Dance has always been part of the African culture, Africans danced for rain, danced when a child was born, danced to celebrate a bumper harvest…Africa danced to a host of traditional dances. However in all these dance styles Ballet was never one of them. Ballet is a classic form of dance, In Africa; the dance established itself during the colonial era.
South Africa is the home of ballet in Africa. Ballet is becoming a way of life for many; ballet for black people was unheard off in South Africa. But in recent years, Cape Town has seen a rise in men taking up ballet not only as a dance form but as a career of choice.
Three young black South African men; Xola Putye, Mihlali Gwatyu and Lukhanyo nonqonqo are leaving a mark at what was once a preserve for the white elite, ballet dancing.
30 year old Xola Putye is Cape Town City Ballet’s star and has scooped several awards throughout his career in ballet. Xola is from Phillipi Township; his journey began at the Dance for All studios in Gugulethu. Xola tried his hand in different sports but didn’t seem content until his cousin invited him to watch him rehearse. He happily went to the rehearsal and when he saw how much fun his cousin was having while dancing he was hooked. When the director asked if he wanted to join he didn’t think twice, the rest as they say is history.
17 year old Mhlale Gwatyu, who was born and raised in the township of Gugulethu, is very passionate about ballet. He was also inspired by his cousin, a dancer, to pick up dancing. Gwatyu wants to dance professionally. However he will have to overcome a few challenges; there’s not always a lot of support given for male dancers to follow dancing as s career. But Mhlale is determined to dance on.
“African contemporary dancing is where you get to explore what your body wants to do, not what you tell your body to do. Dancing, especially African (contemporary), makes me feel fulfilled. It makes me feel real in a way, not that I’m not real when I’m doing ballet, but it makes me feel complete,” says Gwatyu
But it’s not all rosy as dancers continue to face emerging societal stereotypes. Black male ballet dancers still face opposition, more so from their own communities and families. But for these brave young men dancing is their life and nothing will stop them from dancing to the very top.
“I’ve never had the doubt of saying maybe I should turn to playing soccer, because I have soccer skills, every black guy has something of the township within him. But you must tap into something, be greater than something you have already, something that you were restricted to previously, but when you do it now, do it to show that, that restriction you can get over and above it”, adds Gwatyu.
One organisation, Dance for all, is dedicated to giving children the opportunity to experience dance in school, irrespective of their backgrounds. The initiative was founded in 1991 by Phillip Boyd, a former principal dancer with Cape Town city Ballet. In addition to training, Dance for All empowers children with life skills, supports their personal development and opens up their career possibilities.