Dancing across cultural, class and racial divides

Edward Tsumele

Edward Tsumele

The year 2008 has represented a satisfying and unifying future for the dance community in South Africa as the achievement of local choreographers and dancers has set the agenda for 2009.

I was at the Wits Theatre in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, recently. About four figures emerged from a semi-dark background in the theatre, which was dimly lit, providing an atmosphere that filled the audience's imagination with great expectations.

The dancers' bodies started to move rhythmically in sync with the soft music.

I and the rest of the audience were glued to the stage by the marvelous performance. Then another figure emerged - a familiar figure.

It was the poet Lebo Mashile. She too did a slow motion version of the same dance, except that she also erupted into a touching poem.

This experimental performance created by Mashile, the well-known performance poet and television presenter, shares the credit for creating the show with veteran choreographer, dance teacher and mentor Sylvia "Magogo" Glasser.

The audience, which was fairly representative of white and black, middle class and working class, and students, was so silent that you could hear a pin drop.

When it was over the audience clapped and cheered in appreciation.

This performance at the Wits Theatre, which was a complex yet successful collaboration between dancer and choreographer, is an example of how dance, particularly contemporary dance, has evolved in the country.

This was just one example of a dance showpiece, demonstrating that the dance has come of age, breaking new ground in the process and gaining a massive following. It is a far cry from the days of old when the dance was regarded as an art form for the enjoyment of the privileged few.

These days dancers are starting to get the same public recognition as was traditionally reserved for those performers who worked on television and radio and in the theatre, for example.

The number of dance companies that have defied the odds of financial woes have persisted and many have succeeded.

The dance Umbrella, the country's leading dance festival, has grown from strength to strength and last year was no exception. The festival celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2008.

It celebrated in style, recognising the artistic flair of new people at the forefront of creating a new dance narrative.

This year the dance Umbrella will take place next month and as in previous years is set to be even bigger. This will undoubtedly open more opportunities for dancers and choreographers.

Today dancers such as Thabo Rapoo are hailed for their efforts in this art form.

He has been declared the newest winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for dance, following in the footsteps of Dada Masilo, who won the award last year.

Rapoo is set to produce a dance piece that will be in the spotlight at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, which will take place in June and July this year.

These are not the only two dancers who are doing so well.

Those who are into classical dance such as ballet also did extremely well and will set the tone and pace as the art form continues to compete with other art disciplines in the country.

Kitty Phetla, Lorna Maseko and one of the most technically accomplished male dancers of his generation, Thoriso Magongwa, who accepted the honour of a promotion as choreographer-in-residence at Ballet Theatre Afrikan, for example, have excelled in ballet too this past year and the chances are they will continue to break new ground and set new standards as they dance their way to success in the future.

It is a fact that dance has over the years defied boundaries of race, class and culture. It has proven itself to be a uniter of cultures in celebration of this young democracy's diversity.

Dance is no longer a pastime of bored, rich, white people who want to indulge in culture because of boredom. Dance is an art form that everyone, young and old, now enjoys through the length and breadth of South Africa.

So, as the dance community says bye-bye to 2008 and welcomes in the new year, it can pat itself on the back knowing that it indeed did an excellent job in representing its artistic discipline.

Last year was a hugely rewarding year for the dance community and its ever-increasing and appreciative audience.

The dance community has succeeded in setting the stage and agenda for dance to continue to grow as well as to thrive as a serious form of cultural narrative of South Africa's diverse society.

So all indications are that 2009 is will deliver exciting surprises for the dance community.

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