When the 16-year-old South African was told he was too short to become a principal dancer, it motivated him to prove himself. He talks medals, 6am starts and two-minute naps
By David Jays
January 26, 2015
Ballet came to me almost by mistake. At school, we had to choose an extra-mural activity, like soccer or basketball. I saw ballet on the list, and chose it because I didn’t really know what it meant. I was the only boy in the class, but straight away I loved it. I enjoyed how inside it’s always challenging, but on the outside you have to make it look immaculate and effortless.
Now I’m in my fourth and final year at the Art of Motion School in Johannesburg. I live at the school – but it’s more luxurious than Hogwarts! Our day starts at 6am, and ends at 6.30pm. It’s a long day, very challenging and intensive – I had to get my body used to the programme. When I first joined the school, I didn’t feel ready to get up in time for a 6am class, but now I enjoy it. Sometimes I’ll take a two-minute nap to recharge my batteries. It’s 46C here at the moment, so at the end of the day, I’ll jump in the pool and cool down before I do homework.
We start with conditioning and fitness, and then ballet and contemporary class. In the afternoon, we do our academic studies – that’s the stressful part for me! If you come straight from a class where a turn hasn’t worked as well as you would want it to, you’ll be thinking about it during maths. But the school is flexible – if you’re struggling with a variation you can ask for more time to work on it.
In the evening, we rehearse for productions or work on our competition solos. I am doing a lot of major competitions – the South African and then Varna International ballet competitions. When I choose what to dance, I don’t look at flashy tricks and turns – I just have to listen to the music and then I know. Something like Le Corsaire is often danced by more muscular boys, but I’m healthy and outgoing and it can fit my personality. At a competition, although we’re competing, backstage we’re all together. It can be a little awkward competing against someone you know, but in the end it’s about exposure to international artistic directors. You mustn’t think about medals, but about performing.
Winning the Genée International ballet competition at Sadler’s Wells last year was a complete surprise. I was dancing my heart out, and for a minute or two forgot it was a competition. I was dancing for the audience, not for the medal. In one section, we had to dance an original solo. Esmé Hoffmann, who runs the school, created Freedom the Tribute for me: it is set to a song about Nelson Mandela which says “I’m looking for freedom”. It really touched me. I may be small, I might not have the most extended feet or longest legs – but I have what I have, and when I’m on stage I’m in my own world.
I’ve had a few people say, you’re not going to make it into a ballet company or become a principal dancer because of your height. That doesn’t discourage me – instead it motivates me to prove that I can be someone.
It took my family time to get into my dancing. They are more on the academic side – metallurgy, IT – and did ask, “Are you sure you want to do this?” They would understand sport, but I want to be different. I want to do something no one else can. Esmé told us – don’t ever make a plan B for your life. If you do, it’s as if you’re saying, “it’s OK if this doesn’t work out.” For me, there is no plan B.
© 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
Leroy Mokgatle – age 14, South African International Ballet Competition 2014 Scholars Classical Solo – Gold Medalist
Leroy Mokgatle – age 14, South African International Ballet Competition 2014 Contemporary Solo – Gold Medalist