Oh Meninas!by Rob Scher / Images by Sydelle Willow Smith / 28.03.2013
It’s a long journey to the West Rand, so we agree on a location – Clearwater Mall. Joburg’s rife with malls. I get lost. Finally, Clearwater looms off Hendrik Potgieter Drive like a concrete pimple of retail. Café Rousse, the pinnacle of faux-francophonia, is where the all girl crew 8One.Oh Meninas await my arrival. Walking towards them, I imagine the murmured skinner from the café’s tannie patrons. With five schoolgirls sitting around with an older gentleman, Mario, one could easily get the wrong idea. One of the girls offers some consolation for my lateness, as I hurriedly pull up a chair. “Really, don’t stress!” She beams. “We’re missing school for this.” Always happy to aid in the bunking of class, I order a coffee.
“We’ve only been a crew for four months,” Venesh captain of the Meninas explains with a small hint of pride. The West Rand all-girl hip-hop crew came together through Mario’s dance studio. “We had auditions at the Mario Gomez Dance Academy, and out of the 52 girls who auditioned, we were the eight who made it,” adds Savannah. Three of the girls couldn’t skip school as the remaining five sit, thrilled at all that’s happened in the short space of their existence as a dance crew. So what’s with the name?
“The crew started in October 2010, hence the name. Since then every year I’ve chosen different girls to represent that name.” Explains Mario. “Meninas is Portuguese for ‘girls’, was added this year – they’re the first 8One.Oh Meninas.” He says.
Hip hop is apparently ‘the big thing’ in the dance community on the West Rand, a style mostly dominated by males. “We have to raise the bar to get our name out there as an all girl hip hop crew. Hip hop already tends to be quite misogynistic. Added to that is our age. It’s tough.” Venesh notes as the girls nod their heads in agreement.
With the stakes high and a lot to prove, Venesh and the Meninas hope to challenge existing stereotypes surrounding females in hip hop. “When you watch any hip hop videos you’ve got girls dancing in hot pants – it’s demeaning. People are expecting us to be ‘pretty’ – we want to represent hardcore, try to do something the audience wouldn’t expect.” She says.
Along with challenging the gender politics of their dance style, how do the Meninas feel about the criticism weighed against hip hop dancers with respect to foreign influences? “When it comes to quality dance styles and techniques, they’re all introduced overseas so unfortunately we have to look there to learn.” Says Venesh. “Even though we’re dancing in a hip hop style, we’re aware of South African sensitivities in our choreography. We have massive respect for styles like sbujwa and pantsula.” She adds.
“It’s difficult. There are almost no female South African hip hop singers or rappers – it’s hard to represent a scene, when there’s no scene to start with.” fellow Menina, Tanza points out. Venesh and the crew hope to motivate other girls take up the mantle and help contribute to the building of their scene.
“We want to set the bar high for girls in South Africa. What’s good about this opportunity is that girls will be taken more seriously as dance talent, promoting women for their dancing skill and talent and not just as sex symbols.”
The Meninas need to get back to school – a necessary speed bump in their path to pursuing their passion for dance. “I couldn’t believe we’d beaten over 170 crews to get to the finals – that’s huge,” Venesh exclaims. “We would love to keep doing this and with competitions like Red Bull Beat Battle it’s becoming more of a possibility.”