It took a blazing tyre and an armoured police van to save Dane Hurst’s dancing career. The young South African had grown up in the ganglands of Port Elizabeth, and when he was 12 he quit ballet school. The decision wasn’t driven by peer pressure or self-doubt; he knew he had something rare that would later make him a star of the London stage. The problem was the daily minibus fare to get across town to the dance studio.
“I felt it was better to have food in the cupboard. I felt guilty about the strain it was placing on my mother,” he says. “She worked in a shoe factory and was a single mother of four.”
Suddenly, his evenings free, Hurst and his mates started amusing themselves setting car tyres on fire and rolling them down the streets. Until one night he was caught by the police and chucked into a van to be given a lesson in how to behave. It proved a turning point. Released with a caution, Hurst moved across town to live with his unemployed father, close to the ballet studio. Dancing trumped pyromania.
In South Africa, dancing has long been a revolutionary act. During apartheid, crowds of unarmed protesters intimidated gun-toting troops with the toyi-toyi – a jubilant, taunting stomp borrowed from the Zimbabwean war. Today dance can offer a trapdoor to freedom. For most of the country’s “born-free” generation, shoddy state schooling is a barrier to social mobility, but exceptional physical mobility can vault you over the ghetto walls. By traversing and dominating a swathe of air, you dramatise your claim to the stage, the streets, the world. The explosion of talent you see today is a sweet fruit of South Africa’s lingering and bitter past.
These talents are now commanding the attention of the dance community farther afield. “South African dancers are right now opening up the world with their astounding energy,” says Mark Baldwin, the artistic director of the Ballet Rambert. “They have finesse and cultural dignity running through their muscles and their inspiration is giving fresh new energy to international dance.” Just this year, three of South Africa’s rising dancers have claimed global prizes.
In February Leroy Mokgatle, a 16-year-old spring-heeled prodigy, took one of the Prix de Lausanne, which will send him to the Dutch National Ballet Academy. In May Oscar Buthelezi, 24, a dancer-choreographer from Johannesburg, became the first black winner of the Kurt Jooss Choreography prize in the German city of Essen. And Londiwe Khoza, a 22-year-old from Cape Town, has won a Rolex Mentorship under Ohad Naharin, an acclaimed Israeli choreographer whose Batsheva Dance Company she joined in August.
Khoza grew up in Camps Bay, far from the ghettos that reared Mokgatle, Hurst and Buthelezi. But in that rich and overwhelmingly white beachfront suburb of Cape Town, she was the child of an employee. Her mother manages a guest house owned by a wealthy British family, having started out as a domestic worker for the white South African who previously owned it.
In her early teens Khoza won a scholarship to a private school. “I got to witness upper-class problems. It was educational – some of those kids basically breathed $100 bills.”
Like Hurst, Khoza nearly stopped dancing in her teens. At ballet school in Cape Town, she was tormented by the pressure to attain the spidery physique of a classical ballerina – “the body of a five-year-old, basically” – a rare phenotype among black South African women. At 16, confronted by her muscled, womanly reflection, she asked herself: “Why am I not thin as a twig? Why do I not look sick like every other person here? And I was told: ‘You don’t have the body of a ballerina, you don’t have the technique. You’re not going to be in a ballet company, let alone be a dancer.’”
Starting this autumn, Khoza will learn from Naharin (who bans mirrors in his studio) how to bury the orthodoxies that nearly crushed her. “What struck me about her”, says Naharin, “are her hidden treasures. That she is very rich, but doesn’t yet have the keys to open up those treasures.”
Ballet gave Khoza a vital technical foundation – and, in time, the urge to shake the pale citadel of South African ballet. She and some friends recently wrote and performed a stage comedy, “Ballet Must Fall”, which mocks the subtle exploitation of black dancers by some ballet companies and their directors. “They’ll use you to get funding, but you’re very aware of this. Once the funding is gone, you’re packed away into a closet, and taken out now and again when ‘Top Billing’ [a TV magazine programme] comes to shoot an insert for the next production.”
Khoza escaped all this by enrolling at the racially diverse Cape Academy of Performing Arts. Its director, Debbie Turner, says Khoza’s emotional bravery in performance – concealed offstage by a watchful, sardonic sensibility – is exceptional. “And she’s gifted in other ways, aside from her art. She’s an enigma. You can’t put her in a box, and that’s what Naharin has gone for.”
Earlier this year, Hurst brought a dancefloor home to Port Elizabeth. It used to be the Rambert’s rehearsal floor, and he is raising funds to house it in a mobile studio, made from two shipping containers, that will tour South Africa. Hurst will travel with the floor, mentoring would-be dancers as he goes.
Hurst’s own formative floor was made of wood: at the Toynbee Club, a “termite-ridden shack” run by Gwen Marie Wells, a quixotic white ballet teacher who, each year, took her charges from the mean streets of Port Elizabeth to compete in the city dance festival at the Opera House. “She brought us to give us a chance to show that we were worth something. We raked in gold awards.”
In technical terms, it is hard to isolate what makes the country’s young dancers so potent. Turner says the racial integration of public schools since democracy has served to merge a dozen or so ethnic and urban dance cultures into a fluidly hybridised language.
Many black South African physiques are unusually lithe, with fast-twitching muscle fibres – but, Naharin says, it’s easy to overstate how much dance ability can be transmitted genetically. “We inherit co-ordination or a body type, but we can’t inherit types of movement,” he says. “We inherit the need to survive, and the need to survive creates movement.”
Hurst emphasises the legacy of pantsula, an evolving street style dating back to the 1950s, which draws on pre-colonial Sotho and Zulu dance traditions. “Somehow we have a different understanding of rhythm, a syncopated movement that doesn’t fit standard measures,” he says. “And a lower centre of gravity; it’s powered by the hips and the thighs, and the feet are quite limber. Pantsula involves really quick movements of the lower leg and a very complex rhythm structure.”
Watch that endowment and heritage collide with distant cultures in the YouTube clip of Leroy Mokgatle’s contemporary performance at the Prix de Lausanne competition – a wildly beautiful interpretation of Mikis Theodorakis’s “Zorba’s Dance”. Fine-boned and sinuous, Mokgatle maps out the bouzouki’s gathering tempo with a storm of energy, his gyrations as fluid as they are precise, ascending to an exhilarating pinnacle of weightlessness.
At the end, he turns to the audience and lets out a yell of triumph.