Festival of South African Dance sheds light on South African struggles

This interactive, cultural narrative ended in singing, dancing and a standing ovation.

With the booming resonance of cultural stepping and singing, performers of the Festival of South African Dance took the stage in Jesse Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Nov. 2. With about 200 people in attendance, the two-hour dance performance was split into two interactive parts: the first featuring the Gumboots Dance Company and the second featuring the Pantsula Dance Company.

Although showcasing dance styles from two different parts of South Africa, the companies came together after a year of production work for this touring series. According to Artistic Director Sello Modiga of Real Actions Pantsula, mixing the two styles was an important way the performers felt their story could be told.

“For us, it is very much important to share the roots of the dance, especially these unique two dance styles, which [are] from the underground mines and also in the townships, so these two different environments,” Modiga said. “So it’s very much important for us to take everyone through it so they can understand exactly where we are coming from and where’s the meeting point of the two [dance styles].”

In the first half of the show, Gumboots Dance Company told the story of a group of miners struggling to make ends meet and trying to overcome their harsh working conditions. With a mix of live music and rhythmic stepping, the performers persevered through artistic self-expression, according to Director Thapelo Motluong of the company. As for the second portion, five Pantsula Dance Company dancers and a DJ played a group of friends struggling to find work in South Africa, depicted with modern syncopated stepping.

“At least for the two hours we took them to South Africa, we [are] hoping that we took them on a journey into South Africa,” Motluong said. “They’re going to see the dark history of South Africa. They’re going to see how we’ve danced ... and they get a little bit about the heritage of South Africa because the two [dance groups] are very important to the heritage of South Africa.”

According to Vouks Nojokes, DJ and sound engineer for Pantsula Dance Company, the plot of the show was less about an abstract idea and more about sharing a piece of their own South African identity.

“[The performers] tell a sad story and just share a little bit of us to America basically,” Nojokes said. “So for us, it wasn’t just about telling the struggles and the fights in order for [the audience] to [understand] but sharing a story that everyone can feel happy [about] and relate [to].”

For Jennie Belzer, a Columbia resident, Nojokes’ goal was successfully met. An avid theatergoer for Jesse Auditorium’s series events, Belzer saw the festival as “unique,” unable to compare it to anything she’s ever seen before.

“We like to expose ourselves to all different kinds of cultures, so this is a snapshot into something we’ve never seen before,” Belzer said.

With all of the different elements incorporated into the production and performance of this event, Motluong most enjoyed crafting the project from its start. Now, as he witnesses the success of the Festival of South African Dance, he acknowledges that the group’s hard work has paid off.

“[My] favorite part is always the creation, to create such magic,” Motluong said. “You’re always grateful to see when people clap. We begin to say, ‘Oh, we were justified in what we did.’”

As Gumboots and Pantsula Dance Companies tour across the country, Nojokes is prepared to give each performance all they have, for the audience, for the story and for each other.

“Being part of this group ... we became a family basically,” Nojokes said. “And for us to share this story, it’s amazing. We would do this over [and] over [and] over basically. That’s how much we love what we do.”

According to Terry Claassen, Belzer’s mother and Unionville, Missouri, resident, the Festival of South African Dance was unlike anything she had ever seen before. With the intricate plot line and interactive elements, Claassen was sad to see the theater not at maximum capacity.

“I was really sad that there weren’t more people here to see it,” Claassen said. “I think the audience here was into it; I think they really enjoyed it. They did a lot of whistling and hollering and clapping.”

Edited by Brooke Collier | bcollier@themaneater.com

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