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The Indigenous Dance Academy

by Rob Scher / Images by Sydelle Willow Smith / 15.05.2013

Dance academy – the words inspire images of hardwood floors, wall-length mirrors and torrid love affairs between privileged white girls and boys ‘from the wrong side of the tracks’. Pulling into Tembisa township, home to Beat Battle finalist’s Indigenous Dance Academy, we reassess these preconceptions. Replacing the wood with concrete, mirrors with graffiti and with no sign of Julia Stiles, all we’re left with is a bunch of guys from the wrong side of the tracks.

“Today people are asking us, ‘are you still dancing that thing? Why don’t you get a day job?’ We still dance sbujwa because it’s something we believe in, something we’re passionate about,” Katlego proclaims, as we sit around their ‘studio’ – the courtyard of crew founder Jarrel’s gran’s place. Katlego joined the crew when it first started back in 2005. “Want to see the routine that got us through?” He asks, as if there’s a choice in the matter.

What follows is a jilted cacophony of slick kwassa-kwassa meets ispantsula on the set of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Katlego explains, “It’s about storytelling. This one was called Mental Caps. Basically we’re crazed, locked up in a mental institution, taking out our frustration through our dance moves.” It explains the strained facial expressions, and brief sample of ‘Gangnam Style’ – sure to drive anyone into a state of mental illness. Entertaining, yes. But, how does this fit into the sbujwa landscape?


Having only emerged in the early 2000s, sbujwa already faces extinction on the streets, as more and more township kids move towards trends such as skothane. The scene is divided. There are those who argue that the form’s integrity requires staying true to its roots. Then there are guys like IDA. “We’re not followers. We try be unique, whilst sticking to our name, Indigenous Dance Academy – indigenous in everything we do,” explains Katlego. This means that in an IDA show, apart from sbujwa you’re likely to see varied local influences from gumboots to traditional dance. “A lot of people might say we’re losing the plot of sbujwa, but it needs to grow. It’s evolving.”

We’re trying to find a location for the Beat Battle photo-shoot. We settle for the Windows screensaver of township locations – the dusty soccer field. “I started out playing soccer. If you can’t play soccer, you can’t dance sbujwa,” laughs fellow member Selby, as he shows off his footwork, equally at home on the field as on a dance floor.


The crew seems to have a perspective on dance, and life, that extends beyond Tembisa. It turns out a lot of this can be attributed to the time they’ve spent in France. “It started in 2010. We went from January until March, performing in theatres and teaching people how to dance sbujwa and pantsula.”

Envisioning sbujwa performed in a theatre seems sacrilege to its roots. It was a gamble taking it from the streets. Katlego recalls their first show. “We were used to people this side – girls screaming when you bust a move, guys shouting and whistling. So at first we felt people didn’t like what we were doing because they kept quiet the whole time. They just didn’t really know how to react.”


I imagine a scene of Parisian ‘squares’, awkwardly shuffling in their cushy seats as deep and loud Mzansi house blares from the speakers whilst IDA scares the shit out of them from the stage. “Nah, but after that show, and every other one we did, we got standing ovations. For me, that was incredible – it showed people actually appreciate what we’re doing. We’ve been back twice.”

The Beat Battle title has invariably gone to hip hop crews in the past. Katlego hopes winning will help reinvigorate the sbujwa scene. “We’re just trying to get sbujwa to a level where people can respect township dancers. If you’re a township dancer you’re often highly underestimated. Sbujwa is not something you go to school for. Those forms you go to school for weren’t born here. Hip hop crews are doing the same stuff as crews from USA. Ballet – I don’t know where it comes from but I wouldn’t say my ancestors were dancing that – they were doing the bum jive.”

On our way back to Jarrel’s gran’s, we make a quick stop at the train station for the last location shoot of the day. “Quick, there the train comes!” In mere seconds the guys fall into a perfectly synched routine, just as the hourly train passes. Sydelle gets the perfect shot. A bit of luck, a lot of talent and being in the right place at the right time seems to be the status quo for IDA.


* All images © Sydelle Willow Smith

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