Chronicling a South African dancer’s journey post-apartheid

August 5th, 2010 - 12:46 pm ICT by IANS  

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi, Aug 5 (IANS) The end of apartheid in South Africa freed dancer-choreographer Nhlanhla Vincent Zwane from his creative isolation. Today he is a leading bharatanatyam exponent in his country and a devout Shiva worshipper at that.

“The arrival of democracy in South Africa after Nelson Mandela took over as president in 1994 opened the world for young dancers like me,” Zwane, a Zulu tribal in his early 30s, told IANS on a visit here.

The Afro-Fusion exponent, who made a name for himself with his free-style African street and contemporary Western dance in the 1980s, decided to learn the classical Indian dance form of bharatanatyam in 2003.

Seven years on, the Shaivaite dancer, attired in a regal blue drape with a golden snake coiled around his bronzed neck and coiffured head, is one of the most sought-after practitioners of bharatanatyam that is gaining popularity in South Africa.

But Zwane has not forgotten his “painful past”.

The unofficial ban imposed on coloured natives by their white oppressors denied them access to foreign cultures, Zwane said. The consequence was a cultural insulation that prevented the entry of world fusion genres.

“It was not easy to learn what was not rightfully yours. In the apartheid era, a colour bar against eastern dances kept African dancers insulated from oriental dances. We were told to mingle with our own stock and practise the indigenous arts. It was a painful past,” recalled young Zwane, shaking his riot of black braids.

Pretoria-born Zwane, a resident of Johannesburg, was in India to perform at the International Dance Festival presented by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).

He observed that South Africa was slowly changing as a country.

“The country is opening up. Nelson Mandela has opened the door to globalisation, bringing people together. We are a rainbow nation now - with multi-cultural sensibilities,” the dancer said.

Dance unites people, Zwane said. “After we switched to a democratic political system, the eyes of the cultural fraternity began to open. We identified which doors to knock and from where to seek help,” he said.

And Zwane knew “where to go”.

He joined the Tribhangi Dance Theatre in South Africa directed by Jayesperi Moopen. Moopen, a fifth generation Indian expatriate, combines African rhythm and movements with their Indian equivalents to create a unique fusion.

The company’s motto is to take Indian dance to the farthest corner of South Africa and script new cross-cultural idioms.

“Tribhangi whet my thirst to master the dance form that intrigued me on television. I liked the way bharatanatyam dancers moved their heads and eyes,” he said.

Zwane realised in high school that he wanted to dance for a living.

“I started dancing free-style for a few cents on the streets with a group of six boys while in school. In 2001, I enrolled at a community dance school to study Afro-Fusion dance and to train youngsters,” he said.

Zwane’s recaitals are rooted in Indian mysticism.

His solo bharatanatyam choreographies begin with the Shiva dance, an act dedicated to “the lord of universe and energy”. It is followed by “a minute of African dance” before moving to the “tilanna” - an advanced and more vigorous act.

The recital culminates in a five-minute contemporary Afro-Fusion dance act which is an invocation and appeasement of Zwane’s ancestors.

“It is an African tribal rite. We believe the spirits of our ancestors guide us and lead us where we want to go,” the tribal dancer said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at

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