The street is their stage, the neighborhood, their audience: Performing acrobatic stunts in stylish costumes, the pantsula dancers of Johannesburg protest violence, racism and the powerful drug lords in their city
Vusi Mdoyi adjusts his hood and looks out across the street. “We used to find dead bodies on our way to school,” the 36-year-old says, “and it was normal to hear gunshots during class. There was a war on in Katlehong.”
Mdoyi was born in this black township 35 kilometers east of Johannesburg. Today, he is celebrated here like a star. Small, lithe, with reflexes like those of a kung-fu fighter, Mdoyi is the face of pantsula, a South-African dance born of the struggle against apartheid.
Anyone who came here at night then was either crazy or a murderer
Surrounded by violence and daily street fighting, a handful of young people, including Mdoyi’s friend David Mahlaba, formed the Via Katlehong dance troupe in 1992 as a gesture of defiance against the bleakness of their lives. “We were dancing against death,” Mdoyi says.
Remember: This was two years before the country’s first democratic elections, which resulted in Nelson Mandela becoming president of South Africa. “Anyone who came here at night then was either crazy or a murderer,” Mdoyi explains.
These are the same streets where he joined Mahlaba’s dance troupe while still in school and the ones he walked down as head choreographer and leader of Via Katlehong in the late 1990s. Whenever he can, Mdoyi returns to “his” streets to support the young dancers.
Today, he is here to see the Take Care crew, whose trainer he once taught. Seven dancers between the ages of 15 and 19 pull on green and red coveralls. They are nervous but proud to be dancing for their role model.
Nearly every day, they train in front of a two-story, red-brick hostel that has been ravaged by the sun and rain. During apartheid, places such as this housed black workers who had found employment in white neighborhoods.
The dancers stretch, jump up and down and cheer each other on. A cluster of teenagers stands idly by, smoking and drinking and glancing over occasionally to give the dancers a respectful nod.
The air is clear and cold as the dancers set off, making their own music by clapping their hands in rhythm. Uniform rows of one-story brick houses line their stage: block after block of them, some showing trim plasterwork, others still quite rough, some cared for, others neglected.
Small grocery shops and liquor stores break the monotony of the scene, but nobody goes inside to buy anything. Instead, their purchases are passed out through thick bars. The performers look like splashes of bright paint against this drab backdrop.
In his hoody and tight pants, Vusi Mdoyi observes from the sidelines as the crew blocks an intersection and begins to dance. Some of the passersby, stopping to watch, start moving to the rhythms, too.
Everybody knows the dance, or at least what it’s supposed to look like. Katlehong has the most colorful history of all the townships around Johannesburg.
In the late 1980s, this is where a small group of young men began to protest apartheid, and later, the civil-war-like conditions in the townships, by dancing, and pantsula was born – an art form and an act of non-violent resistance in one.
The dancers’ aim was to transform the energy that was filling the streets with senseless violence into something positive and beautiful. So, dressed in brilliant costumes, they performed fast, furious figures in the ghetto streets.
Pantsula is a reflection of South African society, a mix of many elements. Some of its components stem from traditional African and European partner dances, but many are similar to breakdancing, which originated in the Bronx in the early 1970s.
Mdoyi doesn’t think pantsula was influenced by styles from the New York ghetto. On the contrary, he sees breakdancing as having borrowed elements from traditional African dance.
“Pantsula and breakdancing show that people from the ghetto speak a common language,” he says, as two boys beside him start a tap-dancing sequence. Whereas music plays a major role in breakdance culture, it is secondary in pantsula.
At first, pantsula was done to pop music, but now it’s mostly house or even no music at all. An old man stumbles drunkenly past and before moving on, smiles and performs a couple of classic dance steps. The crowd hoots and cheers.
The Take Care crew are now performing in front of a vegetable stand. They hang in the air for a fraction of a second and then twist on the ground in unison. A crowd has gathered almost instantly and the whistling and rhythmic clapping grow louder and louder. Some of the onlookers throw banknotes at the sweating performers, who acknowledge the gift with a proud smile.
Over the years, shootings have become less common and the township is no longer as dangerous as it was in the ’90s, but violence is still prevalent here.
The dancing keeps young people away from the gangs with their weapons and drugs. “It’s like an informal school,” Mdoyi explains, “and it teaches them discipline.”
The young members of the crew rehearse for several hours every day and are not allowed to drink or smoke. Anyone caught breaking the rules is kicked out.
The crew passes a sawed off oil drum with a fire flickering inside for barbecuing meat. A thin man of about 50 stands beside it. Mdoyi’s face breaks into a grin. “Knowledge!,” he shouts. The two embrace.
Knowledge was part of the first big pantsula dance troupe called the Vibrations, and Mdoyi has great regard for him. “It used to be risky to dance in the street. We were not allowed to move around freely, and everything we did in the townships was political,” the veteran dancer explains. “It’s much easier for them today.”
He claps Mdoyi on the shoulder and they dance together briefly, hug again and then Knowledge says: “Go on. Do it for the children.” That’s exactly what Mdoyi is doing – on a grand scale, too.
He’s trying to find them a bigger stage than the streets and squares of the townships. Fifteen years ago, he was the first pantsula dancer to be invited to Europe and perform in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. After that, he toured the USA and Europe with Via Katlehong.
Thanks to its success, pantsula is now part of South Africa’s artistic canon. There are roughly 50 crews in the townships around Johannesburg, and their art has taken on a new dimension thanks to Via Katlehong: It offers youngsters a chance to escape the lack of prospects in the townships.
The ghettos speak a common language
Mdoyi was once offered a contract by Cirque du Soleil, who wanted him to commit himself for several years, but he turned them down. “The apartheid regime robbed us blacks of our pride,” says Mdoyi, “but dancing gives it back.”
The Take Care crew has finished its tour, and the dancers are standing on their hands in front of a graffiti-covered wall, practicing their moves.
Mdoyi left the troupe a year ago, he says, because there was so much more that needed to be done. He and a German art historian started a foundation dedicated to the history of pantsula. Virtually nothing has been recorded about the precursors to the dance.
Go on. Do it for the children!
His next big project is to found a dance academy in Katlehong, and in September he will perform in Toyi Toyi, a show based on a Zimbabwean protest dance. He and four other dancers also want to embark on a tour of Europe to tell the story of their lives.
Evening approaches, and Mdoyi is back outside the hostel, where he meets a childhood friend. They share a bottle of beer, smoke a joint – there are no young people around – and talk about the old days.
Occasionally they laugh out loud, at other times the laughter sticks in their throats. So many deaths, so much violence. But it’s all part of their personal history… They are trying to decide how to turn their disrupted childhood into something for the stage, and already have a working title: Our School Days.
South Africa in motion
A dance that arose in the gold mines of Johannesburg in the 19th century. Miners communicated in the shafts by drumming on their work boots.
A political dance taken from the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, a resistance group that intimidated its opponents by stamping loudly with their feet.
A dance and music style that arose in Soweto in the 1990s. Like pantsula, it began as a political statement, but today, the message is mostly: Let’s have fun.