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.
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.
"I thought, 'Jackie Chan doesn't interest me,' " she recalls. "So I started doing ballet."
At first, she says, the classical music made her sleepy. But before long, she was earning praise for her jumps and twirls. At the end of primary school, her ballet teacher told her to audition for the National School for the Arts, a preprofessional arts high school in Johannesburg. The school accepted her, and Thloloe became its only black ballet dancer.
"Blacks and whites didn't mix," she says. "Here I was stuck with a class of them [whites]." But she grew more comfortable with her white classmates and more confident in her ability to dance and speak and befriend them. She earned honors at the high school and was accepted to London's Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance.
When she returned to South Africa, Thloloe got a job dancing with Ballet Theatre Afrikan. But in 2003, she had a son, Gontse, and decided to join the company's teaching program in order to reduce her travel.
Last year, she quit her job to start Kasi Ballet. She scraped together money to rent the hall in Alexandra – $220 a month for three afternoons a week – and she started going into local schools to talk about her classes.
"I wanted my product to go beyond the suburbs," she says. "Those kids have opportunities. In Alex[andra], it's the training that's lacking. They teach street dancing on the streets – kids can get good at that, but where do you go from there? There's no certificate; nobody will hire you for a company because you're a good street dancer."
Soon, hundreds of children were showing up for lessons. But that number became more manageable as students realized that Thloloe is strict about ballet discipline and practice – today there are about 50 full-time students.
Kasi has three sections: the 8- to 14-year-old group, the 14- to 18-year-old section, and the adult company, which mostly takes corporate dance jobs to make money for the children's academy.
This latter group has 10 dancers, half of whom have professional backgrounds. The others Thloloe hired after seeing them dancing hip-hop on the streets.
Lerato Letlape, for instance, caught Thloloe's attention after winning a local talent show.
"Penny called us and said, 'Join Kasi Ballet,' " the lanky 22-year-old recalls. "I thought, 'Oh wow, I want to experience something more.' "
Mr. Letlape lives in Alexandra, in a small house with seven relatives. His uncles are still skeptical about ballet, he says, and his former hip-hop colleagues think he has deserted them. But he says the classical technique he is learning from his colleagues is helping him develop as a dancer and allowing him to further express himself through his art.
He says he has high hopes for Kasi. "I had one uncle who said, 'Dancing won't take you anywhere,' " he recalls. "It hurt. But I'm looking forward – this is a great company. And there are more and more kids. It's getting bigger."
On a recent weekday, Letlape and the other company dancers were practicing a routine that reflected the jazzy days of Sophiatown, the vibrant black neighborhood near Johannesburg that was destroyed by the apartheid government. Thloloe says she wants Kasi to create a new blend of classical ballet and African dance – a truly South African style.
"The blacks, they think you're betraying them by doing ballet," Thloloe says. "The whites think you're bastardizing ballet. But ballet is a language. I want to tell the township stories through ballet."