A Window into South African Dance History

Noorlinah Mohamed

July 08, 2014

By Adrienne Sichel

South African contemporary dance has a remarkably rich and complex history.

Several teachers, dancers, choreographers, artistic directors, administrators and activists have driven this movement for the past 40 years. The resulting, now internationally-recognised choreography draws on cultural traditions, rituals, various techniques (imported or developed), forms, styles, rural and urban influences, as well as current realities and issues.

Who these pioneers were (and are) is part and parcel of democratic South Africa’s socio-political history. South African contemporary theatre dance has been, to a large extent, evolved out of acts of political defiance and activism in reaction to the race laws of apartheid South Africa instituted after the Nationalist government came to power in 1948.

These draconian laws which underpinned the separate development policy (we could all practice our cultures – separately) were the Immorality Act and Separate Amenities Act. Black South Africans, including people classified as Coloureds (mixed race) and Indians, were prohibited from performing on certain stages, in whites-only theatres and in certain venues.

The segregated theatre law was lifted in 1978. Till then, dancers of colour who were trained (technically against the law) at the University of Cape Town Ballet School (one of the origins of contemporary dance training founded by Dulcie Howes in 1934) had to leave the country to dance professionally. This included Vincent Hantam (who had a long career with the Scottish Ballet) and also affected Christopher Kindo, who returned to his homeland after 1978 and made history as a virtuoso dancer, inventive choreographer and teacher.

It is important to note that South African theatre and theatrical dance was historically split, not only stylistically and in terms of audiences, but by funding. The Nationalist government’s arts policy was for white South Africans only. The prioritised European art forms were opera, ballet, contemporary dance from 1988, orchestral music and drama. Since the mid 1960s, permanent full-time drama, opera, ballet, dance companies and orchestras were attached to some of the opera houses built in Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Durban and Cape Town in the 1970s and 1980s. The companies and institutions were part of the Performing Arts Councils, which were finally disbanded according to the terms of democratic South African policy post-1994.

Activist initiatives like Dance Alliance became part of the pre-1994 Arts and Culture Task Group, which helped lobby for a new cultural policy to benefit all South Africans and arts forms. The formation of the Department of Arts and Culture and the National Arts Council (NAC), serving the now nine provinces, developed out of this process. Through legislation, certain theatres and opera houses are funded as national institutions. They have transformed from production houses to presenting houses without resident companies and production budgets.

Another important part of this history is the international cultural boycott. This action formed part of the anti-apartheid movement which targeted sports relations between South Africa and the world. In 1963, writers became involved and later, playwrights, filmmakers and choreographers as well. The boycott was lifted in 1994 after the first democratic elections.
In terms of the development of South African contemporary dance, the negative aspect of the boycott was that we were denied access to what was happening elsewhere. Through cultural diplomacy, certain handpicked dancers and teachers from townships and cities were sent to festivals like the American Dance Festival.

The positive part of the cultural boycott was that, in isolation, South African dance-makers were forced to create their own forms of expression, methodologies, and aesthetics and develop hybrid fusion forms such as Sylvia Glasser’s Afro-fusion. Enterprising dancers, teachers and choreographers (such as Cape Town’s Jazzart collaborative of Alfred Hinkel, Jay Pather, Dawn Langdown and John Linden) also looked beyond the prescribed legal racial barriers to collaborate.
Black children were officially denied arts education but cultural groups, youth clubs and numerous community-based training initiatives, such as Arlene Westergaard’s Zama Dance School in Gugulethu (where 8-year-old Mamela Nyamza started ballet), proved the power of the arts to empower and educate.

A major turning point was the introduction of the Dance Umbrella, at The Wits Theatre, in Johannesburg, in 1989, as a free, democratic, national platform for all forms of new South African choreography. This ranged from traditional Zulu dance to classical ballet. This festival, now directed by Georgina Thomson, has developed an international and African profile. It has also nurtured generations of dancers, choreographers and audiences as well as producing a unique repertory.
Post-democracy, the formal political activism and community spirit of volunteerism has largely died, as companies and independent artists compete for shrinking funding and resources. Critically-minded innovators depend on foreign commissioning and funding as well as local opportunities from Dance Umbrella (which is at risk of closure) and other festivals to continue making art. The NAC’s dance company funding has been reversed and companies have ether collapsed in the past two years or are about to die.

Yet, this hasn’t deterred visionary dancer-choreographers, teachers and administrators from persevering to continue an extraordinary legacy.

  • 2014