Location: Johannesburg, South Africa
On a Sunday afternoon in Alexandra, a crowd gathers outside the Madala Hostel. Taxi drivers come to a standstill at the road side, their necks craning to catch a glimpse of the dance troupe who are taking their positions dressed in full Zulu regalia. Everyone waits with baited breath to watch the Ukhahamba Zulu dancers do the Umzansi dance.
“We own this place and all the people that you see around are waiting for us to perform,” said the group leader, Phumulani Makhaza.
The dancers are aged between 20 and 35 and represent a rich cultural cross section of South African society. It is unusual to see the Umzansi dance outside KwaZulu Natal, but thanks to a group of elders from Bergville, the dance found its way to Johannesburg in 1994.
Sdumo Mlambo, one of the elders who founded the group, said it started as a joke.
“We were having a braai with friends and we just decided that we should start a dance group to keep the youths away from the streets. It was mostly guys from Bergville who started it, but now we welcome different tribes in the group. Umzansi dance has been around for years and when we moved to Johannesburg we decided to introduce it here and look how big it is now. There is no substantial financial reward, but the youth love it.”
The Ukhahlamba group take their dancing seriously, with practices arranged during the week after the men have finished a hard day at work. For some of them, dancing is their life.
Behind the scenes of the pre-concert practice, the men hit one another on the back as a way of getting them excited for the dancing ahead. Seemingly, it works as the troupe walk towards the field singing louder and psyched up to perform. When they reach the field the gathered fans go wild. Taking turns to showcase their talent, the dancers entertain the crowd with their creative and innovative moves. Everyone joins in, from the little children to the intoxicated men coming home from a night’s drinking. In the space of ten minutes, the Madala Hostel is transformed into a mini Nkandla or Msinga from KwaZulu Natal.
Gugu Shabalala, the only female member in the group, is one to watch. Unlike the other group members who are dressed in their traditional wares, Shabalala wears a blue Nike designer tracksuit. However, it doesn’t prevent her from showing the spectators what she is made of. The young woman rolls on the ground and struts her stuff as well as any of the men.
“Look at the way she dances, she does it like a man,” one of the spectators observes. “It shows that she grew up doing this. I would make her my wife.”
The Ukhahlamba group are fearless in their technical dance moves. Makhaza, their leader, who didn’t dance at all, whips the other men with a leather belt, while the others execute their dance steps with a look of pure aggression on their faces.
Melusi Yende the group’s manager said it took a lot of time and practice to get the dance right. “When the guys join the group we have to convince the leader that they can really dance before they are given permission to perform outside. This is like karate because the guys kick a lot and you can see that most of them are physically fit. Gugu is also very fit and experienced; she loves what she is doing. She dances for maskandi music singer, Thokozani Langa. It’s in her blood which is why you see her so passionate.”
Although they perform as a group, people take note of individual performances. Some of the guys have in the past been hand-picked to perform overseas, while others work hard in the hope of catching the attention of show producers or people looking for dancers.
Yende said: “That’s the unfortunate part about this; we would love to see everyone being selected to perform somewhere. Production companies come and pick one or two guys from the group, which is fine for their experience.”
One of the lucky dancers is the muscular Phila Dlamini who has performed in Vietnam, Germany and Zimbabwe because of the Umzansi dance.
“Our peers are up to no good especially here in Alexandra, but because of the dance I’m off the streets. I have been dancing since 2000 and don’t see myself quitting what I’m doing. I want to go to more countries through Umzansi because of my passion,” said Dlamini.
For people like Shabalala, however, performing overseas is still a pipe dream. “I want to wake up one day and see myself performing overseas, and I will not stop dancing until that happens,” she said.
The flame of the Umzansi dance seems to be catching in the Alexandra area as another group start a performance across the road. To the untrained eye the dance looks similar, but as Yende explains, unless one knows the dance, it is impossible to judge who is superior.
“You won’t see the difference if you don’t know the dance. The difference is that some guys bend their knees when they dance and some don’t. People prefer our guys who don’t bend their knees.”
“People book the group for weddings or maybe for government events and we are paid anything between R1500 and R7000 for a performance. The guys understand that there is not much money from this. If people don’t find us here on Sunday, they know that we are performing somewhere else and we’ll make it up to them the next time they see us. We do this for our people,” said Yende.
The fact that being part of the Ukhahamba Zulu dancers is not a lucrative option only goes to show the passion and commitment the dancers share. To have a slice of Zulu culture in the midst of a fast-paced city life, go down to Madala Hostel on a Sunday afternoon and be inspired.
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