For Kholisile Theo Ndindwa, his first experience with dance came when he was ten and living in an underdeveloped urban area (a “township”) just outside Cape Town shortly after apartheid ended. While playing football at a community sports centre, as many South African boys would do, he saw girls in tights, practicing ballet. After shooting him and his friends away a few times, the ballet teacher approached them and convinced them to try out for a part in The Nutcracker ballet with the CAPAB, now the Cape Town City Ballet. Theo did, and was chosen to dance in the production. From there, Theo’s life would change dramatically, a little bit at a time. Today, Theo is using dance to change the lives of other young people living in townships through his dance company iKapa.
The What Dance Can Do Project is spotlighting iKapa as part of its mandate to explore the impact of dance and raise awareness of companies using dance to effect some kind of outreach or change.
Aurélia Sellier, the Founder of the Project, and Selina Meier, the main photographer, went to Cape Town in February 2017 to learn about Kholisile Theo Ndindwa’s story and how iKapa came to be.
Theo Ndindwa told his story:
As kids, we used to hang around the neighbourhood, freely, playing football. Like any South African boy, I wanted to become a footballer. Once, after practicing in a community sports centre, on the way to the lockers, we tiptoed to look through the windows of a hall and saw girls practicing ballet.
Girls in tights…! What a fascinating sight that was for boys our age.
I was ten back then – this was shortly after the apartheid ended.
We stood there staring at these girls holding on to chairs doing these strange things that I later learnt as “pliés”. We often came back to the place and the teacher would always tease us: “Boys – get off that window! If you want to take part, come and join us”!
One day, he came to speak to us about an opportunity we should not miss. The CAPAB, now Cape Town City Ballet, would be staging a production of “The Nutcracker” and they were looking for black dancers, especially boys, for the party scene.
We had no clue what it meant. We had never heard about ballet before.
“A lady will be around next week from the company who will pick ten boys, make sure you’re there”!
I went to the audition and was chosen along with the group of friends who were all from the same street. From that day on, my life would take a completely new turn.
After a short while, we were taken to the theatre, in the city centre, where rehearsals started. Only then did we realize what it was all about, seeing the dresses, the lights, the stage.
I clearly remember my ten-year old self thinking, “Wow! I really love this world”!
I also thought that was the world I wanted to be in. It was cool and exciting but most importantly, it gave me a sense of purpose. Any other Summer, we would be a group of unsupervised boys hanging around the city. Instead of that, we were having this amazing experience, playing backstage, being looked after, getting paid for our performance. It gave me a sense of possibility in life. If I could keep on this path and work hard, my life could really change, I thought. As a young boy with my background, you quickly realize the hardship of life. The township was a tough place to grow up in. I lived in Gugulethu. You already can feel observing adults around you what your future can look like. People survived from one day to the next. They lived without purpose. I wanted to picture something else for myself.
I realized that stage dance could be an amazing path.
Once the production was finished, we got back to training. All my friends quit, because it was too much constraint. I stayed. I was the only boy who continued.
An organization called “Dance For All” took me on board. Its aim was to teach ballet to black kids. I was training both in the township and at the University of Cape Town Ballet School. When I started high school, I took ballet as a topic there as well. I started also performing with other studios. There were no boys, so I was therefore often asked to participate to shows. I had quite an active life for a teenage boy. I grew up in a very poor family. My father was in jail for a while. We went through difficult times. Dance gave me a focus and a purpose. It also allowed me to get familiar with an environment very different from my own.
When I turned eighteen, I received a scholarship to study in the UK.
I was taken into Rambert School of Contemporary and Ballet and had my first contact with wide contemporary dance techniques such as Graham, Cunningham, etc. My background back then was purely classical. This was an adjustment, technically speaking. I was not comfortable with other styles yet. Students and teachers there were coming from diverse backgrounds and cultures which made it easy to immerse yourself in whatever was going on.
After I graduated, I started dancing, teaching, freelancing and worked on many projects with various choreographers, companies and also joined Phoenix Dance Theatre.
In 2005, the program I trained with back home in South Africa wanted to transition a youth company to a professional company. With my wife, whom I met in the UK, we took on this task to artistically direct the launch of this company in 2005. We thought we could spend a few months in Cape Town to help set up the organization. When it was time to go back to the UK, we decided to stay instead. We freelanced and we started to create our own work, dancing together as well. My wife also comes from a dance training background (we met at Rambert), with a dance teacher mom and siblings who trained in the Royal Ballet School. We wanted to give back and train young people. In 2007, we started an organization to create our own work and also teach. iKapa means “Cape Town” in Xhosa (one of the official languages of South Africa).
After ten years, it is quite an amazing achievement to still be around and have the impact we have had. When you judge things according to the history of our country, it is also quite remarkable. We are a diverse team, with all races represented, in post-apartheid South Africa. We are one of the oldest dance companies in the democratic South Africa, but one of the youngest compared to established ones, and one of the only Black-run organizations.
We started an international dance festival in 2015. The themes for the three first festivals were “Town and Townships”, “Migrations” and “Dance as a Tool of Social Change”.
iKapa positions itself in the social transformation space as a company of South Africans of different colours, which is a statement in itself. In corporations, things have not changed too much—segregation still is there, even if informal. So our work can impact mind-sets through content and choreography. Because dance is non-verbal, it can play a really big role. We create, we imagine, so that people can see themselves and their society in a way that is not forced, in a creative way that makes them think about their own environment. As much as I like the social and political narrative to be strong, I do not want it to be obvious. The idea is rather to make people feel and think so that they can develop their own ideas, which are informed by their own situations and environment.
I want to present a different side without forcing ideas into people’s minds. I cannot go and tell people, ‘Let’s break these invisible walls,’ because maybe they live in a context where they cannot see how to do that. We all come from different places. Dance has a much more powerful and subtle way that is more inclusive for everybody. I can just invite them look the other way, present a different side. In our society, people don’t have to look the other way. They can just continue looking where they are looking. I can create things that will interest people and capture their attention so that they start seeing challenges and barriers. I cannot tell them to, but I can create space where you can project your own values. They can take ownership of it and make it theirs, with whatever it means in their own life. You can fill it with meaning from your own life.
This you cannot do when explicit words have been said.
Thirty kids, ages nine to twenty, are part of our community program, but many more children are affected and reached by iKapa.
We need the commitment of parents for the program. We are getting more and more of it. We need them to realize it is about their children’s future. We have meetings with them, to educate them about the equipment needed, how much do ballet shoes cost, maybe they can pay for them, how long they last. We also need them to encourage the kids to continue.
We stage shows each year where the parents come and don’t only see their kids but others as well. During the year, we create a piece that we show at the end of the year. We have them work on different choreographies. We find different opportunities.
Now we have a pre-fabricated space in the school premises, but we want to build a real studio. It would be to create a mini art centre in the school. We have to do the fund-raising. Right now it is a concept and idea, and we need to find the resources for that.
You asked me what I think dance can do, and my answer is that dance can change lives. I recently moved to a new house with my family in a neighbourhood called “Pineland”. A few decades ago, my grandfather used to come to this neighbourhood to look for small jobs. He was scared the police could spot him, as this neighbourhood was reserved to Whites and he could have been arrested for just walk there. Now this place is where I live.
Dance can change society, through individual lives it impacts. And also in terms of the understanding, it allows change of mind-sets. There are obvious benefits, like health and fitness. It stimulates creativity. Gives discipline. Coordination. There is just so much that it does, especially for a young developing child.
After formal schooling and Matric exam, we want to be able to provide opportunities. We want to create gateways to opportunities. We want to be able to offer different learning activities that children need. Last year, before the final exam, all of the children said they were struggling with maths. We offered extra classes in maths through another foundation. We looked at the children’s marks and reports and, according to that, provided them with extra courses.
We need to push on the academic part. We had a case where students applied to a dance program at university and made it on the practical part, but failed the academic part. There will always be a bottleneck if their academic grades are not high enough. They will not be able to practice further. Or if they get injured and somehow stop dancing, there needs to be a kind of safety net. We want to achieve a long vision.
Today, The What Dance Can Do Project aims at helping iKapa youth program to build a dance studio in the township of Gugulethu.
– Theo NDindwa & iKapa Dance Theater