New book praises South African dance

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

In classrooms, community halls and professional theatres across the country are dancers – many rehearsing for their next show – whose stories are told in a new book celebrating this performance art.

I Praise the Dance, published by the Performing Arts Network of South Africa (PANSA), is the 186-page story of local dancers, choreographers and the institutions that support their work.

Grant van Ster in 1st Draught, choreographed by Sibonakaliso Ndaba for Jazzart Dance Theatre at the 2010 FNB Dance Umbrella (Photographer: Themba Vilakazi)

Grant van Ster in 1st Draught, choreographed by Sibonakaliso Ndaba for Jazzart Dance Theatre at the 2010 FNB Dance Umbrella (Photographer: Themba Vilakazi)

It was launched this week at the Baxter Theatre’s annual Dance Festival, which concluded last weekend.

Photography is the primary storyteller in I Praise the Dance, while interviews and research offers information about various dance styles and the local industry’s shapers. Historical context is woven into the narrative, enriching one’s knowledge about the various dance sector role-players.

The written word is kept only to a bare minimum though as dance is a visceral medium and pictures best tell this tale. Photographs feature street breakdancing as well as contemporary, Oriental and African dance, amongst other dance styles.

A questionable omission from this book is the 80-year-old Cape Town City Ballet. Its contribution to the city’s dance calendar is ignored.

Perhaps PANSA wanted to focus more on contemporary dance, of which this ballet company does not offer much as it showcases mostly classics like Swan Lake, The Nutcracker or crowd-pleasers like Giselle.

Jazzart Dance Theatre Company dancers in 69185 (Photographer: Simon O’Callaghan)

Jazzart Dance Theatre Company dancers in 69185 (Photographer: Simon O’Callaghan)

Another odd omission on PANSA’s behalf is that of award-winning Cape Town-born dancer and choreographer Mamela Nyamza. She has this year alone traveled extensively to perform in different countries – but is not registered in this book.

It would have been interesting for anyone wanting to know more about local dance to hear what Nyamza has to say about the present state of affairs.

Nyamza has developed through her dance a voice willing to ask critical questions about contemporary South Africa. She also tackled, in her solo piece at the Baxter’s Dance Festival this week, questions about women’s bodies, her own body as a performer and the role that dancers are expected to perform in society.

Dr Fred Hagemann, professor emeritus at University of Pretoria, does clarify in the book that it is “does not attempt to offer an all-inclusive and complete historical record of South African dance”.

“It does not try to direct the reader towards a particular dance aesthetic or philosophy. Instead, it celebrates the diversity, magnificence, beauty and power of South African dance,” he adds.

So while there are omissions, this book does succeed in bringing to the reader various gems of the dance profession.

Seya, choreographed by Jacqueline Manyaapelo and performed by Jazzart Dance Theatre women for Azishe! in 2013. The piece speaks of individuality and of being grounded in an ever-changing world (Photographer: Lenore Cairncross)

Seya, choreographed by Jacqueline Manyaapelo and performed by Jazzart Dance Theatre women for Azishe! in 2013. The piece speaks of
individuality and of being grounded in an ever-changing world (Photographer: Lenore Cairncross)

One of these gems is dancer and choreographer Moya Michael who has been relatively unknown to Cape Town audiences until she performed a politically driven narrative at the inner-city’s Artscape Theatre in early September.

She referenced political speeches, toyi-toyi dancing and freedom songs to tell a personal story of a South African seeking to not only tell her story to a global audience but also aiming to connect again with a local audience.

Michael is originally from Johannesburg and has lived in London and Brussels for the last 18 years. She has performed at various intervals in South Africa while her career has mostly unfolded on European stages and also Asian platforms.

Like Nyamza, she too received the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Dance.

Michael says in this book that her performance has over the years seen her “move away from the usual, broad, loose movements and try smaller movements”.

Through interviews such as this, the reader understands more intimately the dancer’s journey and creative process.

PANSA states in the book that it wants to use this hardcover with its enticing imagery to connect dancers with audiences. This reflects the necessity of the developmental role that dance continues to play in this newfound land with its democratic ideals of access and equality for all.

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In one chapter, the Remix Dance Company is placed under the spotlight for its role in creating work for dancers with various physical disabilities. Its dancers have performed thought-provoking contemporary work with their wheelchairs in galleries, theatres and festivals locally as well as in London.

Another development project featured is Athlone-based Dance for All where hundreds of children every month point their toes and lift their bodies off the floor, with ambitions to hopefully some day soar beyond their social and economic disadvantages.

It has of course been done before as this 21-year-old dance academy’s students have gone on to perform internationally. Disappointingly though, at the book launch, its founder Philip Boyd mentioned they were currently in a financial crisis, with enough funds to see them through only until the end of this year.

This is the refrain in the local arts fraternity though: “We don’t have money.”

Cape Town-based Jazzart Dance Theatre – unfortunately also in a seemingly financial and management slump presently – features in the book too.

While its staff dancers have quit, the show goes on. A previous work it produced, Biko’s Quest, is currently touring cities across the UK for the Afrovibes Festival. Who knows where its dancers will find a home once back after touring the UK.

As noted in this book, Jazzart’s developmental role has been pivotal in Cape Town. It has enriched the city’s dance scene by running a three-year dance training programme, resulting in solid dancers and choreographers who know what to do once their feet are grounded on the wooden planks.

As an example, this book relates the story of dancer and choreographer Jacqueline Manyaapelo, a “testimony to the success of Jazzart’s empowerment programme”.

Manyaapelo was 17 when she joined Jazzart’s training programme, went on to fill the role of the company’s artistic director and was one of the Biko’s Quest choreographers.

In Cape Town, and elsewhere, dance is also linked to politics and this is highlighted in the book’s Oriental section. The latter focuses on the city’s belly dancers, entranced by this Middle and Near East art form.

Some belly dancers have teamed up with the city-based Kurdish Human Rights Action Group to raise awareness and funds for this non-profit. It is currently lobbying for action to halt Islamic State attacks on Kurds in Syria.

And so the diverse dance community is presented as an integral part of the country we live in. One gets the impression that dance is as every day as breathing oxygen.

This reminds one of a choreographer’s words, as he cautioned me during an interview a few years ago: “Everybody’s dancing around us, all the time, we just need to open our eyes to all the movement”.

I Praise the Dance is for sale via the website


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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