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On Their Toes for a Way Out

Children in a poor black township in South Africa endure pain and derision as they pursue ballet, a discipline that could give them a future.

November 15, 2005|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

ALEXANDRA, South Africa — Growing up in this township where razor wire crowns shop roofs like curly hairdos, a 10-year-old boy learns some simple truths. Teachers are liable to thrash you with a rubber hose if you misbehave. It's hard to sleep at night when you hear gunfire. Be wary when you pass bars where men are drinking.

And boys are supposed to be tough: They don't cry when it hurts, or act like girls.

So when Katlego Ragoasha told his two grown-up brothers about a chance to learn ballet, the only father figures he had flatly said no.

Ballet is for girls. Boys play manly sports, like cricket. Ballet, they warned darkly, would turn him gay.

Of 6,000 disadvantaged black schoolchildren who tried out for an intensive dance class, Katlego was one of only 32 who had made the cut. He decided to ignore his brothers' advice.

"I wanted to prove to them that doing ballet didn't mean I was going to be gay," Katlego said.

The class is run by Martin Schonberg, artistic director of Ballet Theatre Afrikan in Johannesburg. Fifteen years ago, during the apartheid era, Schonberg recalls, someone at a dinner party told him that black people could not dance ballet.

Outraged at the remark, he embarked on a campaign to train more professional black ballet dancers in a country that then had none.

In a community center in this Johannesburg suburb, the children stretch toward greatness in their run stockings and beat-up ballet shoes. The afternoon sun pours through the high windows, and motes of dust dance on the sloping sunbeams.

It's a long way to this drab hall from the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, but Russian ballet master Alexey Ilin made the journey this year. Nothing shocks him about Alexandra's deprivation and its pockets of squalor; he sees only the children's effort, the tears shining in the eyes of the boys and girls as they push themselves through the painful stretches and splits.

"It's difficult. It hurts. You have to break your body," said Ilin, whom Schonberg hired to teach the class. "They have to bear that.

"But I said, 'It's necessary. You need that.' And they understand."

All of the children say the stretches are the hardest part.

"I think I'll never be able to do it," Katlego said. "Sometimes I feel like I want to cry, but I can't because the other children may laugh at me."

Thato Moloto, 8, wanted to cry too, but "Alexey explained to us that we were going to feel pain, so I decided I was not going to cry. Boys are not supposed to be cowards."

Ilin, 38, danced for 20 years professionally, performing solo leads and touring the world before he came to South Africa. He saw it as a wide-open country with endless opportunities to teach. "When you know a lot, you have to do something with that knowledge," he said. "You have to pass it on."

He turns up afternoons in an ancient Toyota, teaching the classes alongside local dancer Penny Thloloe, 24, who grew up in the township. He apologizes for his English and instead uses his hands to mold arms and bodies carefully into poses of grace and beauty. When the children do cry, he is proud, not disappointed.

"The most interesting thing is that when a boy cries, the others calm him down and help him," he said, noting how attitudes have changed since the class began in February.

"At the beginning, they fought and swore at each other," Ilin said.

Sometimes Ilin might prod a bottom poking out too far, but unlike the teachers at Alexandra schools, he never wields a stick or a rubber hose.

"He doesn't shout at us. He doesn't hit us," Katlego said. "I respect him a lot."


In Alexandra's main street, the cloying smell of rotting garbage drifts in the heat. Crowded minivan taxis jostle for passengers, and goats wander about.

The township was designed during the apartheid era for a population of 70,000, but five times that many live there now, in about 35,000 shacks and 4,000 houses. Seventy percent of households consist of more than 10 people. Unemployment is about 60%, and violence is common, with an average 51 assaults, two murders and five rapes a week in 2003-04, according to police statistics.

"There's nothing good about Alexandra. People throw rubbish all over the place, on the streets. There's crime," Katlego said. He sees ballet as an escape: "There's lots of money in ballet," he said, imagining a future with himself featured in magazines and on TV.

None of the children had even heard of ballet before January, when Schonberg and Thloloe visited schools to explain what it was and try them out.

In a country where racial stereotypes still run deep, some parents were initially suspicious of the ballet plan because they saw it as part of white culture. When Ellen Sekgobela's granddaughter, Dina, 9, asked to take the class, the 59-year-old was doubtful.

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