5 February 2016
Profiled in a recent New York Times (NYT) photo essay, South African photographer Chris Saunders says his love of the pantsula dance culture stems from its spontaneous and makeshift energy and the positive message the dance’s champions are trying to spread.
“The guys are trying to spread a message of better living through the dance,” he told the NYT Everywhere you walk down a road, there’s kids playing, people dancing, people barbecuing, it’s (has) a vibe. It’s street culture.”
What started as an eight-week assignment for Dance magazine soon turned into a six-year obsession with the art and artists of pantsula.
As described in the NYT article, pantsula is defined as combining “precise and technical footwork and house music, (while using) hectic city streets as their stage, surrounded by traffic, pedestrians and vendors”. The dance moves are steeped in history, both cultural and political, and rooted in the African sense of community and the joy of freedom of movement.
And it is not merely a dance of improvisation and spontaneity, with many dancers forming well-coordinated troupes that practise long hours to come up with the best and most original routines. For many in the townships, the pantsula dancer is both a hero and an entertainer.
Together with German writer Daniela Goeller, Saunders set out in 2012 to comprehensively document the real story behind the dance, intent on recording the art form’s greater significance in modern South African youth culture. “There is no coherent documentation about this dance form, its history, where it comes from,” Goeller said in the NYT article. “There is really an opportunity to gather this information so this culture can be recognised.”
Saunders explains that he didn’t want to focus on the negativity that surrounds the reality of a lot of people’s lives in the pantsula scene. “I wanted to focus on the dance, the beauty of the culture and what they’re trying to portray to the world.”
Goeller, Saunders and four of the most respected pantsula dancers in Johannesburg have since founded the Impilo Mapantsula collective. It unites over 50 pantsula troupes from around Gauteng, supporting their professional development and improving their personal circumstances.
Proceeds from Saunders’ photography exhibitions around the world, as well as a book with Goeller that documents the history and culture of pantsula, will contribute to helping the dancers fulfil their dance dreams and personal goals.
#Pantsula dancer #tebza2000 part of my long tern documentation and future book on South Africa’s incredible #pantsula culture #impilomapantsula featured in the @nytimes #lensblog this week. http://nyti.ms/1Ka2Oop
A photo posted by Chris Saunders (@mrmofosaunders) on