Soweto girls step up to the challenge

The Joburg Ballet development programme would like to help young people find better things to do. Getting into the arts, for instance.

The Joburg Ballet development programme would like to help young people find better things to do. Getting into the arts, for instance.

Thirty girls, aged between three and seven, line the mirrored walls of Uncle Tom’s, a recreation centre on Vilakazi Street in Soweto. Dressed in tights and tutus in every shade of pink and a variety of other colours, they’ve come straight from school for the afternoon ballet class.

Fiona Brown, head of the Joburg Ballet development programme at Uncle Tom’s, says the programme began in Alexandra in 2001 and now teaches over 500 children in Melville, Braamfontein and Eersterus. She sees the project as an alternative to the hardship of growing up.

“We would like to talk to young people to help them find better things to do.
One of the options, we’re saying, is to get into the arts.”

The studio is right next to the Hector Pieterson memorial that marks the site of his brutal murder nearly 38 years ago on June 16 1976. Youth Day every year on that date commemorates the Soweto uprisings when young people in Soweto protested against Bantu education and Afrikaans as the medium of instruction.

A new pen-pal project at the programme connects the students with fellow dancers at Ballet Etudes, a small dance company in Arizona. For most of the students English is not their home language so Brown also acts as an interpreter, reading out the letters to the class and translating what the students would like to share with their American friends. A lot of the letters ask how to say “hello” in South Africa.

Sleeping Beauty
One letter, addressed to 11-year-old Koketso Raphahlane, is penned “From the Desk of Kelsey Scalzo” in Gilbert, Arizona. She speaks about her life in the United States, dance exams and the roles she has performed – most recently in a performance of Sleeping Beauty.

She asks Koketso about the National Eisteddfod Academy Medal, “because my source isn’t very reliable”, and what Koketso likes to do, what her family is like and any other information she can share to give Kelsey a sense of who she is.

Koketso’s face lights up when she hears about Kelsey’s role in Sleeping Beauty. It’s one of her favourite stories.

Looking at the pictures that Kelsey attached to the letter, the differences between their two worlds are apparently vast. Her room is a typical young middle-class Western girl’s room: behind her is a space filled with pink toys, dolls, framed photographs and pretty paraphernalia clutters the desk she sits at.

Another photo shows Kelsey in a studio, executing a perfect plié wearing expensive pointe shoes and pink, ladder-free tights. On average, a pair of pointes will set a parent back about R800. And you go through a number of these in a year. Still, it seems that, even across the divide of language and culture and privilege, their understanding of ballet is enough to continue their conversation.

Brown is positive about where the programme is heading but believes the training needs to start earlier.

“In the private studios we start the dancers as young as three years old. At that age they aren’t dancing. We’re preparing their bodies to start ballet. It starts with an hour of stretching and then an hour of just working feet and turnout and then, when they’re ready, they get into their ballet class.

“We have our dreams and that would [be] really to have our own dedicated Cuban school [teaching the Cuban method of dance] where we can keep the children full time, a boarding school if possible. It is the only way to go to produce what the world is expecting from dancers now.”

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