Iron in the Soilby Lindokuhle Nkosi / Images by Tyrone Bradley / 17.05.2012
The ground in Orange Farm is red, iron in the soil, and it’s everywhere. Right now it’s being kicked up into the air by a donkey cart carrying scrap metal, the men steering the carriage to a stop in the middle of the road to watch the pantsula dancers posed on the roof of the old taxi office building. Hlaks Pantsula crew are visibly excited about being one of the final 8 crews for Red Bull Beat Battle. In the 12 years that they’ve been dancing, this is easily the biggest opportunity that they’ve had. The thing is, isipantsula’s glory days seem to be fading. To be fair though, pantsula enjoyed a long run in the limelight. In the 90’s, when the whole country was gripped by kwaito, pantsula dancing became an accessory to the mania. But the lineage and pedigree of isipantsula stretches way back, and you can trace its roots to the Drum generation of the 1950s and the first wave of African urbanisation.
Visibly, Orange Farm hasn’t moved too far from those days. Untarred roads. Hand built shacks. A lack of basic services. Still, a four-roomed RDP house booms house and kwaito into its surrounds, infecting innocent passerbys with the groove. A crowd quickly gathers. Hlaks crew members, Boyza, Khosie and Sipho shift the earth with hard-tapping heel-to-toe movements. Stomping the red dirt with synchronised tenacity. A ripple effect from crazy shuffling footwork; up to their hips, waists, shoulders and heads. Despite the hardship, Hlaks Pantsula are grabbing the opportunity presented by the Red Bull Beat Battle firmly in their hands.
“People think pantsula is dead, but we’ve been in the game for a long time now.” Says Khosie. “It’s not the same though; all the kids want to dance to is isibujwa and hip hop. Pantsula is not fashionable anymore, but we love it. It’s what we know. It’s a classic.”
Orange Farm, geographically, is a dry sliver of land between the south of Joburg and the Vaal. A no man’s land where the cultures of both The Vaal and Soweto fuse into something unique. Part urban, part rural. Hlaks use this fusion, and interpret it through their dance. “You see the base of pantsula is is “pharaphara” explain Sipho. “Wherever you go, whatever style of pantsula you see, the base element of is’pharaphara will always be there.” Is’pharaphara is a 3-beat stomping and tapping motion that many believe evolved from the showy stylistics of Soweto’s Train Surfers. “Dancers then build their own identities around the base, we call these signatures.” Adds Boyza. “The signatures that are popular in Soweto are different from those in the Vaal. We combine these signatures and create something new.”
Many of the signatures are a depiction of everyday life: Galloping horse-carts, chugging trains, stumbling drunks and Kung Fu movies. But pantsula gives as much as it takes. It has influenced local dance culture, with many of the easier signatures becoming dance staples on the street and in the clubs. Remember the Twalatsa? It was an old popular street dance that looks exactly like the now famous Dougie-well, the Twalatsa (and ergo The Dougie) was ripped wholesale from a pantsula signature, like Roba letheka and Sika lekhekhe. And because of this influence on contemporary Mzansi dance culture, crews like Hlaks refuse to let Pantsula die. They fully embrace their role as a bridge; connecting The Vaal and Soweto, the street and the studio. The retro and the new. And in terms of Red Bull Beat Battle, all those new school crews better watch out for the old school pedigree of Hlaks Pantsula.
**Images © Tyrone Bradley/Red Bull.
Learn more about Red Bull Beat Battle here.