/ 20 November 2006

Young ballerina teaches Alexandra to dance

Ballerina Penelope Thloloe, who ”survived” being the first black student at South Africa’s national arts school, now devotes her energy passing on her skills to children in Alexandra.

Thloloe is a study in concentration as she trains students in the sprawling black township abutting Johannesburg’s chic Sandton quarter, where she still lives.

”One, two, three, plié. Hold in your tummy. Arms, arms!” she barked, traversing the room on her toes and then placing a plastic basin, between the arms of an aspiring dancer to get just the right posture.

Life for the 26-year-old has not been easy. In 1995, a little less than a year after the demise of apartheid, she made waves by becoming the first black student to be enrolled at South Africa’s National School of the Arts.

”I was a little black girl in a white class. It was [a] hard time. But I survived,” she recounted.

Thloloe, who now has her own dance company, discovered the world of ballet in school. Unlike her peers in grotty and tough Alexandra, she was not turned on by martial arts.

”I knew karate from the movies and [knew] that I won’t like it,” she said.

So, at the age of a little more than 10, she began learning ballet from a white teacher who gave lessons at her school.

”I was very old for a ballerina. I had to work three times harder, just to get the look, to change my body.”

”It’s a matter of body … a black body needs to be manipulated a little longer,” she said.

Thloloe, the daughter of schoolteachers, gives free lessons at a municipal hall in Alexandra to about 90 students — whenever it is available.

”Every week, people die of Aids and they use the hall for funerals,” she said.

Eleven-year-old Dulce, one of Thloloe’s charges, is already sure of her métier.

”I want to be a professional dancer. I want to perform in front of millions of people. I want the world to know me.”

Thloloe, who set up her dance company Kasi, was a dancer at the Ballet Theater Afrikan, a much-acclaimed company and training academy based in Johannesburg. She also trained in London and was due to go to the United States when the unforeseen happened.

”I was supposed to fly to New York. I had an audition booked but then the 11th of September happened — the twin towers attack — and I decided to come back.”

She said her repertoire clearly shows up ”where we come from”.

”In my shows, we do Zulu dances … with drummers, African musicians, penny whistles. I would like to create a new repertoire that blacks can relate to, a repertoire more reflecting our life in townships.” ‒ Sapa-AFP