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South African Dance Performance Taken to Global Stage by Troupe, Attracts Local Attention

Reuters
Members of a local dance group Via Katlehong perform pantsula, a dance known for its syncopated, quick-stepping, low to the ground format, at the Joburg Theatre in Johannesburg on July 1.

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) — Thato Qofela first performed pantsula, a symbol of Black South African culture and resistance to the apartheid regime, in his childhood backyard. Now, he is helping to revive the dance style and take it on to the global stage.

The quick-stepping, energetic and syncopated dance originated among Black youth living in townships like Qofela’s Katlehong under the apartheid government’s system of racial segregation, which ended in 1994. It became a vehicle for social and political expression and resistance.

Pantsula’s choreography, including movements mimicking sweeping, playing dice and saluting, meditated on Black South African’s everyday experiences and provided a code that performers could use to communicate in a language state police could not understand.

It later enjoyed popularity among South Africans of different races, but waned somewhat as modern dance styles gained prominence.

Now, Qofela’s dance troupe, Via Katlehong, wants to drive a revival of the style, and has taken the dance to the global stage with shows in France, the Netherlands and Portugal.

For Qofela, too, pantsula was more than just entertainment. It helped him stay out of trouble while growing up in Katlehong, where riots against the apartheid government were a regular feature of life.

“For a child growing up exposed around those situations it is easy to get hooked on drugs or crime,” the 34-year-old dancer said, adding the backyard pantsula rehearsals led by his brother meant he had no time to get involved in illegal activities.

For other troupe members like 33-year-old Thulisile Binda, being able to express herself through the dance has provided a way to deal with life’s challenges.

“There’s some sort of healing that happens when you are dancing,” she said.

Via Katlehong is now also attracting attention at home.

Lethabo Xulu, a local audience member, said its performances were a way to address societal problems. “Via Katlehong honestly is a platform to offer solutions to a lot of the ills that have happened because of the history we’ve experienced as a globe,” she said.