World disco champ still dancing 40 years on

Image: Antonio Muchave

"And all the way from South Africa, the winner is ... Godfrey Raseroka!"

When the master of ceremonies announced the winner, the house exploded with thunderous applause at the Empire Ballroom in Leicester Square, London, on December 16 1980.

The winner, a gap-toothed lanky young man dressed in a silver-black jumpsuit, golden boogie shoes and a funky hairstyle, was lost for words but beaming with confidence as if he knew all along that he was destined to beat the other 32 contestants for first prize.

He was handed a floating trophy that's still etched with the name of the inaugural 1978 winner of the World Disco Dancin' Championship.

Japanese-born Tadaaki Dan went on to star in a movie titled Disco Mania in 1979, one of a number of international films inspired by the disco craze of the '70s. Raseroka also received      £2,000 and a Triumph TR7 sports car worth £18,000 pounds. "I'm not in the habit of praising myself but I knew that I was coming back with the crown," he says at his home in GaRankuwa, north of Pretoria.

He adds that confidence has been part of his personality since his youth.

Even today at 58, he's still a marvel to watch on the dance floor and reckons he can beat any competitor half his age.

Raseroka recalls that when he first saw John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1977), he wasn't at all overwhelmed by the main character's swagger in the opening scene and the subsequent swanky footwork that brought disco into the mainstream and made the movie one of the highest-grossing dance films of all time.

When Raseroka was crowned the disco dance king he was 19 - the same age as Tony Manero, the lead character. And a year later, after making history abroad, the world disco dance champion would have his share of the spotlight on the screen as a movie star. Don't Stop the Music was released in October 1981 and immediately became a box-office sensation.

A song-and-dance extravaganza, it also stars Steve Kekana, the mbaqanga soul singer who was also known for his surefootedness on stage despite his visual impairment, and Cocky "The Two-Bull Express" Tlhotlhalemaje, the late actor, livewire DJ and popular radio personality.

Inspired by Raseroka's historic 1980 international triumph, Don't Stop the Music was filmed on location in Soweto, GaRankuwa and Sharpeville during the world disco dancing road show meant to celebrate his extraordinary achievement.

The national tour included some of the 1980 world finalists from countries such as Wales, England and Portugal as well as local footloose stars like Lucky Moeketsi from the historic Vaal Triangle township. In 1979, Moeketsi, 23, represented South Africa in London. Although Moeketsi didn't make it to the top three of the global event, for Raseroka it was motivation enough that a fellow black South African could outperform his privileged white counterparts.

And watching his deft and daring moves in Don't Stop the Music, he makes Travolta look unremarkable.

It also explains why he walked away with all those prizes in London. Unfortunately it's not a story with a happy ending.

"I was advised by those who claimed to represent my interests to sell the car because there was an import duty of R12,000 to pay to have the car shipped to South Africa," he says. "But after the car was sold all I got was R8,300."

A Pretoria law firm involved in the transaction had his brother-in-law as an employee. Raseroka is adamant he had a hand in the raw deal he got but his sister Angel Moalusi has a different take.

"My husband was just an articled clerk at the time and therefore he had no power to make any decisions of a financial nature. . It's clear that some unscrupulous people took advantage of his young age . The accusations have caused discord among the family, but we hope that one day the truth will be revealed."

Born on August 28 1961 in Lady Selborne, a culturally rich freehold location that became another casualty of the apartheid bulldozers, he was raised in a family of artists and entertainers. "I had uncles who could dance exceptionally well and as a youngster they used to take me to fun events.

"Dancing is definitely a gift that I was born with," he says.

The nightclub scene was big in his neighbourhood and he was the mainstay of clubs.

In 1979, he won the Northern Transvaal championship and in 1980, was crowned national champion in Johannesburg.

Itu Bochele, a stand-up comedian and event organiser said he was touched by his childhood idol's situation as someone who was blessed with an extraordinary gift but was struggling to make ends meet.

"When I saw him working at a rubbish collection project, I realised that we are a sick society. The work was beneath his achievements as an international dance champion."

Bochele has initiated a yearly event for artists known as Gabs - GaRankuwa's annual and biggest show. He is now Raseroka's manager/spokesperson. He's organising a disco dance festival for 2020 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the dancer's London triumph. "We are also working on a documentary that will tell his story for posterity and we hope the department of arts, culture & sport will offer support for these milestone projects."


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