Sealing the Dealby Ts’eliso Monaheng / Images by Justin Mcgee / 28.03.2013
It’s a cloudy Friday afternoon in Jozi, and the dance studio I am headed to on Malibongwe drive couldn’t be any further out of town for a non-native Joburger like myself. This area offers a respite, however short-lived, from the inner city’s madness. Clinch, the crew I’m about to interview, these guys who’ve been evading me for the last two weeks, are gathered in front of a mirror practicing the routine for what I can only assume will form part of their set at the upcoming Red Bull Beat Battle finals. Two ladies from the near-by pizza joint peek through the glass doors while the wooden floor gets pounded repeatedly by the crew’s energetic, synchronised stomp.
“I feel like we can end at that.” Says Simba in one of a myriad of exchanges the crew has been drilling in my ten minutes here. Thai, my point of entry and the self-styled ‘captain’ of the team, the guy who told me to “come behind the Chicken Lickin, I’ll meet you there,” when I called for directions, is posted behind a laptop connected to speakers which are playing the initial piano chords of a Kelly Clarkson ballad. I get a chance to pose a few questions during the mini-break, but my attempts are cut short by Simba’s insistence to carry on practicing. Michelle, one of the members, jumps excitedly while being shown a pick-me-up trick by Simba. I suspect he has to contend with that stuff a lot – you know, continuous attention from the ladies.
About seven copies of Red Bull’s Bulletin magazine are stacked atop each other on the desk by the entrance, so I help myself to one. However, before I can wrap my head around a piece penned on ‘noir-wave’ poster-boy Petite Noir, the crew finally take a break, and I make my way onto the wooden floor and sit next to Tebogo, another member of the group. Clinch are a big crew, apart from Simba, Thai, Michelle and Tebogo (who I’ve already mentioned) the crew is rounded out by Jay, Jamal, Charles, Collin, Tebz, Courtnaè, Basheer, and Junior. The latter two are absent (“out on tour, working.” Thai tells me), but I get informed that they will certainly be available for the finals.
“The crew was started in 2004 and was created by myself, Jay Kayembe, and Oliver. This is the fourth generation.” Says Simba, the DRC-born founding member, whose inspiration to start a hip hop dance crew came from a combination of factors. Back in the early 2000s pantsula was the in-thing but there was also a wave of hip hop dance-themed movies being released at that time; Step Up, Stomp the Yard provided some of the early inspiration. “Not many people were doing hip hop dancing back then.” Says SImba. “We realised that every time we went clubbing, when we did what we did, most people thought we were from the States.” Simba has a mild French accent with a dollop of American East Coast slang underpinning his utterances.
So the crew was born out of their frustration with a one-track-mind dance scene on the one hand, and the boom of Hollywood-style dance-centric movies on the other. Soon after, word got out; school gigs started happening, then competition accolades and finally they started to land the holy grail: corporate gigs. Clinch have opened shows for Snoop, Lebo Mathosa, and Pharell, so they’re no newcomers to the dance scene.
Courtnaè is the quiet one, but billed the “illest b-girl in the whole of South Africa” according to her crew. She keeps to herself throughout the interview, almost reserved, but makes very strong points whenever the situation calls for it. “Dance can be very sustainable, it really can.” She insists when asked whether dance as a profession is as a viable career option in South Africa. However, she does caution that it depends on what one aspires to in terms of living standards.
Thai, the captain, the dreadlocked affectionate guy with a readily accessible smile and witty answers, divulges the crew’s inner workings, stating that the current formation is the fourth in a series of incarnations the crew has undergone over the years. The newer members joined shortly before the Beat Battle qualifiers and there are remnants from the second and third wave. So the crew has lineage.
“What motivated the other members to join?” I ask
“I saw it as a way to become a professional dancer.” Says Jamal, Clinch’s resident Durbanite. “Back then, there weren’t a lot of professional hip hop dancers.”
Conversation comes easy with Clinch. The circular sitting arrangement on the floor of the studio feels like we’re having an impromptu chill session with a group of friends, in a park, or around a campfire, shooting the breeze on a broad range of topics. It’s also reflective of the group’s dynamics. More importantly, it is a lesson in how to run a fairly successful dance crew and the significance of maintaining close relations and open channels of communication with members who’ve branched out and got involved in other projects. One of them, Simba informs me, owns the rehearsal space we’re meeting in.
Clinch’s list of achievements is impressive: organisers of the Masters of Rhythm dance competition, a pan-African music project headed by Thai, World Champions in their formation, and so forth. But even with such an impressive list of accolades the crew show both respect and admiration for classically trained dancers. “The question is, do they have respect for us?” Asks Simba semi-rhetorically. It’s an on-going discussion, but in his opinion, trained dancers have more discipline and a greater range. “When it comes to the physicality of dancing, they take it seriously. They stretch, they warm up, all that stuff.”
“And street dancers don’t?” I ask.
“We get a cramp, and wonder what happened. One thing that professional dancers do is that they pick up things quickly.” Says Simba, and then counters that by saying, “hip hop dancers have character.”
“So how was Clinch initially received?” I ask.
“According to Simba, not so well. “We had an intensely hard time back then, because everybody looked at us as American wannabes.” He says. Rap music wasn’t giving them a chance either; the industry needed to grow. “The artists, the people that were pushing hip hop, they wanted a specific direction. You don’t have vernac in dancing, so people didn’t really feel us.” He states, referring to the requirement during that era to mix one’s raps with vernacular influences in order to appeal to a broader local market. Hip hop dance competitions did not take kindly to them either, since audiences expected to see b-boys only and nothing else.
But Clinch have come a long way since then. And despite the ubiquity of hip hop dance crews today, they remain open to influences from other forms of dance. I learn that Soweto’s Finest, a sbujwa crew, was at their studio not so long ago for a skills exchange of sorts. Tit-for-tat. Camaraderie in the name of dance.
Come the finals, there’ll be no place for accolades. No time to rest on the laurels of past achievements. Just a moment on stage for skill to shine and light up the crowd. Can they entertain? Certainly. Will they? If the bits I saw are to be believed, Clinch shall be keeping more than a few fists clenched at the Beat Battle.
* All images © Justin Mcgee