Discipline through dance

2010-06-08 07:59

Tucked away on the border between Alexandra Township and Wynberg

and peering over a nondescript road is an abandoned factory.

At first glance, there seems to be nothing special about it. But

winding past the maze of sheets and T-shirts on the clothing line – probably

belonging to the family that stays on the bottom floor of the building – the

visitor can navigate past the entrance, up two flights of creaky stairs and into

a large studio.

There, on a slightly raised wooden stage, a group of barefoot young

dancers can be found stomping to Michael Jacksonesk beats.

On the other corner, girls run through some contemporary dance

routines. Then, Jack Letsoela interrupts them and says: “No. One, two, three,

FOUR.”

Letsoela drills them the steps with the regal stature of a karate

master and the sturdy expression of a lieutenant.

That’s precisely the style the 48-year-old Alexandra native and

dancer uses inside this warehouse to train a group of children from Alexandra

for free. This has been his home-away-from-home since 1993.

He says: “I loved dance. It kept me in line and helped me become a

person with discipline.” This discipline has helped keep these children off the

streets.

“In Alex,” Letsoela says, “there was a lot of space for kids, but

in the 1990s there was no space because all the people came and built

shacks.”

Now his Sigiya Sonke dance group – consisting of about 40 children

with no prior training in dance – has performed across the country and in

competitions, winning awards at the 2006 World Hip-Hop Championships in

Prague.

Their dance numbers range from contemporary Afro-fusion and hip-hop

to Gumboot.

Khakis, takkies, barefeet, sinewy legs and spiderweb tatooed arms

are flailing in the air as the group rehearses for upcoming performances,

including a show at Football for Hope.

Jenny Prangley, the co-ordinator of Gumboots Foundation, a UK-based

charity that has been funding Sonke since 2006, says: “Some stay here for the

weekend because a lot of them come from disadvantaged homes.”

According to Prangley, the fact that there’s need for local arts

groups like Sigiya Sonke, pitted against the fact that there’s a lack of funding

for the arts, highlights the reality of its struggle in the face of the global

recession and decreased government support.

Prime examples include the closing of the Ballet Theatre Afrikan

and the National Symphony Orchestra all due to funding issues. The South African

Ballet Theatre was recently tossed a lifeline by the National Arts Council

(NAC), the Lottery Fund and an unnamed corporate sponsor.

The NAC’s budget has been reduced to R14 million for the 2010-2011

fiscal year, compared to R62 million in the 2006-2007 period.’n

Charmaine Morareng, the NAC’s arts development officer for dance

and choreography, says: “Last year we had two funding sessions. This year, due

to economic conditions in the country, our funding had to be cut down. As a

result, we only have one funding session.”

But unfazed by the lack of resources, even before the Gumboots

Foundation stepped in, Letsoela scraped together the money he had from his days as a car mechanic

17 years ago. It began as a shoe string operation with no electricity, water,

toilets, or windows.

Letsoela, who along with his wife, spends the better part of his

days maintaining the studio, says: “Because I like using my hands, I started

cleaning this place myself. We started work under candlelight.”

From the corner, Letsoela fixes his gaze steadily on the moving

dancers in a Township Jive routine choreographed by his son Zenzele, a lover of

ballet, and one of three siblings who have all followed the their father’s

footsteps.

Zenzele says: “Growing up, my parents would tell us what they do

and they had tapes of the older day dances and I mixed it with ballet and

contemporary.”

His father adds: “If you’re a young person, you must use your body

actively, to train your brain to learn how to concentrate... that’s where I get

my inspiration.”


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