Maverick Citizen

THE ACTIONISTS

From a leap of faith to a life calling, Jarryd Watson dances to the tune of social upliftment

From a leap of faith to a life calling, Jarryd Watson dances to the tune of social upliftment
Jarryd Watson. (Photo: Thom Pierce)

When Jarryd Watson agreed to take over the Wentworth Arts and Culture Organisation at a young age, he already understood the importance of a place for the young people of Wentworth to learn self-expression and creativity.

In this fast-paced, status-focused modern world, the arts are often undervalued as a means to bring purpose, dignity and joy into people’s lives. From an early age Jarryd Watson learnt the importance of self-expression in his own life, and what started as a one-year leap of faith developed into a life calling through which he discovered the incredible impact that the arts can have in the lives of others.

Jarryd grew up in Treasure Beach, Wentworth, a particularly troubled part of KwaZulu-Natal. Looking out over the Indian Ocean from the clifftops of the Bluff it is easy to forget that the community has struggled for decades with extreme poverty, gangsterism and a drug epidemic.

At 20 years old, after completing his education, Jarryd was approached to take over the Wentworth Arts and Culture Organisation (Waco) by its founders, Colin Fourie and Gail Snyman. They had been following his progress through performance school, studying arts, dance, film and television. His talent and affinity for the community made him the obvious candidate to take on the mantle of responsibility. 

At such a young age it was a big decision. He already understood the importance of a place for the young people of Wentworth to learn self-expression and creativity, but he was also aware that he would be putting his own dreams on hold to do so. 

Jarryd committed to taking on the role for a year, pressing pause on his own journey as a performer to give himself up to a short period of service to his community.

That was 16 years ago. 

“I saw a great need for the positive social impact it was creating in these kids’ lives and I made a huge sacrifice to do it. I have mixed emotions about it but holistically it has been for the benefit of others and that has always been a good feeling, even if I am not benefiting financially.”

When Jarryd took over the project, the focus was on providing a space for young people of Wentworth to learn different disciplines, in an affordable and accessible way. The school has grown over the past 16 years and, through his sheer dedication and determination, they have managed to take dancers from Wentworth to international dance competitions around the world, receiving recognition for their talent as performers in the UK and the US. 

Dance can impact the marginalised, it’s such a powerful force to impact people positively.

But the work has gone far beyond simply teaching kids to dance. With such a programme comes the responsibility towards everyone who walks through the doors of Waco. The primary goal is to improve the lives of those who attend. Keeping them safe and in school, as well as making them feel supported in every aspect of their lives, is of great importance. Because the work can range from organising bursaries to finding safe housing, and everything in between, the responsibility goes way beyond a simple dance project. 

“It’s about benefiting others and giving them the opportunity to grow in life. It’s not just about dance steps. So many kids have been through this project and succeeded in life.” 

For the past eight years the main focus of Jarryd’s work has been to expand the youth dance project into a more inclusive programme that benefits other groups in the community. He has created exercise classes for the elderly and has developed a project that provides a space for people with disabilities to learn how to dance and grow as performers. 

“Dance can impact the marginalised, it’s such a powerful force to impact people positively.”

The “special needs disabled training and development programme” started with just six people and has grown over the years to include 48 community members, including people in wheelchairs, amputees and people with visual impairments. Although the challenges in this new direction are many, the impact has been huge, providing people with disabilities a valuable opportunity to have access to the arts, where they can develop their skills and hopefully find employment.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Actionists

But all of this incredible work has not come without personal sacrifice for Jarryd and, although much of the work involves his passion for dance, there are so many other challenges that come with running an organisation like Waco.

“I don’t realise the impact that I am creating because I am so focused on fundraising and getting performances ready. I do it for many reasons. I am passionate about the arts. It’s not what I do, it’s who I am and I love to uplift others.”

One of the major challenges has been to find the equipment needed to run the inclusivity programme. A specialist wheelchair for dancing would provide the stability, speed and movement needed to teach safely and effectively. They cost about R50,000 and Jarryd needs three. This week The Actionists is launching a short campaign to see if we can get him just one. Visit www.theactionists/waco to find out more. DM

The Actionists was launched in early 2023 by photographer Thom Pierce. It consists of on-the-ground problem solvers, community activists, climate campaigners and human rights defenders who engage in direct action. They are people anyone can turn to in difficult circumstances: a growing community of people who care about the future of South Africa. Through a series of photographic stories, Pierce profiles these people. Through a website, discussion forum and social media, the aim is to provide ways for people to get involved.

Nominate Actionists in your circle at www.theactionists.co.za or email [email protected]

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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