Rest in peace, Portia Lebohang Mashigo

The choreographer, muse and formidable performer created a rich and unforgettable legacy in her too short 46 years.

Shorter than most, and the youngest of all, Portia Lebohang Mashigo joined the South African dance fraternity when she was just 14. Armed with an inherent sense of wisdom, she grew up in the industry and became a giant of a dance professional. She died suddenly on 31 December 2020 after being rushed to hospital with severe stomach cramps. She was 46.

One of four children, Mashigo grew up in a shack in Dobsonville, Soweto. Born to a single mother on 9 June 1974 in Mapetla, she matriculated at Naledi High School in 1992. Her schooling responsibilities were by that time intermingled with dance; she balanced both realities with care.

Mashigo started dancing informally in the 1980s to Michael Jackson’s music because, as she said, “it was the thing to do” at the time if you were young, preteen and hip. But she wasn’t satisfied with moonwalking in the streets of Soweto. Encouraged by her teacher, Tshidi Shuping, she auditioned at Sylvia Glasser’s company Moving Into Dance, which was at the time still based at the Braamfontein Recreation Centre.

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Glasser remembers the “shy young teenager, who blossomed into a beautiful dancer” and broke trends by being the youngest ever professional dancer on the company’s books. She was one of the debut performers in Glasser’s Tranceformations in 1991, alongside dancers of such calibre as Gregory Maqoma, Vincent Mantsoe, Moeketsi Koena, Pule Kgaratsi and others who had joined the company in a new wave of young dance potential. 

In 1994, Mashigo choreographed her solo work Let There Be Peace to Lionel Richie’s 1992 song Love, Oh Love. Suddenly her name was on the industry’s lips, and she was earning attention as a dancer with heart and mind, one who understood how the language of the body could coerce peace to take shape in our world.

Recognition arrives

The work earned her the Most Promising Female Award at the FNB Vita Dance Umbrella that year. It was just the beginning. Her choreography of students at Dance Umbrella won the “Pick of the Stepping Stones” programme award in 1999. She created Mum’s Man – My Father, an FNB Vita commission, in 2000. It went on to play at the Durban Women’s Festival and, in 2001, at the Celebrate South Africa festival in London. Her Blues for Mama inspired by Xoli Norman’s poem Ma’s Got the Blues, premiered at the Women’s Arts Festival at the Market Theatre in 2002, and the list of works continued.

Mashigo’s association with Moving Into Dance was a win-win on so many levels. She was a clear asset to the company from the very beginning. And it was a stepping stone for her to a brilliant, unique career. Further to that, assisted by Maria Kint, the company’s first administrator, Mashigo moved to a reconstruction and development programme house with her family. It changed all their perspectives for good.

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With Moving Into Dance, Mashigo travelled the world, learning and teaching, dancing and leading. Described by Glasser as “a lot of person”, Mashigo was a pioneer who had the instinct, tenacity and courage to shift the attitudes of dance establishments, glorying in the magnificence of the dance-trained female African body and demonstrating that it could move as beautifully and successfully as its oft profoundly thin Western counterpart – and dance stereotype. 

As a freelancer, she worked with Robyn Orlin, Gladys Agulhas, the Vuyani Dance Theatre, African Footprint and The Fantastic Flying Fish Dance Company, among others. She started her own project-based company, Lebohang Dance Project, in 2002. Its mission was to open dance platforms to people with diverse backgrounds and training, be the voice for young women in society and give dance energy to real stories. 

An immediately likeable individual with a sense of perspective – and one of fun that made everything seem okay – Mashigo described Lebohang Dance Project as a cipher for her own stories and the difficulties she had had in digressing from her cultural norms. “It gave me the confidence to dream bigger. The development and collaborative sharing of the dancers is a never-ending source of joy for me.”

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Described by dancer Jimmy Notuku as a “dance militant”, Mashigo had the openness to be able to touch and shape lives. She was a dance hero and a critical thinker, but never one to rest on her laurels. Acknowledged by David Thatanelo April, the former executive and artistic director of Moving Into Dance, as a gifted teacher and empathetic mentor, she was also respected as a costume designer. 

But further, she was a talented percussionist with physical strength echoing that of any male counterpart, and equally comfortable behind an administrative desk, keeping the paperwork of Moving Into Dance on track, as she was before an audience. 

Black beacon

Mashigo was honoured with the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for dance in 2004, and while her physicality gave publicists all the clichés they could wish for concerning “small packages”, she was more. Averting platitudes, she had a wicked sense of humour and wisdom that was penetrating and resonated with her own dance awareness, her empathy for others and her respect for the integrity of dance company protocol. 

After a lifetime of association and a career of her own, she re-established contact with Glasser in 2013, this time as a sister, not a junior. Deeply aware of the need to preserve Moving Into Dance’s – and Glasser’s – legacy, Mashigo was vital in the preparation of the company’s 40th anniversary celebrations in 2018. 

Maqoma, who encountered “this tiny little girl” for the first time in 1991, said: “She was like a sister to me. A best friend.” He recalled an incident when several of his dancers from Vuyani Dance Theatre auditioned for a work Mashigo was creating. She took the time to call Maqoma to make sure that this was all good, demonstrating her respect for how things work. 

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“A strong Black boundary-breaking dancer” is how another Moving Into Dance stalwart, Angie Sekonya, describes Mashigo. Orlin speaks of “watching her grow into a vital performer and artist … who carved her profession forward, with insight and care. She was a gem, a shining light in our community, a beacon for the younger generation of women,” she added. 

But for Vincent Koko Mantsoe, the acclaimed, France-based son of Moving Into Dance, she was much more. She was his muse, his first port of call in the development of a new work. “Portia was an important part of my artistic journey, for which I will forever treasure her,” he told April. “We travelled long, interesting, life-changing journeys as part of Moving Into Dance. I will always carry her gentle spirit wherever she is.”

 Mashigo leaves her teenage son Neo, her siblings Beauty, Keketso and Thabo, her beloved nieces and nephews Lerato, Nhlanhla, Teboho, Thato and Gontse, and her grand-niece Amohelang as well as her partner, Gabriel Zakhele Tamsanqa Nkosi. But she also leaves literally countless people, dancers and not dancers, to whom she brought her optimism and fire, her gentleness and formidability, in inspiring them to do – and be – more. 

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