Humour and solidarity in dance from South African townships

July 2008 -

Launched in 1992 as an initiative to help keep young people from ending up as criminals, the South African dance company Via Kathelong quickly became a global success. "We were picked up by the press quickly and have received many invitations to participate in dance festivals in Europe and the United States", explains Vusumuzi Mdoyi, one of the two artistic leaders, after a performance at Julidans 2008 in Amsterdam.


Via Kathelong © Robyn Orlin

Their success is striking. With community art, the process is generally regarded as more important than the artistic result. And even though the group comes from a township and their dance can certainly be characterised as street dance, they are refreshingly unlike break dance and hip hop. Their newest show contains two choreographed pieces, the first of which was created by Frenchman Christian Rizzo. Bodies are lugged about, but tough young men also approach each other with tenderness. Mdoyi finds it difficult to interpret the contents of the dance. "We were surprised when – according to Christian – the piece was finished. We thought we were only halfway through the piece. It deals primarily with being together and helping each other, which represents considerable support within families and among friends in the townships with all their excesses."

Mdoyi has more to say about the second dance, choreographed by South Africa's most well-known choreographer Robyn Orlin. "Our pantsula dance comes from the townships. In terms of cultural value, you can compare it to hip hop that sprang up in American ghettos. Pantsula is also a way of dressing, behaving, using language and an attitude. In pantsula dance, you let yourself fall from one leg to the other, as it were. Robyn has translated this into the waddling one sees in a duck. It has turned out quite well." In spite of the ominous title - Still life with homeless heaven and urban wounds, this is, in fact, a hilarious piece; the passage in which the dancers wear duck masks is particularly original.

The group does not receive a subsidy. Mdoyi: "We finance our training from our tours; we currently have 35 dance students. Dancers come and go in our company with some regularity. I myself will leave soon to make room for a younger talent. What we want to demonstrate with Via Kathelong, particularly to young people, is that you can earn a living with art – including in the townships where unemployment is extremely high."