Big steps for little feet
ALEXANDRA, SOUTH AFRICA
There are no mirrors in Alexandra's East Bank Hall, no bars along the wall, no stereo speakers. There is no heat, so small, skinny bodies in pink leotards tend to shiver on the concrete floors. There are no tutus or matching slippers or costumes, none of the classic trappings of ballet.Skip to next paragraph
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But it is here, in this cavernous space, in the center of this crowded, impoverished township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, that Penny Thloloe expects to find South Africa's next prima ballerina.
Six months ago, Ms. Thloloe, a 25-year-old professional dancer, started the Kasi Ballet Theatre, South Africa's first ballet academy and company directed by a black woman and based in a black township.
Since then, she has recruited hundreds of local children – virtually all girls – to her classes, which are held free of charge here in this community hall. She has also put together a small professional troupe, which she hopes will soon get enough gigs to fund the school. And some day, she says, she will turn out students who become world-renowned ballerinas – and who change the face of an international ballet scene she sees as sorely lacking in Africa.
"I am trying to find a group of ladies who will represent the country," she says.
But first, there are basics. On a recent weekday, Thloloe demonstrates an African-style number to a line of young, mismatched dancers.
"OK, it's one, two, three, and four," she says, stepping slowly through the movements.
The little girls try to mimic her – bony arms and knees point in every direction. Nothing is in unison. But Thloloe repeats the steps, and soon they start to adapt. They stomp forward together and they lean back and kick, fingers spread apart, hands fluttering. Thloloe smiles.
"I always tell the kids that they must think they're carrying a nation on their shoulders," she says. "And that will help them do their best."
In some ways, Kasi is just one in a growing number of grass-roots arts programs offered in South Africa's townships, one of many efforts to give children living in these rough areas some form of artistic outlet and activity. There are ballet classes in Cape Town's townships, marching bands outside Durban, art lessons in Soweto.
But Thloloe sees her academy as different. Kasi is not a recreational activity, she says, but a true pre- professional program, with two hours a day of training and committed pupils. She expects that many of her students will have careers as dancers or dance teachers – a significant accomplishment in a community that has an estimated unemployment rate of 60 percent.
"What Penny is doing is special," says Kristin Wilson, who danced with Thloloe professionally for years, and now helps her at Kasi. "The little kids, they do exams, they'll get their qualifications and everything."
This message has rubbed off on the students. "All of us want to be professionals," says Dulze Mikateko, a big-eyed 11-year-old who had just finished a lesson. "People who dance travel all around the world."
Mbali Mogali, a 9-year-old with a shy smile, has her own reason. "I want to be a professional, so I can teach other people," she says.
Thloloe was about the same age as Mogali, and also living in Alexandra, when she started dancing. The daughter of two English teachers, she knew nothing about ballet, she says. But her primary school offered only two extracurricular options for the all-black student body, and the other choice was karate.