MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Soweto — the sprawling black township in South Africa’s biggest city, Johannesburg — is synonymous with the struggle against Apartheid. Two decades after the regime of racial separation ended, many cultural divides remain.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Traditionally, ballet here was for the white and wealthy. Black South Africans were excluded, leaving a legacy of disinterest. Ballet teacher Muli Mokgele is among those trying to change that.
MULI MOKEGELE, BALLET TEACHER: Growing up, we knew ballet as being a white sport, so it’s very much new to us. But I know that in time it will get better.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Dirk Badenhorst judges ballet internationally and organizes ballet competitions in South Africa. He’s pushing to bring more ballet teachers to Soweto.
DIRK BADENHORST: Are the conditions ideal to do what we are doing? No. Is it the perfect way of doing it? No. But if we don’t start somewhere, we’re never going to have it.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: One of his recruits is Maria De Los Angelas Quintanilla — known affectionately as Miss Maria — an experienced ballet instructor from Cuba. She arrived in South Africa a few months ago and has already developed a strong bond with her students.
MARIA DE LOS ANGELES QUINTANILLA, BALLET INSTRUCTOR: I have always loved children, she says, but God didn’t give me the chance to have my own.
MARIA DE LOS ANGELES QUINTANILLA, BALLET INSTRUCTOR: The talent is one thing..the physical ability is something else she says..we need to give the children time to develop the skills as well as to demonstrate they have real talent.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The truth is ballet has never been big in the black townships. There is zero history here—there were never any qualified teachers for one thing, but now there are. These are the first.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The classes cost 10 dollars a month, but if a family can’t afford it, the program doesn’t charge.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Thoba Karl Halla is learning to become one of the instructors.
THOBA KARL HALLA, BALLET TEACHER: It is an opportunity that has been available for the minority and the few that can actually afford that, but through these classes and this program we would be able to be disciples and spread it and make it much wider.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Gustin Makgeledisa is a professional dancer and choreographer.
GUSTIN MAKGELEDISA, TEACHER: We need to break away from this thing of saying, ‘oh this is a white form of dance,’ or ‘this is a black form of dance.’ People need to start getting engaged in other things, so we need to train the kids at a very young age, and that’s how we spot the talent.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Born during the last years of Apartheid–John Tsunke didn’t have the opportunity to take ballet lessons until he was 19–But he is one of the rare black South Africans who went on to perform with the Johannesburg Ballet. Now 28, he’s excited to be teaching.
JOHN TSUNKE, BALLET TEACHER: To give them what I didn’t have and opportunities to choose to train them..something that I never had chances to do and be able to do that and have the most basic thing…a foundation.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Connie September is a former Cabinet Minister and Member of Parliament with the governing African National Congress. She has pushed the ANC to embrace ballet and recognize its potential.
CONNIE SEPTEMBER, ANC, MP: Where the kids are being trained by those that are very familiar to them, that can speak the language and understand them and so on it is quite important. If we get this thing right, it will be an absolute explosion in many of our townships.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The classes are attracting children like 8-year-old Pheletso Komane.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: This is the house in Soweto where she lives with her parents and two brothers. Her father is unemployed, and her mother works at a supermarket earning 260 dollars a month.
SENZENI KONAME, MOTHER: No, I don’t have the money to pay more money. I think it’s expensive at the real school.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Ballet is well established in the former “Whites only” areas of Johannesburg — still predominantly white — but attitudes toward black participation in ballet have changed. Natasha Ireland is former ballerina who teaches ballet.
NATASHA IRELAND, BALLET INSTRUCTOR: You know they have a very difficult and very hard life which we unfortunately don’t understand or realize because we haven’t lived through it.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Ireland’s studios are state of the art, and lessons here cost 10 times higher than in Soweto, but she believes bringing ballet to the townships is long overdue.
NATASHA IRELAND, BALLET TEACHER: There are a lot of kids with a lot of ability and with the correct training and the correct exposure and the correct nurturing in a loving environment, I think we could produce excellent dancers of color. I think it’s a fantastic opportunity.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Most of her students have trained since they were 5-years-old. Some already perform at the highest levels, like 16-year-old Veronica Louw.
VERONICA LOUW, BALLERINA: The art is one way to like bring everyone together, especially for what this country has been through and now that we are finally on an equal par why not share it with everything.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Dirk Badenhorst says the children of Soweto are learning an art form and building confidence.
DIRK BADENHORST: It’s so incredible to see these young kids coming from a shack…wanting to be a ballerina.
MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Atta is one of those little girls. The daughter of Phumla Makapalea
BALLET GIRL: My mom said I can dance ballet.
BALLET GIRL # 2: Because ballet…It’s beautiful, and I like it.
DIRK BADENHORST: They have dreams in their eyes, because they put on a costume and they become a prince or a princess or a fairy, and it’s that skill that transfers into their daily life…that ability to transcend their physical location into becoming anything they want.