US-based ballet star Andile Ndlovu tells young South Africans: 'Don't be afraid to do something different'

Cape Town - Andile Ndlovu is, in his own words, living the dream – or, as he is quick to amend, "a very tough dream which has its advantages and its glory as well". 

Born in Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal, Ndlovu is an artist of the Washington Ballet and has been associated with the company for 11 years.

Channel24 caught up with him during rehearsals for the Cape Town City Ballet's production of Sleeping Beauty, where he has danced the lead role of Prince Florimund.

How did it all start? Latin American ballroom dancing was part of the family tradition, but ballet wasn't on the young Andile's radar until a chance television viewing of a visiting Russian troupe piqued his interest. Quick to pick up on this, his Latin American dancing teacher ended up persuading Ndlovu to accompany her on what he thought was a trip to buy fabric for costumes, but which turned out to be a surprise audition for a ballet scholarship at renowned teacher Martin Schoenberg's studio. 

Ndlovu wasn't wearing suitable clothing and describes his unease at being asked by a strange white man to strip to his boxer shorts to do the audition. And when Schoenberg pronounced afterwards that he had potential and his teacher asked: "Martin, what are you offering?" 

Ndlovu's response was to say: "Offering? Are you about to sell me to this man?"Of course, his fears were allayed and Ndlovu, who was 15 at the time and living with his family in Soweto, made the decision to embark on what would be a gruelling but ultimately rewarding crash course in the basics of ballet. "I lived with Martin for three years, and he coached me privately." Every day was an exhausting round of waking up at 06:00 for classes and stretching, then school, followed by classes again until 21:00. 

Andile Ndlovu with Mariette Opperman Sleeping Beau

Life in the fast lane

Another major turning point came in 2008 when the artistic director of the prestigious Washington Ballet offered him a scholarship to train at the ballet company's summer school. 

Although it was a comfort to the newly-arrived Ndlovu to find there were black people in the city from all over the world, he had to undergo a significant mental and cultural readjustment.

"The people there speak differently, they work differently, and the pace of the work is faster than what I was used to."And then there was the financial side of things. "I left South Africa with a pocketful of dreams, probably about $35 in cash and not much of an idea of what would come next." Ndlovu quickly learnt that his stipend was far from adequate to cover all his living expenses and, fighting homesickness, he found himself doing extra work like washing dishes to help cover costs after an already long and demanding day at class.

"Really, the first few years were survival mode, and yes, it was tough, but I did it." He had started experimenting with choreography at 16, and sheer need now forced him to develop this talent – but at top speed. "Someone would call you in the morning and say 'Hey, I need a solo by tonight and I'll pay you $300 in cash'. And I would do that over and over, so the creative process to me started coming faster because of the pace that people work at over there."Ndlovu believes that although many things could discourage black youngsters from doing ballet, "at the end of the day, it's still dance, it's still storytelling … it's wrong to be scared away because of the belief that ballet dancers must look a certain way or have blonde hair". 

Andile Ndlovu and Precious Adams

'Don't be afraid to do something different'

He is also passionate about following his own star. "I switched from soccer because every kid in the country is playing soccer or rugby or whatever." The young Andile broke through his personal barriers of prejudice because he believed that ballet gave him the chance to try something different and new. "You just have to embrace it and follow it, because you want to do it and you love it."

For now, Ndlovu has interests that keep him in the US, such as starting a clothing company and going to business school. "There are ballets that I still want to do – Swan Lake is coming up in Washington. And you can only wait and see what's next, but a dream of mine is to be more engaged with the development of South African arts and dancers."One day, I'll probably be a director or assistant director or create African ballets for the country. That's my dream – I want to make African stories real. I want to see white, black, coloured, Indian all in one company together and then create ballets that will represent them, their audiences and their society. That way, South Africa will really sit on top, because we are unique."*

The Cape Town City Ballet will perform Sleeping Beauty at the Artscape Opera House until 31 August, with Vadim Muntagirov and Tatiana Melnik dancing the lead roles on 28 and 31 August. Tickets are available at Computicket, Dial-A-Seat on (021) 421 7695 or any Shoprite Checkers outlet.