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Has anyone asked what dancers need before heading for #Jerusalema?

It is disappointing, in Heritage Month, that the only mention by the president about the arts was in his closing remark — that we must dance to ‘Jerusalema’ — as if what we had before was not valid, says the writer. (Photo: Gallo Images / Nardus Engelbrecht)

Despite the life-giving power and joy of dance being a refuge for South Africans in these tough times, the government continues to fail the arts fraternity and dancers with its lack of financial support and a clear plan to keep the sector alive. That this is happening during Heritage Month adds insult to injury.

To most, dance is a form of expression and art. During lockdown, dance demonstrated its power to heal and unite people around the globe, providing much-needed feelings of wellness and a moment to breathe when so much was, literally and figuratively, on our necks, as we joined the hashtag #ICan’tBreathe. 

At its best, dance reveals meaning over despair. Dancers at their best are the shamans who, at times of need, provide healing. They are trained to observe and replicate with freedom to invent, in culturally and politically relevant ways. Dance is not politics, but becomes political by virtue of circumstances.

Many of us formed our careers in our backyards in the 1980s, in the heart of apartheid South Africa, experimenting with movement as the air around us filled with dust and the smoke from burning tyres and teargas; as we had to dodge rubber bullets and being chased by police dogs.

During lockdown, dance dominated our screens and social media platforms, and brought monks and nuns out of their monasteries to dance to Master KG’s hit song Jerusalema in response to the globally popular #JerusalemaChallenge

International Dance Day 2020 is a celebration of dance that was created by the Dance Committee of the International Theatre Institute in partnership with Unesco and is marked annually on 29 April. This year it placed the spotlight on South Africa by selecting me as the author of a dance message that was translated into different languages and responded to by dancers and dance companies around the world with dance videos. It is dance that we lean on in this extraordinary, chaotic and disrupted period in our lives.

So why, in our democracy, has no-one asked what dancers need? 

Dance and disruption

It’s true what the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

It is that single first step that dancers take to brave even the harshest of conditions; where power in the dance is a manifestation of human greed; where human’s demise is in its inability to recognise weakness over ego. Dance often invites us to think about what is going on today and when you witness it as part of a congregation, it gives you the responsibility to do something about it.

The politicking and long denial of world leaders around issues of humanity, climate change and dreaded diseases have long been part of the equation. With Covid-19 it looks as if history is repeating itself. The past seven months have demonstrated clearly that our government has very little regard for the arts — and dance continues to be at the bottom of the pit. The future is not certain and requires dancers to arm themselves with the power to create and the force to persuade our leaders that what they had before was not valid — and to accept that a new matrix of artists, creativity, education, body politics and dance exists. 

Covid-19 has given rise to an army of furious artists and thinkers taking part in the attempt to level the playing field, forging a future and a revolution in movement and bodies. Each day I think about the grave economic reality dancers are facing. This is not self-pity; it is a moment to interrogate the present systems, and re-imagine new ways of working that prepare us for the next tragedy without having to hold out a begging bowl just to survive.

Dancers are custodians of a nation’s traditions and culture and are often a mouthpiece for the marginalised, treading on ground where politicians would not dare to enter.

Much of dance created by independent artists and companies is a response to human values; raising questions, creating discourse and demonstrating clearly that our need for each other is fundamental. The connection between the artist and the audience can never be replaced and should not be replaced by technology — but we do need to embrace the new dawn. 

How do we overcome this challenge? How do we continue to contribute to the planet and the universal cry for humanity within the new normal? How do we continue to dance, even when our government has not recognised dancers as a creative force and an important part of the creative ecology that contributes to the creative economy?

Dance offers audiences a sermon served — a melting pot that takes them on a roller-coaster of emotions that touches a part of life. When the curtain falls at the end of a show, we know something profoundly moving has been achieved, albeit for a brief moment. We return to our homes, to our isolation, and long for that experience to live with us because the world is too incomprehensible at times. 

“The past is not dead,” remarked the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka while talking about the irrecoverable rupture where there is a physical and mental break with the past. The mental break of the past is not a new phenomenon, particularly for South African dancers where power of performance has always provided a lifeline, even in uncertain times. 

When there is a rupture, like the one we are experiencing with Covid-19, we tend to focus on our resilience and critically examine our positions regarding who we are and why we feel it is important to be heard, why this situation is so familiar to our past, where the toyi-toyi was a dance for political mass demonstration. Why are we still discussing the value of dance? And why do we still have to prove our existence as artists? What is important is what happens next.

Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of the country, delivered his sermon every month without fail, with composure, since we first went into lockdown in March. As he took his usual place on 16 September 2020, the entire arts fraternity waited in anticipation. The industry had been calling for the president to open spaces to allow artists to work for their survival and for hope to be restored. 

What came out of the speech was the continued neglect and lack of vision of how the arts fraternity is going to pick up the pieces.

We know that our sector will continue to suffer, as the past 26 years have demonstrated that even without Covid, the arts fraternity has always had to fight for scraps while being placed at the bottom of the food chain. The Department of Sport, Arts and Culture remains without a clear indication and plan as to how the sector will benefit from a much-needed economic stimulus package. 

It is particularly disappointing, in Heritage Month, that the only mention by the president about arts and heritage was in his closing remark — that we must dance to Jerusalema — as if what we had before was not valid. 

What we wanted to hear was a creative stimulus plan for the cultural creative economy that will get artists, theatres, cultural spaces and festivals buzzing with solid programmes to keep the arts fraternity alive. We need, as a matter of urgency, a vision for nurturing, supporting and sustaining the arts and artists. It is against this background that a foundation called STAND (Sustaining Theatre and Dance), created by artists and industry leaders for artists, arose. 

STAND is a foundation to support the creation, distribution and appreciation of contemporary South African dance and theatre. 

Rather than be dependent on the government (while always lobbying it for support), the foundation will look to the dance and theatre community and its supporters to find ways in which we can continue to build and sustain our sectors.

Even though South African artists have long been self-motivated, with some support from foreign countries, the “new dawn” requires us to strive to do it ourselves and lean more towards each other, because our dance is filled with humanity and empathy. 

In this time of the pandemic, in Heritage Month, dancers seek support, and we are urging the public to see, hear, and witness dance differently and act to support in whatever way possible. 

While we dance, we need to question if and how we will address the unjust systems that got us here. We are essential. DM/MC

Gregory Maqoma is an independent dancer, choreographer and creative director. He is also the founder of Vuyani Dance Theatre and chairman of the STAND Foundation.

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  • A fantastic article but what a disappointing image – it’s from a musical, not even a dance piece! The caption doesn’t even credit the production or the actors in it. Surely, DM, you could have chosen a more powerful image to carry the message in the article?

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