Dance Theatre Of Harlem In South Africa

Miles away from the violence in the Ciskei region, township children learn ballet, jazz, and tap from American dancers in an unusual outreach program in Johannesburg. The Harlem dancers also perform Sept. 15-27. The Monitor's South Africa correspondent caught up with the children participating in workshops in the townships.

By , staff

YOU'RE really good at this. Now do it."

With these words of encouragement from dance instructor Sandy Phifer of Dance Theatre of Harlem, 70 right feet move forward, shoulders push back, and heads nod to the catchy rhythm of contemporary dance music.

Movement and rhythm come naturally to the township kids who have come to the Alexandra Arts Center to attend a workshop of the Dance Theatre's outreach program - a major feature of the company's four-week visit to South Africa.

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For the past two weeks, dancers have been holding daily workshops and seminars in township and downtown venues in line with the Dance Theatre's mission of creating opportunities in the arts for economically and culturally deprived young people.

The smiles on the children's faces - a mingling of shyness and joy - transcend the deprivation that is their daily lot in the ghetto of Alexandra, one of Johannesburg's oldest black townships.

The kids - who come from regular schools, and from schools for the hearing impaired and developmentally disabled - soon lose their self-consciousness.

"Dance is a universal language," says Phifer, in an interview. "You show and they do."

It is clear to a newcomer that there is a lot of interaction going on in this hall. The children - aged eight to 18 - are accustomed to learning traditional African dances of the various tribes of southern Africa. A lesson in contemporary dance is something rare but also something familiar.

"Some of the movements are the same," says 13-year-old Yandile Nhlapo, struggling to articulate why she had enjoyed the class. "I like the music. With traditional dance we have only the drums."

Amina Mabaso, who is 17, liked the idea of learning something new. "I think you improve your own culture by learning from other cultures," she says.

Phifer says the children are learning how to focus their energy. "Movement is movement. We have managed to present it in a structured form. We are showing them that you can move from traditional dance to contemporary to jazz and to ballet."

Standing pensively on the sidelines of the class was Grace Senne, the elderly director of dance at the Alexandra Arts Center. For Mrs. Senne, a teacher of traditional African dance, there is no contradiction between traditional and contemporary dance.

"I have always seen contemporary dance as a mixture of traditional African dance and modern dance," she says. "When you shake your shoulders from your waist it is a universal movement. They do it in Nigeria, in Mozambique, in Zimbabwe, and in Kenya. The belly dance is done in Mozambique when the husbands return victorious from war. It is a happiness dance.

"When Xhosas in South Africa shake their shoulders they wriggle their whole bodies," says Senne. "If you can't shake from the waist, you can't do African dance."

Senne was born and brought up in Sophiatown, a former black neighborhood of Johannesburg that was destroyed under laws enforcing residential segregation. It was a melting pot for African tribes.

"I used to follow members of different tribes around to find out what their dances were like," she says. "I want to keep African culture alive. I don't want the tribal dances to be forgotten by future generations."

Phifer, who was going to watch a Zulu dance for the first time that night, explained that the workshops were the first phase of a three-part experience to introduce the children to the Dance Theatre's work.

In the second phase, the children are brought into the theater for lectures and demonstrations of exercises and choreography.

"The third phase is attending a full performance with lights and orchestra," says Phifer.

"In this way they get an idea of the natural progress to the final product," she says.

And what had she learned from the energetic interaction with her eager pupils?

"I learned that in whatever hardship or adversity you find yourself, you must maintain your pride, dignity, and purpose," says Phifer. "I can see that in every one of their faces. I thought I was doing that but I can look in their faces and see that I haven't being doing it 100 percent."

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