In the beginning, it was all about the shoes. In the early 1950s in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, the pantsulas defied their lean material circumstances by dressing in designer clothing. Influenced by American jazz music, they danced with a quick-stepping style, tapping the floor in a way that wouldn’t ruin their expensive footwear.
Sixty years on, pantsula (both the name of the dance and its surrounding culture) still thrives in townships across South Africa, but its character and style have morphed in line with the lives of the people who cultivated it. Only recently has pantsula broken into the mainstream dance world. You can see it in the show Via Kanana, created by the South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma and dancers from the Katlehong township, playing at Shoreditch Town Hall, east London, as part of Dance Umbrella.
Pantsula took its early influences predominantly from tap dance, with traces of jive, gumboot, tribal African dance and everyday gestures like dice-rolling. Its trademark is intricate, on-the-spot rhythmic footwork, where feet twist, shuffle and stamp. But those early pantsulas were as much about style as dancing. With a gangsterish attitude, fancy clothes, expensive liquor and women on their arms, “they’d be the people who were feared the most in the township,” says Maqoma.
Maqoma grew up in Soweto in the 70s and 80s in a conservative Christian household, and the pantsulas were seen as “the bad guys”, but he couldn’t help being intrigued. The groups he knew were named after their favoured labels – the Pierre Cardins, the Valentinos – but Maqoma was more interested in their moves. “I was always curious about their movement and the dance style, the sense of expression,” he says.
In the 70s, the townships were growing, and the gangs were competing for territory and status. But in parallel, the dance was becoming more competitive, and status could be won on the dancefloor, too. “The footwork became more sophisticated, more complex in its rhythms, and each group became known for its own innovative form of dancing,” says Maqoma.
In the 80s came influences from hip-hop and from television. As a boy, Maqoma was more inspired by Michael Jackson than pantsula, but he happened to live near a hostel for migrant workers who came from all over southern Africa and at the weekends would go and watch them dance their own traditional forms. All these things influenced the young Maqoma, and fed into pantsula dance culture as well.
“Pantsula reflected the changing landscape of the township itself,” says Maqoma, “and the fact that the township is made of people from different cultural backgrounds. You learn in your backyard when young people start putting steps together, it’s very much a collective form.”
These days you don’t have to go to a township to see pantsula, you can just search on YouTube, where you’ll find a resurgence of dance groups all taking pantsula in new directions. What’s most striking – aside from the ever-expanding variations in style, the crazy energy and speed, the pounding beats of kwaito house music – is that pantsula is an increasingly political form, reflecting the concerns of the young people who dance it.
You’ll find pantsula dancers campaigning against drink, drugs and violence – things that were all hallmarks of its early days. “It is evolving,” says Maqoma, who believes young people are “more socially aware of their environment and how they can contribute and respond to their circumstances. They’re surrounded by the social imbalances within their townships and they are part of the new post-apartheid struggle.”
Maqoma feels an urgency in the air that is perfectly captured by the relentless attack of pantsula. “It’s young people stepping up and creating a revolution in their own way,” he says. “Responding to what’s going on in the political sphere, in terms of corruption, the complex nature of land rights, the decay in just … humanity. And young people want to hold those in power accountable.”
The performance Maqoma has created is about corruption. “When we created the work we were still under the leadership of probably the most corrupt leader in our country, our ex-president Zuma.” It draws on the lives and concerns of the dancers of Via Katlehong. Maqoma remembers: “One of the guys said: ‘You know, my grandmother still lives in a shack, and I live in a shack, and it’s 24 years after apartheid: what has the fight really been for? Why are things still the same? Why are things worse?’”
Amid the problems and the protest, though, there is always time to dance. Maqoma now lives in north-east Johannesburg, but the life of the city is still in the townships, he says, and every weekend that’s where he goes. “It’s part of killing our own depression, to party, to make noise, to come together. It’s psychological therapy for our people. Dance and music is what we own and it gives us life.”
Source – the Guardian