I can do is get better and better.”

But the rewards can be bountiful. A young girl, Noluyanda Mqulwana, recently got a job dancing in an international production of The Lion King and is off to Singapore for a year.

“For me it is about truth and reconciliation,” says Boyd. “The vital thing in this country is to be true to the magic of dance without letting your standards drop.”

Funding is always a problem. Their wish list extends from a digital camera through to professional stage lights right down to duct tape and clothes hangers.

Boyd recently went to Cuba. “Their dancing is stunning because it is all government sponsored and they can choose from 40,000 students. It is as highly respected a profession as a doctor or a lawyer. People work at it.”

Samkelo’s grandmother has the last word: “When these boys come home from the ballet, they are peaceful. I don’t like the football. Those boys come back and they are going to smoke and do bad things, but with the dance, it makes them quiet.

“Sometimes the boys are teased because they are doing these girly things, but mostly we respect them. Even the big rough boys respect them.”

 

© 2010 AVUSA, Inc

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