“I SAT alone and watched TV. What a feeling can’t be changed. As they say a smile won’t catch your eye. So goodbye, goodbye, goodbye to loving. Let us be loving…” a deep female voice, hitting all the high notes, blares from a speaker in a room filled with plastic and wooden chairs piled on top of one another on a stage. Rectangle framed windows painted white and grey walls painted with people on them. The song blaring from the speakers is Alice Russel’s Let us be Loving.
Ever so gracefully, gliding across the wooden floors like skaters on ice. Their bodies move in sync, to the rhythm of the beat. Though they are one. Arms poised up, feet flat with toes pointed out and in one swift but smooth motion, their bodies find another elegant and composed position.
Their movements mirroring each other’s gracefulness at Uncle Tom’s Community Centre in Orlando West, Soweto. It is a sunny spring Wednesday morning. Dressed in black shorts and a red vest, Douglas Sekete, 44, and wearing Hello Kitty top and tights, Candice Eustice, 33 are the pair gliding across the wooden floors.
The song changes and the pair move to another dance routine. This time it is a contemporary tango routine which they are rehearsing for a show in 2018. The name of the show has not been decided yet, but it will be held at the Fringe theatre says Sekete.
“Leg flip and then head turn. In the same direction,” instructs Sekete as the pair firmly hold each other’s shoulders. They stop dancing as he decides which choreography to use next in his newly choreographed routine.
Their faces filled with relaxation and concentration at the same time. Sweat drips down the side of their heads as they twirl around each other. “Give me your finger,” laughs Eustice as she tries to twirl around Sekete in one motion.
Aha, so that’s how a flawless twirl comes about. The lead dancer sticks out a finger as his/her partner grabs onto it and spins themselves around, using their partners finger as a guide.
And moving from a twirl, Sekete swiftly yet graciously moves into a squatting position as Eustice swings her arms to the left, placing her hands onto Sekete’s hip.
STEP 1,2,3: Left, Candice Eustice led in dance by, Right, Douglas Sekete.
His hands meet her hips at the peak of the cartwheel and swings her over his squatting legs, finishing the motion. It is just the two of them today.
The other dancers could not make it explains Sekete. “It is that time of the year when everyone is busy at work,” he says.
Uncle Tom’s Community Centre
The community centre has been in Orlando West “since 1955,” says artistic director of Soweto Dance Project, Carly Dibakwane. He adds that contemporary dance began in Soweto in 1977.
Contemporary dance began in town. Town being Johannesburg City. Contemporary dance was taken by one of the first performing arts schools, Federation Union of Black Arts (FUBA), to the Meadowlands, Soweto, he explains.
Dibakwane says that the dancers there had been influenced by contemporary dance. “The ‘Pantsula’ dance started after 1976. It was a form of resistance [against apartheid]. People danced in very small spaces and that is why the dance steps are restricted,” he says.
Dance tutor Thabang Mpooa, from Orlando East explains that after the 1976 uprising, history repeated itself in 1986 with “toi toing” (protesting).
“Initially we tried to move away from the toi tois. So we formed our own organisation on the side. We used to join the toi tois and then sneak around and go into halls and dance,” says Moopa.
Meet the dancers
Sekete grew up in Soweto and is currently staying in Orlando West, Soweto. He has been a contemporary dance instructor of the Koketso Dance Project, at the centre, for the past seven years.
As a child, he was exposed to dancing at “Shebeens” (Tavern), traditional dancing at weddings, at the men’s hostels and at Uncle Tom’s Community Centre. “I used to come to this very same place [Uncle Tom’s community Centre]. They used to do your Salsa dance and your Samba’s. It was more of a social gathering,” he explains.
Sekete started dancing at age 14 with an organisation called Kopano. “It’s a funny story but I used to watch the musical Fame and I was fascinated by the male lead dancer,” says Sekete.
The lead dancer showed Sekete that it was possible for him to dance and that the colour of your skin does not matter, he smiles as he explains why he started dancing.
“It is a fusion of many dance forms,” says Sekete. Now he is talking about contemporary dance. It is never stagnant, there is no set choreography and the dances change with time he adds. We use spaces and to us [dancers] everything is a performance.
Sekete does not consider contemporary dancing a dance but rather a “movement.”
Eustice, a quiet looking young woman, has been dancing for the past 30 years. “I started dancing because my mum was a dancer. I went with her to class and watched her dancing. She did modern dancing.
I just joined in her class and eventually I went to the proper 3-year-old classes,” she says as she takes a sip of her Caffè Mocha from Starbucks.
Eustice travels from Marlands, Germiston to Soweto to dance because she says “There isn’t really a lot of contemporary [dance] companies. They’re either all in town or in Soweto.
There’s nothing on my side, it’s all more for children but not for professional dancers. If I want to dance, I’ve got to travel.”
She says that dancing in Soweto is different to dancing in the suburbs because the dancers are like a family in Soweto. Where she comes from, not all the “dancers are nice because they are very competitive,” she adds.
The pieces performed in Soweto and from where Eustice stays, differ. In Soweto, more African contemporary pieces are performed “because they’ve [ the dancers in Soweto] got that style in them, whereas if you do contemporary in another company, it is more trained,” adds Eustice.
She dances African contemporary but teaches ballet. Ballet is her favourite but says she does not “have the physique” for it. Dancing makes her feel like she is “alive”.
CHARACTERISE: Nceba Sitokwe gets into his character during rehearsals.
The six members of the Koketso Dance Project do not compete. Instead, these professional dancers perform in shows in theatres across South Africa and in some parts of the world. Sekete has performed in Austria, in the musical African Footprint in South Africa and performed at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.
Having performed contemporary dance in Malaysia, Senegal and Angola, Nceba Sitokwe is one of the dancers from Koketso Dance Project. It is late afternoon and Sitokwe is inside Mavis Hall in White City teaching contemporary dance to the youth of White City, Soweto.
Arms stretched out to his sides, his right leg points towards the right, while the left point straight. Sitokwe leads his young students in dance as he uses the space in front of him. His body free and in tune with the character he is depicting in the art performance.
Sitokwe grew up in White City, Soweto and schooled at Isiseko Primary, Thubelihle Secondary School and Ibhongo High School. Growing up in White City was “very hard.” “Especially in a township like Soweto. It was very rough,” he says. He never had the privilege of having career guidance and had to “hustle” for himself.
Even though Sitokwe had to “hustle” his way through life, his mum, Ida Sitokwe, says that he was a “good boy and always happy.” She is proud of her young son dancing and has always supported him. “I nearly cried [when she saw him perform], I was so happy,” she says with a big smile on her face as she wipes her hands over her face.
“He transforms ey. He becomes the character and the Nceba that we know… I remember one day we were at Uncle Tom’s hall and they were doing a play about the traditional healers. So I could see my mum tried to get his attention but he was so into his character [he did not see her]. So after the performance I asked him what happened? He [Nceba] says ‘no, I have to be in the character’,” says his older brother, Mzwandile Santi, as he smiles with pride for his younger brother.
Sitokwe has been dancing since he was 15-years-old.
“I was never interested in dancing. Then one day I went to play with my friend, the one who owns Ubhule Mvelo, and there, I found myself dancing amongst the other guys,” explains Sitokwe as he frowns from the afternoon sun hitting his face.
He learnt the technical skills of dancing at Moving into Dance (MID) in 2011.
MID is dance company situated in Newton, Johannesburg.
He completed his studies at the end of 2011 and then went onto training as a choreographer in 2012 and dance instructor in 2013, all at MID.
FREE SPIRITED: Nceba Sitokwe is a professional choreographer and dancer.
Contemporary dance in Soweto
Dance in Soweto is rife, however there are not many companies that are affordable to Soweto residents. Sitokwe says that he started teaching contemporary dance after a local Soweto company called Impopho saw him dancing and liked what he did.
Contemporary dance is affordable, unlike ballet or another technical dance. Ballet and other dances are expensive to learn as they are often only taught at companies which parents cannot afford to send their children to, explains Sitokwe.
“In terms of ballet and other dances, you must pay a certain amount to learn them and most of the parents cannot afford that,” says Sitokwe. Hence, contemporary dancing meets what the parents can afford.
The reason there are no dance companies in Soweto is “A private dance company implies that people [the students] who are part of it pay for the service that you [ the dance instructor] are going to render.
The socio-economic situation in Soweto does not allow for that to happen. In addition, one would need the proper infrastructure and fully equipped dance studios, competent staff etc,” says consultant in performing arts David April at MID. He adds that not all dance companies are private, and they rely on fundraising to manage their “operations”.
Sitokwe charges the dance companies nothing above R4000 per month to teach the youngsters in White City. He also teaches ballet classes, on Saturdays, at Uncle Tom’s Community Centre, where he charges a R50 administration fee and R150 per month.
The class is multi-racial, and he says that it keeps the children occupied, away from drugs and the wrong crowds.
Tshepo Mahlake, 23, a professional dancer who is part of a dance group called Genetic Movers began dancing in 2007. He says “I wouldn’t have finished school if it weren’t for dance. I was in the wrong crowd but when I danced, I saw the potential I had and became a regular dancer.”
Costumes worn during performances depend on the piece that is performed, says Sitokwe. “The last performance we did was Malachai. It [the costume] was a beige short and a twisted rope here,” he demonstrates that the twisted rope ran across his chest.
In one show, he did a Ndebele dance fused with contemporary dance, where he wore a shirt and a pants.
COLOURS: The shirt that was used in the performance of the Ndebele and contemporary dance.
Challenges faced by the dancers
There are problems that dance instructors and dancers encounter with dance in Soweto. There aren’t proper dancing facilities, enough funding and Soweto dancers do not get recognised if they perform in Soweto.
“Using Uncle Tom’s, it’s a shit space number one. It does not belong to me, it belongs to the community. So at times we’ll come here for rehearsals and the venue will be booked for something else,” says Sekete.
Sitokwe says “If you are in Soweto most of the time, you don’t get recognised.” He explains that if you have been trained by a dancer in in Soweto and you tell people in companies that you have been trained by a name they do not recognise, people get skeptical. “That’s the most difficult part,” he says.
Despite these issues, the fusion in these dancer’s feet have carried them through and when these vibrant personalities, from different walks of life, from different places in Johannesburg, who share the same passion are not using spaces and making a sea of flawless waves; they are people walking among you and I.
They are massage therapists, mums and reserved dancers who go out with their friends and chill at home.