SA choreographer Paul Modjadji to join Obama's leadership initiative

Paul Modjadji is a celebrity choreographer, writer and entrepreneur. (All pictures supplied)

Paul Modjadji is a celebrity choreographer, writer and entrepreneur. (All pictures supplied)

Choreographer Paul Modjadji is hanging up his dancing shoes for a while to rub shoulders with international leaders at the White House. The celebrity choreographer, writer, entrepreneur and official brand ambassador of the City of Tshwane was recently selected by the United States government for President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative, after applying for a fellowship in 2014. 

“The leadership programme scouts for individuals who are already doing extraordinary work in their field. The programme also seeks to boast those individual’s to the next level,” Modjadji told the Mail & Guardian in a telephonic interview.
“I was grateful when I found out that I had been selected for the programme. For me as a dancer, it was a moment of pinching myself, because I was in disbelief.” 

Modjadji will work with the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, a flagship programme of the initiative, in a 12-week intensive leadership training and mentoring course in New Orleans and Washington, DC, starting on June 19. According to Modjadji, he’ll be a part of a group of young people who will be discussing issues that affect Africa and the development of the continent, as well as interacting with Obama.

Big dreams
Modjadji hopes to gain from the programme the knowledge and skills to grow his nonprofit organisation, the Leaders Who Dare To Dream Foundation, which aims to empower the youth to follow their dreams. He is currently working on a self-improvement book about professional development, which is set for release in 2016. He is also planning to stage his own theatre production that year. These are among the projects on his do-list when he returns to South Africa. 

This year so far has been busy and year for the Hammanskraal-born dancer, who choreographed South Africa’s first internationally released dance film, Hear Me Move, which was released in February. Modjadji’s impressive résumé includes being a global brand ambassador for the International Dance World Cup and the winner of the SA National Heritage Golden Shield Award. 

Before making his debut on the grand stage, Modjadji developed his love for dance in his community, where he danced informally with street dance groups. He only considered dance as a possible career at the age of 16. 

“My community influenced my craft tremendously. We danced a lot when I was young, but not on a formal level,” he says. The 1980 musical Fame got him interested in the art of dance. “I don’t think I’d be doing what I am doing if it wasn’t for Fame. The film changed everything for me.” 

The door to professional dance opened for him at age 18, when he received a scholarship to study dance in Denmark for a year. Back in South Africa, he enrolled at the Tshwane University of Technology and trained in contemporary dance, jazz and ballet. 

The power of dance
For Modjadji, the local dance has succeeded in bringing down some barriers over the years; for example, it has recognised street dance as a reputable dance style worthy of featuring in dance festival programmes. But, according to him, there is still a bigger fight to be won.

“The formalisation of the dance industry is something that still needs to happen,” he says. 

“Dancers are now getting to a point where they are not getting paid what they deserve for a lot of shows. When I quote for my clients, I don’t have to convince them any more about why we pay dancers what we pay them. We need to put structures in place that are going to make sure that dancers are empowered and are in a position to enjoy the benefits of being in the dance industry like most industries.” 

Coming up with solutions to address such challenges is what excites Modjadji, and the fellowship programme has given him the opportunity to do so.  “I’m inspired by people who are game-changers,” he says. “I always want to be on the side of the table that’s leading.”

Katlego Mkhwanazi

Katlego Mkhwanazi

Katlego Mkhwanazi is the Mail & Guardian's arts, culture and entertainment content producer. She started her career in magazines, before joining the Mail & Guardian team in 2014. She is an entertainer at heart. Read more from Katlego Mkhwanazi

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