“So what is contemporary dance, exactly?”

This is a question that almost everyone who has studied contemporary dance has been asked at some point. Most people have a vague idea about what contemporary dance can look like (thanks, So You Think You Can Dance for your terrible title and mass appeal!) yet the art of contemporary choreography and dance remains a somewhat niche topic of conversation.

In this article I humbly attempt to remedy this by offering a very brief and incomplete guide to contemporary dance in South Africa.

Moving Into Dance
Moving Into Dance

As much as I wish it wasn’t true, contemporary dance essentially finds its roots in ballet, which arrived in South Africa with the British around the early 1800s. Certain ‘super-powers’ were discovering the economic benefits of imposing war and culture on various groups of people who they saw as ‘other’. At the start of the 20th Century, while South Africa was nestling into a long, traumatic history of segregation and injustice, two Americans (who coincidentally found their fame in Europe) named Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan were separately exploring the potential for new and revolutionary movement in their bodies. Due to their dramatic rejection of ballet, these two individuals are sometimes seen as the unofficial ‘founders’ of contemporary dance today. They influenced many artists to come.

Two world wars happened, apartheid became official in 1948 and in the 1950s a young American, Martha Graham, started taking her art (aka modern dance) very seriously. With all of America’s post-war dollar, modern dance started being supported financially and began to flourish in the States, gaining institutional attention and recognition. Aside from Martha Graham’s redefinition of how movement on a stage could look, at a similar time there were many other dancers and choreographers carving out their own way of moving. This is one of the founding features of contemporary dance: essentially it is an unfixed and shifting aesthetic, drawing on various physical techniques often developed by individuals. It’s part of what makes contemporary dance so tricky to define.

All of this development in America had a ripple effect and modern dance began to appear in South Africa in the 1970s. Because it was the height of apartheid, black bodies were controlled and monitored in every sense. Money was being pumped into the ballet and opera and black dancing bodies were, for the most part, completely excluded from institutional support – let alone artistic encouragement.

But history shows us that the creative moving body is a formidable source of energy and power. The reactionary politics embedded in the founding philosophies of modern dance and its creators allowed this mode of movement to emerge as a site of resistance and protest in South Africa. A few individuals in the 70s began to see modern dance as a potential platform to defy the accepted institution of ballet. This ‘contemporary’ or ‘modern’ idea of moving took form not only through the denial and resistance of certain balletic styles and aesthetics, but also through the recognition and incorporation of an incredibly rich heritage of black South African dance culture.

SIVA, choreographed by Luyanda Sidiya, winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award
‘SIVA’ choreographed by Luyanda Sidiya, winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award

In Cape Town in 1973, a woman by the name of Sonje Mayo started a dance studio called Jazzart, which specialised in modern and jazz dance. By 1981 Alfred Hinkel took over what is known today as Jazzart Dance Theatre. He began to develop the group into a professional dance company with its defining ethos of non-racialism, community development and socio-political commentary. In the company all sorts of modern and contemporary dance techniques were absorbed, welcomed, and experimented with. Systems like Alexander Technique and Release Technique were incorporated and developed with other dance styles associated with South Africa, such as Pantsula, Ingoma, Marabi and Bharata Natyam. As a result, a certain aesthetic or dance genre began to develop, often called ‘Afrofusion’[1].

In 1978 a woman named Sylvia Glasser started a company called Moving Into Dance in her garage in Johannesburg. The company consisted of mainly black dancers at a time when the idea of black and white dancers performing together was both revolutionary and somewhat illegal. Sylvia and her company started redefining what dance could look like on an otherwise white-dominated stage.

In combination with modern dance styles like Horton she also started incorporating concepts, narratives and movement styles inspired by trance, ritual and repetition relating specifically to indigenous South African peoples. Today such work comes across as startlingly problematic, but at that time it was seen as revolutionary in the racially segregated and closed-minded society. Sylvia’s school and work contributed massively to this ‘Afrofusion’ aesthetic and many of South Africa’s most successful and talented choreographers and performers came from this background.

Sibonakaliso Ndaba (Jazzart) at the FNB Dance Umbrella
Sibonakaliso Ndaba (Jazzart) at the FNB Dance Umbrella

As apartheid came to a close, the trope of the rainbow nation began to emerge and this directly affected the arts and performing arts. In the mid 1990s and early 2000s, multi-racial and ‘multi-cultural’ dance productions were upheld as the pinnacle of the new South African society. Productions showcasing Zulu Ingoma dancers in traditional attire were seen dancing with Classical Indian Bharatnatyam dancers in their traditional attire – all of this was (and still is) seen as the metaphor for the rainbow nation.

This was an exciting and important time for dance in South Africa but it became apparent that these kinds of productions had their own set of complex issues. Legislative freedom has very little to do with physical or psychological freedom and as it turns out, presenting the ‘we are one’ trope on stage does little to address the real inequalities people still face as a result of apartheid. Instead, this rather simple agenda often results in reiterating and complying with the very ideology of separatism and racism that colonialism and apartheid established.

In rejecting the idea of the rainbow nation, a host of black, interrogative and unapologetic dance artists have emerged from South Africa. Many of the ‘veterans’ like Vincent Mantsoe and Gregory Maqoma came through schools like Moving Into Dance. Gregory founded Vuyani Dance Theatre which is producing powerful and exciting choreographic work that is constantly contributing to the development of South African contemporary dance, particularly under the guidance of the current artistic director, Luyanda Sidiya.

Nelisiwe Xaba
Nelisiwe Xaba performing ‘They Look At Me and This Is All They Think’

Instead of seeking out grand narratives or didactic messages, these artists turned inwards, drawing on their own experiences and unique ways of moving in order to create relevant and important work. The same can be said of artists like Boyzie Cekwana and Dada Masilo. People like Nelisiwe Xaba and Mamela Nyamza are also doing great work by embracing difference, complexity, social justice and feminism. Their work is easier to access as they perform quite regularly in South Africa.

Unfortunately due to a wicked combination of poor arts and culture funding in South Africa and really great European funding, many important South African choreographers live and work in Europe – including some of the artists I have discussed here. It seems that the mostly-white and very funded European and American art communities still quite like the idea of owning foreign objects and experiences.

As a result, most dance students in South Africa very rarely get to see the artists and dancers that they study. This results in a kind of missing link between established choreographers and emerging choreographers, but also prompts emerging choreographers to redefine their art in relation to the styles and aesthetics of the established South African choreographers. The reactionary politics of movement and bodies continues!

As we have seen, new dance aesthetics often emerge through reaction and resistance to the previous generation’s styles and motivations. It is an interesting time for contemporary dance in South Africa, particularly in our current political and economic context. Who knows what the future holds?

Regardless of what lies ahead, perhaps this bit of context into contemporary dance will perk your interest in what I believe to be one of the most interesting, frustrating and exciting performing arts.


[1] Many dance artists and academics find the term Afrofusion or even African contemporary dance quite problematic. One of the defining aspects of contemporary dance is the broad incorporation of a variety of movement vocabularies and techniques. Yet when this occurs with dance aesthetics coming from the African continent, it is seen as a ‘fusion’ of Western and African dance styles, a concept that is both reductive and simplistic. As a rule, it’s better to steer clear of ‘Afrofusion’, it’s dated and tricksy. I suggest sticking with the broader but more simply correct term of ‘contemporary dance’.

    Dada Masilo's 'Swan Lake' as previewed at the Dance Factory in Newtown, Johannesburg.     Photograph: John Hogg.
Dada Masilo’s ‘Swan Lake’ as previewed at the Dance Factory in Newtown, Johannesburg.
Photograph: John Hogg.

This article was written by Nicola van Straaten with input from Julia de Rosenwerth, who together co-founded and co-edit Any Body Zine.

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One Comment

  1. Very informative and accessible to the average person who is not familiar with contemporary dance. Thank you.

    I also think this writer is very smart.