Classically trained dancer Nikhita Winkler brings traditional Namibian dance to the classroom.
In our recent conversation with Philippe Talavera, director of Ombejta Yehinga Organisation, we learned that despite a rich cultural tradition of dance, Namibia does not have much formal dance infrastructure.
But one woman is on a mission to change that.
Nikhita Winkler, the founder and owner of Nikhita Winkler Dance Theatre, has become the face of innovative dance education in Namibia.
Born and raised in a township of Windhoek, Winkler fell in love with dance at an early age. Witness to her passion for movement and music, her mother enrolled her in ballet class.
Winkler trained in the Royal Academy Dance system through her childhood. By the time she was a young teenager, Winkler was dancing hip hop in the streets of Namibia with different crews in Windhoek who were willing to turn outdoor spaces into a makeshift stage.
“At the point I was dancing with dancers who are Namibia’s top artists today,” Winkler explains. “Pretty cool stuff.” (Winkler humbly neglects to point out that she, too, is now one of the country’s top artists).
When she was fifteen, she began managing her own dance crew, a group of four high school friends who called themselves “Disturbance.”
Then her life took an international turn. Winkler was awarded a scholarship to attend high school at the United World College (UWC) in Norway. While there was no dance program at UWC, she continued her training in the United States where she double majored in dance and neuroscience at Skidmore College in New York.
Neuroscience became an important part of her approach to dance, she says: “I really enjoyed neuroscience because what it did was give me a deeper understanding of mind/body connection. That really is very helpful in my style right now. Right now, I am more a movement therapist than anything. I incorporate a lot of therapy work in my school.”
After she finished her degree, Winkler returned to Namibia with a plan.
“When I came to Namibia, I really wanted to unlearn ballet, and I wanted to learn traditional dance. I had been at that point all my life trained in Western styles—ballet, modern dance, I’ve done Pilates, I’ve done jazz, I’ve done improvisation,” Winkler explains.
But her goal proved to be more difficult than she anticipated. Traditional dance in Namibia was not to be found in formal or rigorous dance schools, despite the fact that Namibian traditional dance is an important cultural art form. Winkler had trouble finding people to train her, especially because she wanted an intensive education, akin to what she had experienced previously during her ballet training.
While cobbling together a traditional dance education, Winkler opened her own school. But she opened her school with a unique vision.
“Every little girl wanted to be a ballerina. And I love ballet. Ballet is my first love in dance. But I had a big problem with everybody just wanting to do ballet…Ballet is not African. It’s not where our strength lies…I want in the future for more kids to say, “I want to do traditional dance because that is our ballet!”
Winkler started requiring her young students to take contemporary, hip hop, and traditional dance classes, with the goal of exposing students to multiple genres in their first year. Her efforts have seen results. Nikhita Winkler Dance Theatre is one of the few dance schools in Namibia that is re-envisioning and reinventing dance for a new generation.
“Our goal is to create our own repertoires. To get our classes onto television screens so we can, through that, create our own dance ambassadors,” Winkler reports.
Part of this goal is about rehabilitating the image of African bodies. Because many Namibians do not have what has long been considered an “ideal ballet body,” it has been important for Winkler to develop a positive body image among her students by teaching them dance styles that value African bodies in ways that ballet historically has not.
In addition, Winkler hopes that she can teach young people experiencing anxiety and stress to use dance “as a tool to ground, not as a tool to impress.” In fact, she adds, she feels compelled to serve as a public spokesperson for the value of art in general since there is little public discourse about the social and individual benefits of the arts.
After investing thousands of hours in her school and speaking publicly about dance as often as she can, Winkler has begun to have the impact she initially dreamed about when she founded her school in 2016. “I have a few parents…just a few parents who actually sit in and watch classes, and they understand what it’s about.
“We are really invested in our students. We want to educate. We want to educate our students and the communities at large about the benefits of dance as being central to our wellness, our kids’ wellness. And if not dance, then music!”
Nikhita Winkler Dance Theatre has been hit hard by Covid-19, but Winkler laughs, “This my only bread so I was not going down! I was protecting this with my whole life!” Despite a loss of enrollment and performance opportunities, the studio has pursued a variety of new initiatives that have kept young dance students and the Namibian public in general engaged in a public conversation. Winkler opened a creative dance class for young children—and plans to offer a traditional contemporary class in 2021. She required older students to attend dance classes more days a week than originally required, and her students, unsurprisingly, rose to the occasion.
The school also began a podcast on Facebook. Since June, Winkler has interviewed over 20 artists, wellness practitioners, and culturalists from Windhoek. Until the local radio staff had several Covid-19 cases, the interviews were aired on local radio for all Namibians. “We got to speak about dance, to educate people!…We connected with artists in New York. We’ve connected with artists in South Africa. It really also showed us that we have a wide network. And it helped us to see that our world has expanded!”
If Namibia currently has little in the way of formal dance infrastructure, it seems clear that with Winkler’s efforts, that situation will begin to change as her student’s grow up!