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Freed by Steps Forged in Pain

A South African troupe takes a 19th century dance created by shackled miners from the streets to stages around the world.

November 19, 2000|ELAINE DUTKA | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

Vincent Ncabashe first learned gumboot dancing two decades ago as a 10-year-old at the Thabisong Youth Club in Soweto, South Africa. The working-class art form, which originated in the country's gold mines during the 19th century, was largely looked down upon, he says.

Today, Ncabashe and five of his youth club friends are starring in "Gumboots," a song-and-dance extravaganza that has played in cities around the world and opens Wednesday at the Wilshire Theater. It's directed by Zenzi Mbuli, who shaped the show in the early 1990s and took it on the road. Two years ago, "Gumboots" caught the attention of "Tap Dogs" producer Wayne Harrison, whose Back Row productions along with other producers gave the show a $1.2-million infusion and professional production values.

Slapping, stomping, chanting and whistling, the nine singer-dancers high-kick, jump and coil snakelike together--a burst of perpetual motion. The bare-chested cast is outfitted in traditional miner garb: bandannas, baggy pants and knee-high rubber Wellington boots.

Though joy is the predominant note, there's an ode to Nelson Mandela and a song about dying miners alongside the tongue-in-cheek "I'm Too Sexy for My Boots." In the course of the 90-minute show, the performers erect a mine shaft on an elaborate set created by Nigel Triffitt, the designer-director of the hit "Tap Dogs."

"The story of these dancers parallels the story of the miners the century before," says Harrison, 47. "Two tales of people overcoming very stiff odds. Zenzi can show you the bullet hole in his leg where he was shot in the early days of the Soweto riots.

"It does 'Gumboots' a disservice to call it part of the 'Stomp'-'Tap Dogs' percussive genre," he adds. "It's very specific to the political and social experience of these men."

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Gumboot dancing originated in the late 1800s, when the white South African government enforced separation of the races to ensure a cheap supply of labor. Black workers were shackled in almost total darkness and forbidden to talk.

Refusing to be silenced, they beat out rhythms using their ankle chains and the boots they wore to protect them from polluted water that flooded the mines. A new percussive language emerged--a Morse code of sorts. To accompany it, the miners developed dance steps to amuse themselves during their limited "free time."

"You use your whole body as an instrument," explains Ncabashe, lead guitarist and frontman for the group. "We'd compete in local festivals and come out No. 1 every time. Our dream was to perform inside a theater rather than at flea markets and shopping malls. Zenzi was the guy who made that happen."

Ncabashe, Thami Nkwanyana, Nicholas Nene, Themba Short, Sipho Ndlela and Samuel "K.K." Nene first started performing in 1985 under the name Rishile Poets and, later, the Rishile Traditional Dancers. Serving up a mix of poetry, drama, song and tribal dancing, they had no sound system, no set, no lighting.

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In 1990, Mbuli stumbled on the troupe, which was performing on the street outside Johannesburg's Market Theatre, where Mbuli was involved in creating community productions. Focus solely on gumboot, he counseled the group. Call yourselves the Gumboot Dancers of Soweto. He had seen the worldwide popularity enjoyed by South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo, featured on Paul Simon's 1986 "Graceland" album, and bet that gumboot dancing would be next.

"Their talent was obvious--all they needed was some information," recalls Mbuli, 40, a former drummer and dancer.

Mbuli polished the act and lined up some international engagements. In 1993, the group was invited to attend a festival in Belgium--an outing so successful it was invited back two more times. During the next few years, the cast also traveled to the Hong Kong Festival of the Arts and toured Australia for 14 weeks. None of the dancers, Mbuli says, had been out of South Africa before.

"Growing up under apartheid, none of them knew much about whites," he says. "The only contact they'd had was working for them, as a 'boy' or 'girl'--not 'friend.' Being shoulder-to-shoulder with whites required a period of adjustment. In the end, they discovered they were human beings, not 'superior people.' "

A breakthrough came in 1997 when Harrison, then director and executive producer of Sydney Theatre Company, saw the dancers perform in Australia. He was captivated, he says, by the charisma of the performers, the politics of gumboot dancing, and by the catchiness of the show's original songs.

"These men are innovators in the way they treat what's a fairly commonplace art form in South Africa," Harrison says. "What ['Riverdance's'] Michael Flatley did for Irish dancing, they do to gumboot--turning the dance form on its ear. I'd been commuting to South Africa for seven years but had never seen gumboot performed with contemporary music. 'Gumboots' is an embrace of the past . . . and a forging of the future."

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