SOWETO, South Africa — Twelve-year-old Molaodi Machitje shares a small room with four siblings on a dirt street in one of this township's poorest neighborhoods. Gangs prowl trash-strewn lots nearby. His tumbledown school operates sporadically. And violence is a daily fact of life.
But each evening, inside the local YMCA, Molaodi (pronounced moh-LOUD-ee) raises his chin proudly, draws his thin, 4-foot frame to attention, takes 12-year-old Gugu Nkosi's left hand in his and places his right hand, fingers straight, behind her back.
Then, in the dim light, they dance a fox trot on a dusty floor with missing tiles, moving purposefully to an arrangement of "The Lady in Red," his favorite tune, which comes in scratchy bursts from an aging turntable.
"When he gets onto that floor, he just floats," said an admiring Mary Machitje, Molaodi's 18-year-old sister. "He's proud. It's as if he's been dancing for years."
"When I dance," Molaodi said later, "I feel like I want to be a champion. I want to take first place."
As dusk settles on South Africa's impoverished, overcrowded townships, and the smoky coal fires are lit, tens of thousands of black boys and girls like Molaodi and Gugu hold each other close and dance into a fantasy world of high society. The boys, in bow ties and ruffled shirts, and the girls, in secondhand ball gowns, do the waltz, the fox-trot, the tango and the quickstep.
Ballroom dancing has become the fastest-growing sport in the townships, offering discipline, pride, self-respect--and even a taste of glamour--for children struggling to become adults in a society pervaded by riots, crime, school boycotts and hopelessness.
"Dancing is changing many people's lives," said Jabu Vilakazi, chairman of the Africa Dance Academy, an association with 15,000 black child dancers countrywide. "People have changed from being hooligans to well-behaving people because of it.
"You learn a lot of manners in dancing. And you have to maintain your discipline," he added. "You can't just go into the hall with your cap on. You've got to behave yourself, man."
On a recent Saturday night, 250 black dancers, ranging in age from 5 to 55, gathered for a dance contest beneath the chandeliers of Johannesburg's City Hall.
Nervous youngsters from embattled townships such as Soweto, Sebokeng and Soshanguve practiced their steps in the hallways. Out on the dance floor, as hundreds of family and friends looked on, couples with contest numbers safety-pinned to their backs waltzed to the strains of "Three Times a Lady" by the Commodores. Three judges, two of them white, watched solemnly, jotting notes onto clipboards.
"Dancing is better than soccer or basketball," said Dumisani Barayi, a 10-year-old from Tsakane township, near Johannesburg. Dumisani had a stylish flattop haircut and wore a red bow tie, matching cummerbund and spit-polished patent leather loafers. His partner and cousin, Mali, 9, wore a white halter gown with a white bow tied in her hair.
"We don't play roughly," Dumisani said. "We don't hit each other. We just dance. It's fun."
Dumisani's mother, Rosemary, a school principal, said she supports her son's dancing because "it keeps him busy all the time. There are many bad influences. It's very difficult to raise kids in the townships today." And, she added, "People who dance are disciplined and they have respect."
No one knows for sure when ballroom dancing first came to South Africa, but it arrived decades ago, probably handed down by the former British colonizers. Britain still is the home of competitive ballroom dancing, followed by Germany and Japan.
South African dance remains divided between white and black associations, although multiracial contests--but not partners--have been common for years. Separate black and white champions were crowned annually until recently. Now the national championships for children and adults include all races, and a Colored (mixed-race) couple holds the current crown.
The black Africa Dance Academy, which was started in 1968, now has 500 member clubs nationwide, and the number is growing.
Ballroom dancing offers an unusual opportunity for children as well as adults in the townships. Basketball courts, tennis courts, soccer fields and golf courses may be abundant in white areas of South Africa, but they are rare in the townships. Even diversions such as shopping malls, pinball parlors and zoos are scarce in black areas.
And those children fortunate enough to avoid the gangs and troublemakers can usually be found playing homemade games with balled-up tin cans and sticks in the dusty streets.
Most black parents see dancing as a way to get their children off those dangerous streets. But, more than that, they believe it instills confidence in their children, teaching them a skill that they can carry into adulthood.