The Mayibuye centre shakes to the calculated thuds beating on the top floor of its mirrored dance studio. Towering over Galeshewe, the studio jolts into Tsutsube, a traditional dance practised by Basarwa or San people.
About 90 performers are treading heavily on the white floors of the cultural centre, host to theatrically talented children from townships around Kimberley in the Northern Cape. The children are moving in unison to the voice of a man dressed in neon pink shorts and a lime T-shirt who has pockets of sweat edging his face: dance choreographer Monwabisi Bangiwe, who expects precision.
“Again!” he bawls to dancers rehearsing for the opening of the Under-19 Cricket World Cup on 17 January. The sequence is themed The Hunting Party and dancers have had two weeks to perfect the Tsutsube, in which they portray men going on a hunt in the Kalahari. Tsutsube is performed in four stages: the first kill, puberty, marriage and trance. According to Bangiwe, the stomping of the feet summons the ancestors.
The performers are from nine cultural groups, one of them being Amandla Dance Theatre, which is run by Bangiwe and music director Mkhululi Mabija. Established in their respective careers, the duo, who met at the Tshwane University of Technology 16 years ago, founded the South African branch of Amandla Dance Theatre. The academy was already operating in Germany and Brazil.
One of Amandla’s stars is four-year-old Umuhle Makhanya. Dressed in a pink T-shirt and blue leggings, Makhanya laces the routine with her personal flair to the applause of the juniors and seniors pressed into the studio.
A pulsating vigour permeates through a room full of wide-eyed boys and girls exhilarated by the routine.
Makhanya is one of 110 children taught drama, music and dance at Amandla, which is run from Bangiwe’s back yard in Galeshewe. Mabija says the methodology used to teach the playing of musical instruments is different from Western ways of teaching.
“Our kids learn by ear, they don’t use notes. In a space of three hours, we finish a song, they orchestrate it, range it and learn how to play it on the instrument, which is quite ingenious because it takes six months for kids to do that.”
Mabija also gives brass and percussion lessons.
The academy trains children from as young as four up to 21-year-olds from Galeshewe, Phuthanang and Kimberely’s central business district. It does not charge students for the lessons, which are given from Monday to Friday after school. “If we asked them to pay, out [of] 110 children, only 10 will afford to pay. They come from families affected by unemployment. It’s tough,” Bangiwe said.
To Kimberley-born Bennet Mojakwe, 19, dance is not just about the fluid agility of the body and execution of routines, dance is a way of life. Ardent about African contemporary dance, Mojakwe said: “Dance has helped a lot because I have been in the box for a long time and when I started dance I found myself, I found my voice.”
A diverse group that includes performers from the LGBTQIA+ community, Amandla is a safe place to be yourself, some say.
Mojakwe was raised by his grandmother and aunts after his mother died in 2010. He wants to be a dancer-choreographer.
A Western Primary School grade 3 learner, Ncumisa Bok, 9, has danced for the academy for three years. She says that dance has fostered tolerance and respect for her peers. Quirky and shy, she dreams of being a lawyer.
To Mojakwe and children like Bok and Mojalefa Pholoholo, 11, dance has instilled discipline, confidence, diligence and respect.
“I go to Sol Plaatje Primary School. I am in grade 4 and I started dancing in 2015. I love to dance and I want to teach dance when I grow up, in Mayibuye,” said Pholoholo.
Cultural groups such as Amandla are creating platforms for young people living in neighbourhoods affected by drug and alcohol abuse.
Bangiwe said the role of the academy goes beyond giving voice training and the blowing of trumpets. With most of his students coming from single-parent households, teachers at the academy also double up as confidants.
“Some of the children have anger issues, others are struggling at school, so the parents ask for our intervention.”
It does indeed take a village to raise a child.
After a 30-minute lunch break, Bangiwe leads the group into another routine over an amapiano track. The dancers’ elation erupts to new heights when the routine comes to a freestyle tick. For a moment, the dancers showcase their unique dance moves to the amusement of a shy Mabija watching the routine from the corner of the studio.
Their friendship cemented by purpose, the duo should be proud of running the academy for six years despite the funding and venue problems faced by organisations such as Amandla. Beyond the academy, both are established in their careers.
Mabija completed his masters in music theatre at New York University and has musical shows in production in New York and the United Kingdom. He writes, composes and directs the shows produced by the academy. “I weave the story together. With music theatre, it doesn’t matter how beautiful the music is, it’s the spine of the show that is important. If the storyline is floppy, the whole show falls apart.”
Mabija has written five musicals for Amandla. One of them, Emathongeni, won the Silver Standard Bank Ovation award at the 2018 National Arts Festival.
Bangiwe has performed in numerous productions, including The Lion King, in which he played a swing role that required him to learn multiple roles in the show. After performing in South Africa in 2007, he moved with the production to Taipei the following year, Germany for two years thereafter and Brazil in 2013 and 2014.
He has also choreographed productions for initiatives such as the South African Year in China – the first of a two-part cultural diplomacy initiative with China in 2014, the second was the China Year in South Africa in 2015 – and the Field Band Foundation, which uses marching bands to uplift young people.
The two torchbearers might be making strides in the theatre world outside South Africa, but it is their work in Galeshewe that reminds them of the impact the kindness of strangers can have on a career. Having studied music and dance abroad through scholarships funded by strangers, it is only fitting that they pass on this kindness to the many dancers in their classes who would otherwise be unable to afford lessons.